On a rainy evening, Jeff Mikulina was biking up Punahou Street near Central Union Church when a car whizzed by him so close that the driver hit him with his rearview mirror, knocking him into the curb.
The driver slowed down for a few seconds before peeling away, leaving Mikulina soaking wet and bloody on the side of the road.
“I don’t blame people that feel freaked out or unsafe” biking on Oahu, said Mikulina, an avid biker and executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, a clean energy advocacy organization.
On average, two to four bikers are killed every year on Oahu after being hit by a car and hundreds more end up in the emergency room with serious injuries after various types of accidents, according to the latest data from Hawaii’s Department of Health, which covers 2007 through 2011.
Statewide, 1,260 people were admitted to the emergency room in 2011 following bike accidents; two-thirds were Oahu residents. That’s an increase of 20 percent from 2008.
About 16 percent of the bikers suffered traumatic brain injuries and about one-fourth had fractured bones and open wounds.
But bike advocates say that Oahu could be on the verge of a biking renaissance that ushers in not only safer conditions, but hopefully a lot more bikers.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has promised to make biking infrastructure a priority and plans to construct Oahu’s first protected bike lane along King Street, running from downtown all the way to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Bike lanes also are expected to be integrated into the mayor’s $140 million road repaving project. And, if successful, a bike sharing program could add up to 1,880 bikes and 170 docking stations throughout some of the most congested areas of Oahu.
“I’m really happy to have some political will to make it happen,” said Bobby Evans, membership and volunteer director at the Hawaii Bicycling League. “It’s a key ingredient in all of this.”
Currently, only 2 percent of Oahu residents bike as their primary mode of transportation. The league’s ultimate goal: for Honolulu to replicate cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where up to half of the population relies on bikes.
Changing Oahu’s Car Culture
Many of Hawaii’s bike plans were created in the 1970s when the Middle East oil embargo sent gas prices soaring and residents searching for other means of transportation. But once oil prices fell, the plans were largely shelved and Oahu’s car culture grew unabated.
The city devised a new bike plan in 1999, but not much of it was implemented, according to Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the Hawaii Bicycle League.
There was also an effort to turn Young Street into a bicycle-only thoroughfare, but it failed.
“It was just impossible,” said Mikulina. “Businesses didn’t want to get rid of deliveries and parking.”
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
But in 2009, then-Gov. Linda Lingle signed the Hawaii Complete Streets bill into law, which requires the state Department of Transportation to accommodate all users of the road, including bicyclists and pedestrians.
This means that as Caldwell moves forward on his ambitious road repaving plan, bike paths are expected to be incorporated into a lot more roads at little added cost to the city, said Taniguchi.
In 2012, the city also revamped its bike plan, which is intended to guide the transportation department’s bikeway planning.
Currently Oahu has about 132 miles of bike paths or lanes and the plan calls for increasing this by an additional 559 miles over the next two to three decades. The cost to the city is estimated to be $68 million.
Mike Formby, the city’s transportation director, says the Caldwell administration’s goal is to take the bike plan “up a notch” by constructing not just bike lanes, but protected bike lanes that will encourage more residents to bike and hopefully reduce traffic congestion.
The first lane along King Street, which will be situated between the sidewalk and parked cars, is expected to be finished by the end of the year. The lane will initially be one-way, going Ewa to Diamond Head with the flow of traffic. But Formby said that the ultimate plan is to make it a two-way lane equipped with traffic signals.
The department expects to encounter push back from businesses along King Street or drivers not excited about sharing the road with bikers. But he said the mayor is committed.
“We’re at a point now where we know we are going to do it,” he said. “We’re not asking permission because we are going to do it.”
That’s making Oahu’s biking community very happy.
“For the mayor to embrace protected bike lanes is a super big deal,” said Taniguchi. “We were just thinking bike lanes.”
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Formby said that a departmental traffic study showed that converting one of the car lanes to a bicycle lane will have no effect on traffic congestion and that his department is embarking on a campaign to educate the public about the benefits of bike lanes.
The administration is also looking into creating a lot more bike lanes that peel off from King Street, as well as lanes that are connected to the Honolulu rail path currently under construction.
Overall, the administration has allocated $3.9 million in its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 for biking infrastructure.
About $1 million of the money is earmarked for Oahu’s bike sharing program, a city, state and federal initiative that aims to build a large network of bike rentals throughout downtown, Waikiki and the university area.
The program has been implemented in more than 30 cities throughout the mainland.
Oahu’s program is expected to cost up to $12 million and be financed by both government and private funds. Once its up and running, it should support itself through membership and rental fees, said Taniguchi.
So, will Honolulu someday be as bike-friendly as Amsterdam, which is now battling to control the hordes of bikes that flood the streets?
Mikulina is skeptical.
The funding “doesn’t cut it at all,” he said. “In comparison, we consumed 450 million gallons of gasoline in Hawaii last year. So it’s just disproportionate.”
Still, he says the mayor’s proposals are exciting and for the first time in years, biking infrastructure seems to be getting some political traction, which will hopefully translate into more public acceptance of bicyclists.
“A lot of motorists feel that bicyclists are in the way or that they shouldn’t be in the road, as opposed to viewing them as peers and a part of the transportation solution,” said Mikulina.
Last year, Civil Beat strapped a camera onto the handlebars of Caldwell’s bike during an event to encourage support of biking. Check out the video below:
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