Honolulu’s Plan To Raise Bus Fares Will Hurt Riders - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Authors

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is an environmental advocate and journalist with a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He currently covers transportation, land use and housing for the Virginia Mercury.

Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz is a professional community planner and freelance writer with a master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii Manoa. She founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transportation consultancy firm.

Even before Covid-19, bus ridership on Oahu was trending in the wrong direction. For example, there were 69 million bus passengers in 2008 but that the figure dropped to 64 million 10 years later.

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With just 6.4% of residents commuting via TheBus pre-pandemic, increasing travel on public transit is among the lowest-hanging fruit to decrease traffic congestion, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and lower residents’ transportation costs.

Yet, a recent proposal by the Honolulu Rate Commission would do just the opposite. While members of TheBus’ Rate Commission in 2019 openly debated lowering fares from $2.75 to just $2 to boost ridership, in 2020, the City Council approved Bill 89 (now Ordinance 21-7), which instead raised rates (effective July 2022) on single-ride fares by 9%, daily maximum fares by 36%, and monthly and annual passes by 13% and 14%, respectively.

The Honolulu Department of Transportation Services is now recommending bus fares be increased even more. The most recent fare hikes — proposed shortly after Honolulu rolled out Holo Cards, a smart card system which replaced paper passes — would increase rates on non-resident seniors, Medicare card holders, riders with disabilities, and paratransit users.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong connection between rates and ridership, as cities with low to zero fares see the greatest transit usage. Studies show that going fare free typically increases a system’s ridership by 25% to 50%.

Historically, this has also shown to be true on Oahu. In the 1970s, Honolulu instituted a free fare program for all senior citizens over the age of 65. Less than three years later, the bus system was averaging nearly 350,000 senior trips per month — an increase of 88%.

However, as transit fares have been gradually increasing, former DTS Director Wes Frysztacki noted, “for every 10% increase in fare, TheBus generally sees a 3% decline in ridership.”

One of Honolulu’s new electric buses at Alapai Transit Center
One of Honolulu’s new electric buses at the Alapai Transit Center. Courtesy: Wyatt Gordon

It’s easy to understand why people are choosing other ways than the bus to get around. The loss in ridership, largely caused by ever increasing prices, is being paired with minimal transit improvements. Honolulu’s relatively new bus-only lanes have helped improve speeds on a few routes, but that type of infrastructure investment in more reliable and faster bus service has proven all too rare.

The lack of investment in public transit also has immense equity impacts. Over three-quarters of current riders of TheBus are low-income.

Nearly 90% of frequent transit users earn below Oahu’s average median income — now at $87,470 a year. Furthermore, one in five bus riders are kupuna that could already be struggling to make ends meet on fixed incomes.

Raising fares functions as a regressive tax on Oahu residents, punishing exactly those people who are making the right transportation decision to help reduce traffic, decrease air pollution, and lower road fatalities.

Contrasting Goals

The upward trend of transit prices presents a direct contradiction to our state’s goal to reach a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2045. Transportation accounts for 46.11% of the state’s overall carbon emissions and contributes 860 tons of sulfur oxides, 1,500 tons of particulate matter and 233,000 tons of carbon monoxide to the islands’ air pollution.

With vehicle miles traveled expected to rise by an additional 16.6% over the next two and a half decades, the problem is only going to get worse. That is unless we can convince more folks to take TheBus. Boosting public transportation is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to both reduce vehicle miles traveled and carbon pollution.

A safe, accessible, and affordable transit system is also critical to serve our island’s kupuna population. This is the reason many cities, including Honolulu, offer discounted or free bus passes for seniors.

The lack of investment in public transit has immense equity impacts.

The 2019-2020 Age-Friendly Honolulu Report underscored the importance of providing a well-connected multimodal and transit system, which allows all people, regardless of age, income, or ability to move safely from point A to point B.

If our city is really committed to its climate change, multimodal, and kupuna-friendly goals, we should strive to make public transit more affordable — with the eventual goal of making it free.

The steady increase of transit fares continues a long and unfortunate legacy of regressive taxes which contributes to the increasing unaffordability of life in Hawaii and hurts our low-income residents the most. If the Rate Commission truly cared about TheBus’ riders, it would reject further price hikes and lower fares instead.

The Honolulu Rate Commission is currently accepting input on the proposed fare increase via written and email testimonies (send to hchee@honolulu.gov) or in-person at the Feb. 8 Rate Commission meeting.

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About the Authors

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is an environmental advocate and journalist with a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He currently covers transportation, land use and housing for the Virginia Mercury.

Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz is a professional community planner and freelance writer with a master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii Manoa. She founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transportation consultancy firm.


Latest Comments (0)

The reason fares are going up, of course, is due to an increasing deficit. Perhaps part of the problem is not getting the rising costs under control that are contributing to the deficit. What is the biggest expense in running the bus? Fuel? Labor? Administration? Capital cost of the buses? How have these coats been attacked? I don’t see this addressed in the piece.

Easy · 7 months ago

a regressive tax on Oahu residents, punishing exactly those people who...?Exactly, a regressive tax on property owners, most that likely do not use the bus, only subsidize it. Ridership is down for a reason, people don't want to ride the bus, there are better and safer alternatives.Rather than trying to convince the public that fares should be lowered to increase ridership maybe its time to look at the bus as an archaic dinosaur in which fares make up only 20% of the cost to run the system. The non-riding majority support the minority of bus riders at increasingly staggering costs. It's not a smaller carbon footprint when a 25 ton bus is cruising around with 2 passengers in it. It may be high time to realize that the bus, as a mode of transportation has it's limits in our modern world, soon to be filled with driverless vehicles and uber eats delivery. Time to allocate tax dollars where they are needed, paving roads!

wailani1961 · 7 months ago

I think they’re just trying to get people used to the inevitable fare increases in the combined bus/rail system, especially after the train starts operating. Increases in property taxes alone probably won’t be enough to cover the combined effects of rail’s underestimated O&M expenses and overestimated ridership."The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation had previously confirmed the operating budget was estimated to be $120 million, 30 percent of which would be covered by fares. This means the city would have to subsidize $90 million for the rail's operation. ‘Based on broad calculation, if you need to raise $90 million it will be an overall increase of 9 percent in property taxes,’ Kurokawa said. Kurokawa said the money would be divided and affect ‘all tax brackets.’" bizjournals 1/13/16

FesterBestertester · 7 months ago

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