The idea is being considered as part of efforts to better manage access for popular tourist destinations on Oahu.

It is no secret that Lanikai is a victim of its own success.

Situated on Oahu’s windward side, its beach keeps popping up on best-of lists. Its trail up to a World War II-era pillbox overlooking the sea is both beautiful and relatively short, drawing thousands of hikers on weekends and holidays.

But Lanikai Pillbox, also known as Kaiwa Ridge, has become heavily eroded from all the foot traffic. And with parking essentially limited to the narrow streets of the beachside community, the car traffic is just as bad, causing friction with local residents.

“Two thousand people a day is an alarming number, especially superimposed on Lanikai,” said Bill Hicks, chair of the Kailua Neighborhood Board.

Cars parked along Lanikai's Mokulua Drive.
Hikers park along Lanikai’s Mokulua Drive to reach its beach and its pillbox trail. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The City and County of Honolulu has tried to mitigate the congestion by restricting parking on selected weekends and holidays. But residents and state officials are seeking longer-term solutions, including the possibility of limiting trail usage with a reservation system and free shuttle.

The idea has emerged as an option for Lanikai as the state reckons with the need for more managed access in its tourism-driven economy.

Precedent Exists

Trailhead shuttles have had success elsewhere.

Cars clogging up entrances to popular trails also had been an issue for years in King County, Washington, for example. 

Rainforest routes like Mount Si, about an hour’s drive from Seattle, promise a beautiful view of the Cascade Range. And hikers come in droves. 

“There had been quite a bit of media coverage around a couple of parking areas in particular that had really severely oversubscribed parking,” said Ryan Miller, a transportation planner for King County Metro.

In 2016, King County Metro reached out to King County Parks to figure out what to do. That resulted in a seasonal shuttle system called Trailhead Direct that on weekends and holidays brings hikers from Seattle to popular hiking destinations along Interstate 90, departing about every 30 minutes.

The results have been impressive. In 2019, its third year of service, the program saw a more than 75% increase in ridership over the year before, with an estimated 35,000 rides logged and 6,800 cars “diverted” from the trailhead lots.

Reflection of Mount Si, WA-USA
A shuttle carries hikers from Seattle to trailheads at Mount Si and other popular hiking destinations to ease crowded parking conditions. Unlike Honolulu, however, these trailheads aren’t in suburban neighborhoods. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A trailhead shuttle also wouldn’t be a new concept in Hawaii.

The lush cliffs of Kauai’s Napali Coast once lured almost 3,000 visitors each day, their cars lining the road to and from Haena Point on the island’s north shore.

In April 2018, heavy rain – almost 50 inches in a 24-hour period – flooded the area, essentially severing it from the rest of the island for more than a year. But this devastation also provided an opportunity to revamp how tourism works at Haena State Park.

‘Supply And Demand Challenge’

When the park reopened, new capacity limits were in place along with a shuttle. Its seats have proven sought-after.

“Thirty days ago, today’s allocation went on sale, and they’re gone in an hour,” Joel Guy, head of the local nonprofit that operates the shuttle, said in late July.

The nonprofit, Hanalei Initiative, says between 100 and 200 cars were diverted from the road per day in 2022, adding up to more than 50,000 cars not contributing to traffic that year.

But just implementing a shuttle wasn’t enough. 

“Unfortunately, shuttles are real expensive,” said Guy. 

Kauai County had once piloted a shuttle between Princeville and Kee Beach, but the County Council voted 4-2 to stop funding it in 2015 because of the cost to taxpayers, Pacific Business News reported.

Passengers board a North Shore shuttle at Kee beach on Kauai. (Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020)

Limiting capacity was the magic ingredient to revive the idea. The county blocked off a certain number of parking spaces for residents, ensuring that visitors would need to ride the shuttle if they wanted to experience Kauai’s iconic Napali Coast.

“What this did was it provided a kind of supply and demand challenge,” Guy said.

And more demand for the shuttle meant that they could charge more money for it, ensuring its financial survival.

Oahu’s Challenges

Shuttling folks to popular locations on Hawaii’s most populous island would be a delicate task, said Jon Nouchi, deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services.

He pointed out that Lanikai Pillbox and other popular trails such as Manoa Falls are already accessible to hikers via existing TheBus routes. These routes can be convoluted, in the case of Lanikai requiring three different buses to get there from Waikiki.

“With some coordination with the state, we could do maybe just a ‘transit-to-trails’ brochure,” he said. But he cautioned that promoting trails through a brochure like this could do more harm than good.

“We don’t mind taking visitors en masse to a destination, but we want to make sure that that destination has the resources to help and receive all these people,” said Nouchi.

Suburban trailheads like Kuliouou Ridge and Haiku Stairs, which has been controversial for years and is now slated for removal, often lack amenities like bathrooms and running water.

“I’ve pointed this out to communities before – would you rather have 10 cars parked in your neighborhood or have 10 people come in a van and get dropped off?”

Aaron Lowe, trails and access specialist

Not to mention that a large shuttle might find it difficult navigating the slalom of cars parked along the streets, with few places to turn around.

Private organizations would be able to react more nimbly to daily reservation numbers and ensure that trailheads and trails don’t become too overcrowded, he said. 

On Kauai, parking is restricted at Haena State Park and on the road leading up to it, driving demand for the shuttle.

On Oahu, parking at trailheads is often limited by available space. But many of these trailheads are also within sleepy residential neighborhoods, so trail users park on streets outside of people’s houses.

Cities like Seattle and Philadelphia have implemented restricted parking zones to manage this kind of intrusion. 

