Honolulu Advertiser

Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

January 27, 2003


Driving force in commuting


Mr. Doug Carlson writes (1/15) that, “Slater's vision of transportation policy for O'ahu goes strictly by the ABCs — Always By Car…but the rest of us should choose modern rapid transit.”

First, beware of the word “should”—it is a planner’s word. One used by people who want to organize our behavior according to their “vision.”

Second, I am merely facing the reality that everyday people are pushing for more roads. For example, according to the latest Census, only 7% of Oahu’s commuters chose TheBus to get to work; 80% chose their cars and they would like traffic congestion relief.

And that 7% market share for TheBus has declined since 1980 when TheBus then carried 10% of commuters. This absolute decline in daily rides of 37,000 to 34,000 is despite a growth in Oahu’s population and a 30% increase in the number of buses in use. (1)

This trend is happening in virtually every city in the U.S. 

From 1990 to 2000, of the 48 metropolitan areas with populations of one million or more, only ten increased their public transportation market share and that was from 4.0% to 4.4% average share.  The market share of the other 38 declined from 4.4% to 3.9% on average. And it did not matter whether they had rail transit—light or heavy. All the biggest areas with extensive rail transit lines, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, all lost market share heavily.

Of the 10 million new jobs created in this ten year period only 72 thousand workers elected to take public transportation—less than 1%.(2) And that is despite the billions that are “invested” annually in rail and bus operations.

And this trend is ongoing in Europe as well. Listen to Christian Gerondeau, author of the author of the Paris Area Railway Master Plan and the 1997 book "Transport in Europe."

“As in many European countries, the official public policy in France is to reduce the use of car. The car is considered as a nuisance, even if almost every one chooses it whenever possible. Residents of the European countries rightly consider their leaders to be clueless about the population's preferences, which certainly includes the automobile. Planners here and abroad need to get in touch with the real world and the free choices of citizens, and stop focusing public policy on unrealistic dreams.”(3)

Our leaders fail to understand the underlying trend towards personal transportation and away from mass transportation. We are no longer the masses; we are individuals. It is a major reason why car use increases and public transportation declines. It has been a trend in place for 80 years; one would think that our public officials would get the message.

For example, in my written testimony to the City about their BRT program, I pointed out the absurdity of the city’s high ridership forecasts. Honolulu has had this ongoing decline in rides per resident since 1984. At that time Honolulu residents averaged 96 bus rides.(4) In 2000 that had declined to 76.(5) I said that this decline had to be explained if one is to make sense of the City’s forecasts.

Ms. Cheryl Soon, city transportation head, ignored the logic of this and replied, “The decline in ridership of the bus system in Honolulu over the past decade is tied to the weak economy and minimal population growth that has occurred during this period”(6)

However, there was a steady decline from 1984 to 1991 in rides per resident—and these were the boom years of the “Japanese Bubble” with a strong economy and strong population growth.(7) Thus it is such nonsense to attribute declining bus ridership to “the weak economy and minimal population growth.”

As for Mr. Carlson, who favors monorails, I have a book which I shall lend him, “The Story of Rapid Transit.” It tells us that, “The Monorail promises to work wonders in the future.” It was published a hundred years ago.(8)

On the following page it says, “As to the far future of rapid transit only the poet and the dreamer can tell us…”

Ain’t that the truth.


Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater


(1) United States Journey to Work Data by Metropolitan Area: 2000 & 1990.

(2) United States Journey to Work Data by Metropolitan Area: 2000 & 1990.

(3) Gerondeau, Christian. Mass Transit: A Tale of Two Cities' Transportation. The Atlanta Journal. November 1, 2000. Christian Gerondeau is the author of the Paris Area Railway Master Plan, was a transportation adviser to the French government in the 1970s and wrote the 1997 book "Transport in Europe."

(4) The 95.59 riders per capita is calculated using 76,260187 riders and a population of 797,800 from Tables 18.29 & 1.06, State Data Book of 1991.

(5)Data source:  Riders are City data from the 2000 State Data Book, Table 18.24. Population data is from the 2000 State Data Book, Table 1.06

(6) Required response in a letter to me dated November 13, 2002.

(7) Note that during the 1984 to 1991 boom years, absolute ridership was flat, and per capita ridership much lower, despite an economy with a 19% growth in per capita real GDP, a Honolulu population growth of 6.6% and an 8% increase in buses and, assumedly, service levels. (Source: 1993-94 State Data Book, Tables 13.2, 1.6 & 18.25.)

 (8) Willson, Beckles. The Story of Rapid Transit. D. Appleton & Co. 1903. p. 196.