Keona Blanks: When It Comes To Good Bikeways, Hawaii Has A Flat Tire - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Keona Blanks

Keona Blanks is an editorial page intern for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at kblanks@civilbeat.org.

Earlier last month, 14 Hawaii youth sued the state for operating a transportation system that harms the climate by consistently prioritizing building highways over more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Opinion article badgeWith no progress reported on implementing the statewide bike plan in the last 10 years, bicycling does not appear high on the Department of Transportation’s list of priorities.

For the past few decades, the status of bike transportation in Hawaii has been tenuous at best.

Although Hawaii ranks 27th nationally as a bicycle-friendly state, the state has only one bicycle-friendly community — Honolulu — along with four bicycle-friendly businesses, and zero bicycle-friendly universities, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

To make matters worse, federal data shows that fewer than 1% of commuters in Hawaii bike to work, down by half a percentage point from 2017. Comparatively, 2% of commuters bike to work in Oregon, which ranks second place nationally.

But with agreeable weather year-round, flat urban areas hugging the coast, and master plans already laid out, there is no excuse for the standstill, activists say.

“We have one of the most incredible places for bicycling on the entire planet. Literally 365 days a year are available to us for bicycling,” said Randy Ching, a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club Bike Chapter. 

“The fact that we haven’t turned Hawaii into a bike destination with a bike path that goes around the entire island is crazy to me.”

There has been more progress at the county level, however.

Honolulu has taken steps toward bicycle friendliness with the City and County of Honolulu Bicycle Program, the Complete Streets Program, which repaves old streets with infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, Honolulu’s bikeshare system, Biki, and a Bike Month each July full of scheduled events.

But the state has a lot more work to do to increase the comfort, safety and accessibility of bicycling statewide. 

“It’s going to get better,” said Jessica Thompson, executive director of People for Active Transportation Hawaii on Hawaii island, where traffic fatalities hit a record high this year. “But is the current rate fast enough?”

‘The Frustrating Reality’

Ching attributes statewide stagnation to the slim odds of success in the world of bicycle activism.

“You’re going to lose nine out of 10 battles you wage. As sad as that is, that’s the frustrating reality,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to accept it and be happy with the one in 10 that you managed to do something good.”

Ching, who has been lobbying to get what’s known as the Leeward Bikeway installed since the 2000s, finally saw the DOT break ground on phase one of the project late last year. The path will link from where the Pearl Harbor Bike Path ends at Waipahu Depot Road to the Hawaiian Railway Society depot in Ewa. 

The state appropriated funds for the Leeward Bikeway in the 1990s, but the DOT only began constructing phase one late last year. Ching attributes the delay to the DOT’s historical priority of automobile transportation. The pictured segment looks west at the Kapolei Parkway crossing in Ewa. Courtesy: John Rogers/Hawaii Bicycling League

“It doesn’t look like much,” said Malia Harunaga, Hawaii Bicycling League’s adult education director. “But knowing that this has been in the works for the last 40 years, and after all kinds of false promises and false starts, it’s pretty exciting.”

Ching reflected, “Hopefully, before I die, I’m going to ride phase one of the Leeward Bikeway.”

Ching made the promise to himself after the 2006 general election when Honolulu voters overwhelmingly approved a city charter amendment that made it a priority for Honolulu to be a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city.

“At that point, I thought it would happen within five to 10 years,” he added. “And of course, I was way off.”

Thompson concurs with the 90-10 success rate. “We have great plans, and yet somehow we have two major connectors in Hilo without bike lanes, despite it being one of our most populated urban centers,” she said. “It’s insane.”

The story is the same on Maui and Kauai, where Saman Dias of the Maui Bicycling League and Tommy Noyes of Kauai Path have learned to expect long delays.

“That’s just how it goes,” Dias said of the grueling 25-year wait for the 7-mile North Shore Greenway between Kahului and Paia on Maui.

Noyes is anxious to see progress on bikeway plans on Kauai, but understands that the “complex, lengthy planning and legal processes take a long time before actual construction can be expected.”

‘More Controversial Than Rail’

Activists attribute erratic timelines to differing priorities across administrations.

The Caldwell administration, for instance, made strides in investing in bicycle infrastructure in the City and County of Honolulu, said Ching. 

However, as for the Blangiardi administration, “We haven’t seen as much commitment to fighting the fight,” Harunaga said.

“It’s already been seven years since the King Street protected bike lane was implemented, but we’re not seeing all of the plans in the Oahu Bike Plan come to fruition quite yet,” she added.

