From “leading intervals” to “bike boxes,” the city’s avid cyclists have plenty of ideas to make the streets more accessible.

For David Ho, the daily commute by bicycle along Waialae Avenue often feels more like an obstacle course, where the lack of a consistent bike lane puts him and other cyclists too close to cars. 

“Every day’s different but it’s always an adventure,” said Ho, a University of Hawaii professor who studies the ocean carbon cycle. He uses Kaimuki’s main, busy thoroughfare each day to travel between his home and the Manoa campus.

“There’s always somebody pulling out right in front of you or, you know, passing you and then making a turn right in front of you, so you have to be very alert,” he said.

He and other cyclists there have thoughts on how to make the corridor more comfortable, specifically at one problem intersection, as the city gradually builds a more functional bike lane network across town. But transportation officials say that fix isn’t a top priority, as they address more pressing safety needs on a limited budget and with limited resources.

David Ho gives a tour of his daily commute through Kaimuki. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

The worst point in this challenging commute is the corner of 5th Avenue heading eastbound on Waialae, Ho said. There, the painted bike lane abruptly ends for a block, forcing cyclists pedaling uphill to merge as best they can with faster moving cars, trucks and buses. 

Cyclists who get caught at the red light and then resume pedaling once it turns green have to compete with the cars for that lane, Ho said.

“And if you win, you’ve got a line of cars behind you, tailgating you, waiting for you to go this one block,” he said, adding that not all of those drivers are understanding or patient with the circumstance.

Then, the bike lane reappears a block later, just past Sacred Hearts Academy.

Map of the intersection of Waialae Ave and 5th Ave where the bike lane is visible on one side of the intersection and missing on the other side.
Bike lanes disappear and reappear across the length of Waialae Avenue. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

And he’s got a proposed solution: Install a leading bicycle interval, similar to what’s called “leading pedestrian intervals,” which are found at some intersections in other U.S. cities.

Those crossings’ traffic signals give pedestrians a head start, allowing them to enter the crosswalk before the vehicles next to them can proceed. Those head starts have been found to reduce crashes in which cars hit pedestrians by 13%, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Ho suggests taking that head-start concept and applying it to the bikers pedaling eastbound up the hill. It would allow them to merge with the cars more easily.

“Maybe you install a light just for the bikes so the bikes can go first, maybe 10 seconds, so they get going on this stretch, and then the cars go,” Ho said. “It’s a pretty simple solution.”

Ho thinks it would be a good first step toward making the Waialae corridor safer and more appealing to bike commuters.

Rene Espiau, the city’s complete streets administrator, said she’s not sure whether the idea is feasible but the Department of Transportation Services would consider it.

The move likely wouldn’t require installing new, expensive equipment, she said. Instead, it would be a matter of adjusting the timers on the existing traffic signals there.

“We can look at it,” Espiau said Friday.

Honolulu doesn’t have any leading pedestrian interval crossings yet. However, DTS aims to try them soon, likely starting at King Street and Gulick Avenue in Kalihi, she said.

Enter The Bike Box

Travis Counsell, executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii Bicycling League, agreed with Ho that the corner of 5th and Waialae is one of the most troublesome spots to navigate through Kaimuki. 

He also liked Ho’s idea for a leading bicycle interval.

However, a more likely solution for that spot is what’s known as a “bike box,” Counsell said. Bike boxes are designated areas at the front of an intersection, usually marked with green paint, that allow cyclists to wait in front of cars. It allows them to merge while waiting at the stoplight instead of later down the road.

“Cars will complain about it,” Counsell said. “But the main goal is the safety goal.”

There’s at least one bike box so far in Honolulu, at the corner of McCully Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard. It’s a similar pinch point where the bike lane ends and forces cyclists to merge with vehicles.

Bike Box McCully
A “bike box” in green paint at the corner of McCully Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard aims to help cyclists navigate the crossing. The bike lane disappears for about a block just past the intersection. (Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2023)

Counsell said it would take approximately four hours to paint a green bike box at 5th. He added that the proposal has come up in HBL’s discussions with Espiau.

A bike box there isn’t high on Espiau’s division’s priority of “quick-build” projects, which are relatively fast and inexpensive street design improvements. Instead, the city has has been focused this fiscal year on completing more urgent pedestrian-safety quick-builds in Kapolei, Kailua and Mililani.

The city devoted some $215,000 to building four new quick-build projects around the island and maintaining existing ones this fiscal year, Espiau said. She expects the city to devote a slightly higher amount in the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

“Complete Streets” refer to street designs that better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, not just cars, trucks and buses. Honolulu has aimed to install more complete streets as an official city policy since 2010.

The city had bike lanes painted along Waialae between Kahala Mall and St. Louis Drive following a major repaving project there nearly a decade ago, but those lanes have never run uninterrupted. Instead, many of the blocks simply feature “sharrows,” the symbols that indicate the road is a bike route.

Those sharrows, however, don’t give cyclists additional space to avoid cars. Counsell called the symbols a “bit of a cop out,” and an “indicator that there was a better solution” that wasn’t pursued.

Espiau said the bike lane configuration along Waialae could be better. However, the lanes were highly controversial when they were painted and “it took the city really standing up to some very vocal people in the city who were very against it.”

“We’ve made some progress, but it’s not there yet,” she said of the Waialae route.

The sharrows just past 5th Avenue on Waialae are particularly bad because they were painted so close to the curb, Counsell said. It would help cyclists take more of the road there if they were painted farther into the street, he added.

Oahu has at least 211 miles of bikeways across the island, according to the city’s 2019 bike plan. The city has an additional 325 miles in that plan, and it has estimated it would cost $147 million to install them all. Some of the more notable additions in recent years have been protected lanes along Pensacola and Ward avenues.

Counsell said he’d really like the city to better connect the Waialae route to the King Street protected lane. Currently, it’s “organized chaos” trying to get across that oddly configured pass, he said.

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