These days, Honolulu residents seeking fresh air and exercise have few options other than to use the island’s limited street and sidewalk space.
There’s still no playing in public parks and no hiking on public trails under the city’s latest shutdown orders, which aim to flatten the alarming spike in COVID-19. Oahu’s daily reported cases have hovered in the triple digits all month, including 263 new ones Saturday.
There’s no visiting a botanical garden. And don’t even think of hitting the beach unless it’s to swim, surf or perhaps bob in the ocean.
For many looking to get outside, that leaves the public right of way.
Yet ever since the pandemic hit Oahu, city leaders have been reluctant to give the island’s growing number of walkers, joggers and bikers more space in the streets for regular use, even as they’ve closed access to parks, trails and beaches.
In an interview earlier this month, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said it’s not something he would consider until after Oahu gets a better handle on its COVID-19 cases. They threaten to overwhelm the island’s intensive care units if their numbers continue to grow.
“I think down the road, if we have a better control, yes,” Caldwell said. “But not right now.”
Meanwhile, the so-called “slow streets” or “open streets” trend has taken off in at least 100 other cities around the world during the pandemic.
It’s often an outlet for residents to cope during stringent stay-at-home orders, such as the latest one Honolulu just entered.
Generally, these programs limit vehicular access on designated streets, giving those stuck at home the space they need to safely exercise outdoors. They can keep their distance from one another by moving off curbs and sidewalks.
Some cities use cones and barricades to close a lane normally used by cars. Others limit the vehicle traffic on those streets to local cars and emergency responders.
In Kailua, for example, residents report that more bikers and joggers started crowding North Kalaheo Avenue and Kainalu Drive after the city recently barred access to public outdoor spaces.
“It’s a mess,” one of those residents, Jason Santosuosso, said of the situation.
Pedestrians often walk in the middle of those streets to maintain proper physical distance. Sometimes, when they encounter someone else not wearing a mask, “they either literally leap out of the way or stand to the side,” he said.
Many more surfers on bikes are using Kalaheo to access the beach, and pedestrians often have to jump out of the way to dodge them and their boards, Santosuosso said.
Santosuosso said he’s observed more drivers speeding through the neighborhood since the pandemic started. It’s “extremely dangerous” when you combine that with the growing number of pedestrians and cyclists, he said.
Indeed, state transportation officials say they’re concerned with what appears to be an uptick in unsafe driving.
So far this year Oahu has seen eight pedestrian deaths. That’s half as many compared to the same time last year, according to the Department of Transportation. But fatalities among those in cars are up even though there’s been a substantial dip in traffic. Oahu has seen nearly twice as many vehicle-occupant deaths through Aug. 19 compared to the same time last year — 21 versus 11.
Ed Sniffen, the DOT’s deputy director for highways, called the trend “alarming” at a recent press conference. The state recently started posting messages on its signs around town encouraging people to drive safer.
High Demand For Slow Streets
At least 291 cities around the world have taken some sort of action to expand pedestrian and bicycle access during the pandemic, according to a tally by researcher Tabitha Combs at the University of North Carolina’s Department of City and Regional Planning. The tally includes numerous slow streets programs.
Some cities, including Seattle, are moving to make their slow-street redesigns permanent.
Honolulu city officials did hold “Open Street Kalakaua” earlier this summer, which was similar to slow streets. It closed one of Honolulu’s busiest roadways in the heart of Waikiki to cars on Sunday mornings so that pedestrians, bicyclists, skaters and others could have exclusive use of Kalakaua Avenue.
But Open Streets Kalakaua was a weekly event held in one location. Many other cities’ slow and open streets programs give residents regular access in multiple neighborhoods. The Waikiki event’s limited scope attracted heavy crowds on an island where people are hungry for more space to exercise and get around without a car.
Each week, several hundred people showed up in Waikiki to exercise and enjoy themselves, including families. But the crowds at Kalakaua helped prompt the very physical distancing challenges that slow streets programs aim to solve.
About a month after the launch, the city stressed in a news release that people at the event could cluster in groups no greater than 10 and they had to keep moving along the street. The event was canceled when Hurricane Douglas nearly struck Oahu in July. It hasn’t returned amid the island’s spike in COVID-19 cases.
Meanwhile, people living in apartments and condominiums in town are growing desperate for outdoor options amid the latest restrictions.
Christian Stettler, who lives in the Marco Polo building in Moiliili, can no longer take his three young children, ages 3, 2 and 10 months, to Kapiolani Park or Ala Wai Park to escape the constant banging and drilling of construction upstairs.
Instead, he’ll bring them for a quick dip at Kaimana Beach — or he brings the kids on walks. But he uses a sling for the youngest instead of a stroller because “people don’t move.”
“We have to move out of the way, which is not ideal right now while you’re told to move off the grass,” he said, referring to public park property.
“It’s stressful. Imagine having three little kids,” Stettler said. “It’s really confusing to try to tell them how to act appropriately.”
Having more street space to maneuver “wouldn’t be a perfect solution” to the current restrictions, he said. “But it would definitely help.”
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