But Chris Sayers, the City and County of Honolulu Bicycle Program Coordinator, said, “The current administration is supportive of bike improvements and other efforts to improve transportation choice and reduce the climate footprint of the city’s transportation system.”

Completed in 2014, the King Street Protected Bike Lane runs from Moiliili to downtown Honolulu for 2 miles. The first of its kind in Hawaii, the protected bike lane removed one travel lane and created a buffer between automobiles and bicyclists. Department of Transportation Services

Even under a pro-bicycle administration, bicycle infrastructure is highly contested. Many drivers met the King Street protected bike lane with stiff resistance.

“For us, it was the most controversial thing we touched — maybe even more controversial than rail, or even homelessness,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in 2015. “We had more input and feedback on putting a protected bike lane on King Street than anything else.”

Most public anxiety arises from losing parking spaces or travel lanes to bike paths. Resistance from the public is one of the main barriers to bicycle infrastructure projects for DTS, Sayers said.

Biki has also received backlash for using public land for bike stations without community input and receiving $2 million in startup funds from the government.

Ultimately, Hawaii needs safer bicycle infrastructure to fully incorporate bicycling into the statewide transportation system.

Survey results from this year’s Bike Plan Hawaii Refresh show that the lack of bikeways paired with unsafe drivers together form the leading reason that bicycles are rusting in garages statewide, despite the bike boom during the pandemic.

Electric Bicycle parked along Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu.
Bicycle shops in Hawaii have seen a spike in e-bike sales, which store owners say corresponds to gas hikes and the ease of e-bike transportation. The pictured e-bike was found parked along Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“People rank themselves as interested but afraid to get on a bike,” said Harunaga. “But they’ll do it if they have the right infrastructure.” 

Transforming Hawaii’s fractured bike path network into a necklace of bikeways will also be key to promoting ridership. “When the bike lane someone is riding on just ends, and they’re spit out onto who-knows-where without any signage, that person will likely stop riding,” she said.

The Challenge Of Funding

Bicycle infrastructure must also become a funding priority for the state to aid the transition.

“When you have a downturn and government revenues go down, programs like bikeways will go down more than other programs,” said DTS Director Roger Morton.

“At the end of the day, there’s always more projects that we want to do than there are public resources,” said Renee Espiau, administrator of Complete Streets for the City and County of Honolulu, which works with the City and County of Honolulu Bicycle Program to improve conditions for bicycling. 

But Morton is still hopeful that infrastructure funding will reach Hawaii’s bicycle initiatives. On June 29, the U.S. Congress added $4.8 million to an appropriations bill to fund planning for a South Shore bike path, which would range from Nanakuli to the University of Hawaii Manoa. The DTS will partner with the DOT on the 30-mile path.

Another project expecting funding is the Sunset Beach Bike Path reconstruction, for which Rex Dubiel Shanahan, the North Shore Outdoor Circle bike path coordinator, has been lobbying Mayor Rick Blangiardi for his entire administration.

Shanahan hopes that with Blangiardi’s support and with the $2.8 billion coming in from the federal government to improve state transportation infrastructure, she will finally see her community’s efforts come to fruition.

Hawaii has a long way to go, but perhaps with the right infrastructure, funding, and initiative, we can put our bicycles to use.


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About the Author

Keona Blanks

Keona Blanks is an editorial page intern for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at kblanks@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo for shining a light on a subject near to my heart. I've been a bike commuter for over 20 years and welcome every new bike path, however tiny and disconnected, as a good thing. The net result of reading your article is to motivate me to donate to HBL and help with advocacy efforts. I'm hopeful to hear about future bikeways, but infuriated at how long we've had to wait.

jb808 · 4 months ago

If it has not yet done so, leaders in biking should post safe routes. When I visit Honolulu, I mostly get around by Biki. The bike lanes are pretty good, but with some danger with inattentive car drivers turning left on King onto makai-mauka streets, probably with similar situations along South Street and other major streets that now have separated bike lanes. I find residential streets the safest, even though they are mostly 1.5-lane two way streets. However, most drivers on these streets drive slowly and respect bikers who practice safe biking.

irwinhill · 4 months ago

Thanks for bringing attention to the lack of good biking trails on Oahu. At one point, people were discussing building a bike path around Kawainui Marsh in Kailua. What happened? I walk the Marsh frequently, and sometimes bike around Kailua, trailering my bike to the parking lot, since it doesn’t feel safe to bike along Kaneohe Bay Drive. Please let me know if anyone is pursuing this idea. Mahalo.

4Kaneohe · 4 months ago

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