As Hawaii tries to claw out of the COVID-19 pandemic, local rental cars have suddenly become a rare commodity. It’s almost to the point where customers need to offer their first-born child as collateral in order to secure one of those coveted vehicles.

Meanwhile, Honolulu also appears to be part of a nationwide trend in which the appetite for Uber and Lyft rides is growing but not enough drivers are returning to meet that demand. The result — recent accounts of long waits and surging prices for those on-demand trips.

Oahu’s other big modes of transportation, namely Biki and TheBus, say their ridership has benefited from recent car-related trends. But the boost only goes so far and those systems still face a long road to recovery, they say.

Biki, Honolulu’s first major bike-share network, reported 115,000 total trips across the system last month. That compares to just 49,000 trips in May 2020, during the throes of the pandemic, and 126,000 trips in May 2019.

The boost is largely due to returning visitors, with many seeking alternatives to get around amid the rental car crunch and to save money, according to Todd Boulanger, executive director of Biki’s parent nonprofit organization, Bikeshare Hawaii.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of usage per bike … Biki’s the last affordable socially distant option out there,” Boulanger said. TheBus is affordable, but it still puts travelers in an enclosed space. The island’s private buses and the Waikiki trolleys aren’t back out in force either, Boulanger said.

Despite the ridership uptick, Biki still faces a steep climb in getting back on its feet after reporting severe financial losses during the pandemic, he added.

Biki Executive Director Todd Boulanger walks into the entrance of Biki offices in Kakaako filled with damaged bikes.
Biki Executive Director Todd Boulanger walks through an office filled with vandalized and damaged bikes that have been taken out of service. Amid the pandemic, spare parts have been expensive and hard to acquire, he said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Biki “really got decimated … during the pandemic,” said city Department of Transportation Services Director Roger Morton, describing the service as being “on life-support.”

“They’re not out of that woods yet, but the outlook for them is so much better than it was five months ago,” he added.

Notably, the fleet has endured a spate of vandalism and damage since the start of the pandemic, Boulanger said. At its pre-pandemic peak, Biki had nearly 1,300 bikes in service, but the recent damage has reduced the fleet to fewer than 900 bikes, he said.

“People had a lot of time on their hands. They’re frustrated,” he said, speculating on motives for the damage. “Our focus right now is bringing in the bikes to repair.”

Unfortunately, the spike in global demand for bikes and bike parts has made those repairs slow and more expensive, Boulanger added.

Further, Biki continues to endure a slump in ridership downtown and across Oahu’s university campuses — and those rides by locals and members still need to rebound, Boulanger said.

“This tourism tsunami is going to moderate,” he said. “We’re on the right trajectory, but it’s going to take us a while to recoup the losses and get parts” for repairs. Biki will need at least a year of continuous growth to recover from its financial hit during the pandemic, according to Boulanger.

He further pleaded for the Honolulu Police Department to better protect the Biki bikes, and for the community to stay on the lookout for additional vandalism at the bike stations.

TheBus’ Slow Climb Back

In pre-pandemic days, TheBus saw close to 200,000 average daily rides across Oahu. Those transit numbers plummeted after the outbreak, as ridership similarly collapsed across the nation.

At its lowest point, in April 2020, Honolulu’s public bus system saw just 57,200 rides a day on average.

The numbers have been slowly climbing out of that hole ever since. By the end of May, ridership was back around 105,000 average daily rides, according to DTS, which oversees TheBus for the city. That’s about half of the Oahu-wide system’s pre-pandemic ridership.

Thus far it’s been a “slow recovery,” Morton said Friday.

“But a recovery nonetheless,” added his deputy at the agency, Jon Nouchi.

Here are some of the factors in the slower recovery, other than the continued presence of an airborne virus, according to Morton and Nouchi:

  • More Oahu residents are working from home.
  • Traffic has flowed “exceptionally well” through the pandemic and parking spaces opened up in areas where it’s usually hard to find parking, including the airport, downtown and Waikiki, making it more inviting to drive a car instead.
  • The island’s hotels and restaurants, similar to Uber and Lyft, have struggled to fill all the jobs needed to meet the growing demand. TheBus’ ridership typically grows alongside rising employment.

Morton and Nouchi said they’re hopeful that the local ridership recovery will accelerate in the fall when the University of Hawaii and other school campuses reopen.

The rental car situation is probably boosting TheBus’ ridership numbers although DTS can’t point to specific evidence, Morton said. Anecdotally, the system’s Route 20, which runs from the airport to Waikiki, has recently grown very crowded, Nouchi added.

Passengers board TheBus route 20 with luggage on its way to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport from Waikiki.
Passengers board TheBus route 20 with luggage on its way to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport from Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The route handles a lot of tourists and visitors. It’s grown more crowded even after TheBus added larger buses to that line, according to Morton.

During peak times “that thing is pretty filled up — even to the point of concern for us of having it too filled,” he added.

Normally, tourists would have multiple options, including Uber and Lyft. TheBus prohibits passengers from bringing large baggage on board, but with the recent car-rental and ride-share challenges visitors “have been making it work” with transit, Nouchi said.

DTS also might partner with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to educate visitors on their transit options, given Oahu’s sudden scarcity of rental cars. That program could help visitors seeking more sustainable travel options while on-island, Nouchi said.

Whether TheBus’ numbers ever hit their pre-pandemic levels remains to be seen.

Transit agencies around the nation, including Honolulu’s, have seen their ridership gradually decline in recent years. (Despite that trend, TheBus remains the most heavily used system in the country in terms of its vehicles’ hours in service, Morton said.)

DTS is in the early planning stages of a “welcome back” outreach campaign that aims to attract more passengers. “We haven’t put this all together” but it might include mailing the system’s new Holo cards to residents around the island, Morton said. The cards might even have pre-programmed trips for passengers to use, but the city agency is still examining whether it has the legal authority to do that, he added.

“Our job for the next year, year-and-a-half, (or) two years is to build back our ridership,” Morton said.

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