But while Honolulu piloted a restricted parking zone program in Kalihi in 2017, the city lacks an overall structure for establishing additional RPZs

Department of transportation director J. Roger Morton discusses restricted parking zones with the Honolulu City Council Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Department of Transportation Services director Roger Morton discusses how to implement restricted parking zones with the Honolulu City Council. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

During its September monthly meeting, the City Council voted to send a bill that would expand the RPZ program back to committee for further deliberation. On Tuesday, the transportation committee voted to amend the bill, paving the way for it to get a full council vote during October’s meeting.

Would It Benefit The Local Community?

To Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board member Paige Altonn, who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to premiere snorkeling destination Hanauma Bay, trailhead shuttles would be an investment in tourism rather than local infrastructure. 

Altonn, 60, grew up enjoying Oahu’s natural wonders. As a kid, she said, she and her friends would be dropped off near Hanauma Bay to spend the day. Some nights they would camp by nearby Makapuu’s concrete bunkers and tell ghost stories under the stars.

Hanauma Bay, which has a large parking lot and is a popular stop for tour buses, recently limited capacity with a reservation system, as did Diamond Head.

The city also constructed a gravel parking lot at Makapuu’s western beach end in the early 1990s, and by 2015 added interpretive signs along the mile-long asphalt path leading from a paved lot to the cliffside lighthouse. 

Car traffic is still sometimes abysmal – a lesson that Altonn sees as the futility of investing money to accommodate visitors. 

“Although it sounds like a really good idea in the beginning, it never really seems to pan out to be a really good idea,” she said. She worries that implementing shuttles would lead to more and bigger vehicles on the road without much of a positive impact.

Aaron Lowe, trails and access specialist for the Oahu branch of the state program Na Ala Hele, understands her concern.

“But – I’ve pointed this out to communities before – would you rather have 10 cars parked in your neighborhood or have 10 people come in a van and get dropped off?” he said.

He emphasized that shuttles are used in many locales beyond Kauai and King County, Washington, stressing the concept has been adopted widely in Japan.

King County, Washington, employs its own program for transporting residents to popular trailheads. (Trailhead Direct/Screenshot)

“I don’t just do this job for the money,” said Lowe. “I’m very passionate about trails and have hiked in multiple countries around the world.”

Haena State Park is so far Hawaii’s managed access poster-child, a case study of how trailhead shuttles can work at a specific locale.

But broader conversations are accelerating at the state level about how to appropriately manage the throngs of both residents and visitors eager to experience the Pacific island state.

The issue rose to the fore when pandemic restrictions implemented in 2020 sharply dropped the number of annual visitors, giving residents a taste of life without so much competition for outdoor access.

Tourism numbers have bounced back. More than 10 million people visited Hawaii in 2019, and after a slump during the pandemic, that number returned to over 9 million in 2022 – large numbers for a state with a population of about 1.5 million. 

Lowe said he likes the shuttle idea. But right now, the mainstream discussion around managed access is more about capacity limits, even in the context of not wanting to shuttle an indefinite number of people to protected areas.

“We oftentimes think of the carrying capacity in terms of what the environment can sustain,” said Lowe.

“You could take that one step further in recreation,” he said. “How much can I sustain, as a person recreating in this area or on this trail? Am I socially negatively impacted by a certain number of people on this trail?” 

The last steps leading to the top of Diamond Head.
The last steps leading to the top of Diamond Head. (John Hill/Civil Beat/2022)

Na Ala Hele’s overarching program plan was first introduced in 1991. Overcrowding was far less of an issue then than it is now, and updating the plan to meet today’s challenges is “way overdue,” Lowe said.

That is in the works. Lawmakers in 2019 allocated $450,000 in the state budget to update the plan, and then-Gov. David Ige released those funds in 2021. The firm PBR Hawaii was awarded the contract to develop the new updated plan.

It is still far from solidified, Lowe added. That will take probably another couple of years. But capacity will surely be a paramount concern, and so will how to manage that capacity. 

This was a thorny issue for officials in King County, Washington.

“Permit parking or charging for parking at these areas was not a popular solution when it came to managing demand,” said Miller, describing the outreach they conducted at the time.

But visitor-heavy Hawaii may be a different story. 

From the bars of Waikiki to the jungles of Kauai, residents who show their colorful Hawaii licenses are commonly granted preference through things like kamaaina discounts and reservation-free access.

To climb Diamond Head, for example, a visitor here for the week might be more willing to spend extra money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience than a resident who likes to make it a morning workout. A system can be set up with this in mind.

In either case, Lowe sees each of those trail users as just a hiker enjoying time in nature — something studies have shown can yield dividends for a person’s well-being.

Cars are tightly packed along street parking leading up to a neighborhood hiking trail
Cars lined the street for about half a mile on Labor Day morning at Kuliouou Ridge Trailhead, a familiar scene around the island. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

As Lanikai Pillbox Trail erodes, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has been considering trail improvements and released a draft environmental assessment in March 2022.

“But the charter given to DLNR was twofold,” said Hicks, the Kailua neighborhood board chair.

The DLNR’s draft environmental assessment does address managed access, but only briefly, saying that the first step is to establish one entry point to the trail instead of the two that had been used.

Hicks supports an online reservation system and nominal fee to hike the trail, and 69% of his neighbors agree with him, according to the board’s 2023 community survey of 132 respondents. Hicks even brought up the idea of a shuttle during a phone interview.

“It just seems like on balance,” he said, “it’s a win for the neighborhood, it’s a win for the trail, and it’s a win for — a bit of an inconvenience, but — I think on balance a win for those who would do the hike.”

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