Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion


City rail plan is rubbish


Every so often, the City trots out its "transportation visions" about transit centers, peripheral parking, rail transit and water ferries. For its latest effort, we now have meetings for the public (at great expense to taxpayers) to arrive at a "shared transportation vision for the 21st Century" This is called TRANS2K. (1)

The public is being deluded once more into believing that they are really having input. The usual offerings are being laid out for the public to comment on. But, in the end—surprise, surprise—what our officials have already planned for us will be represented as "ideas from the community." What rubbish. If there is any sharing, it is between Ben and Jerry. Ben Lee, our City Managing Director and Jeremy Harris our 2002 gubanatorial candidate, both of whom seem to have an edifice complex.

None of their proposals work in practice. As we have continually said to the City, show us just one place where commuter ferries work when they parallel highways.(2) Show us where peripheral parking works in cities our size.(3) Show us where transit centers work when they are not accompanied by busways.(4) As for rail…

Last time they tried to give us heavy rail. Now they want Lite Rail which, like lite beer, is a poor imitation of the real thing but not as heavy—nor, thankfully, costs as much. In other words, Light Rail will not "whoosh" us into town. Light Rail, as they admit in the fine print, is a streetcar pure and simple.(5)

As this newspaper editorialized in 1933, "Honolulu is doing what all progressive mainland communities are nowadays doing: getting rid of street cars and replacing them with good size buses … we … will finally progress to the point of abolishing street-car tracks … a vast improvement."(6) If we were so glad to get rid of them in 1933, because of the traffic congestion they caused, (7) why do we want to go back to them 60 years later?(8)

Our elected officials cannot seem to get it through their heads that less than 10% of our population (9) uses public transportation to get anywhere because it takes too long.

Fundamentally, people value their time at what they are paid and their commuting decisions consider that. We have to offer people a way to save significant amounts of either time or money before they will get out of their cars. None of these proposals will do that.

We would have to double the number of people using public transportation to make a dent in traffic congestion. Houston has been the only U.S. city to achieve any significant increase. They built busways and achieved a 28% increase. No other city got close.(10)

This is why we have deal with traffic by making life easier for the 92% of our people who use autos—rather than the 8% who use public transportation.(11) Why don’t our elected officials understand that? It isn’t rocket science.

You can only conclude they have other motives. The giveaway is that at none of these current meetings will you find any of the nations’s transportation authorities. Instead we will get the usual City and State hacks trying to justify Ben & Jerry’s "visions."

We will certainly not hear from those nationally respected experts who, during the last rail transit fiasco, kept asking why we were not proposing busways and other sensible alternatives—ones that have actually worked in practice. (12)

Instead we get "transportation visions" and carefully orchestrated letters-to-the-editor whose authors are "sharing their Visions" and "charting their Visions"—as if ordinary people used such language.

Our traffic problems are solvable but not the way our elected officials are going about it. We need help from people across the nation and abroad who know what they are talking about rather than all this "visioneering."

That nonsense has to stop.

Cliff Slater is on the faculty of the Economics Dept., University of Hawaii as Community Scholar in Residence. He teaches urban transportation and privatization. Footnotes to this column are at



(1) Full details at

(2) The successful ferries in the U.S., such as in Seattle, New York, and elsewhere, are those that save time relative to the typically much longer route that has to be traveled by automobile. We have not been able to find a successful ferry that parallels a highway such as has been proposed between say, Barbers Point or Hawaii Kai and Downtown. Such ferries would not be competitive with automobiles on parallel highways even when highly congested.

(3) Peripheral parking at the edge of towns such as Honolulu requires either large parking structures or large lots, a lengthy walk to some form of public transportation and a wait for the transportation itself. People will not tolerate the extra time involved.

(4) Transit centers require a change of vehicle. Very few commuters actually transfer since it is too inconvenient. For example, only 15% of Honolulu bus riders transfer to other buses. Door-to-door convenience is what is needed to increase ridership.

(5) See Glossary at

"Light rail transit (Or LRT):

1. An electric railway with a "light volume" traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multi-car trains or single cars. Also known as "streetcar," "trolley" and "tramway."

2. Lightweight passenger rail cars operating singly (or in short, usually two-car trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles are driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line via a trolley or pantograph.

3. Streetcar: urban transit which uses predominantly reserved but not always grade-separated rights-of-way with electrically powered rail vehicles that operate alone or in trains.

4. A rail transit system that can operate on a variety of rights-of-way, from on-street to grade-separated. It typically uses articulated vehicles powered by an overhead electric catenary and connects activity centers within an urbanized area."

(6) Honolulu Advertiser editorial page. November 2, 1933.

(7) The great complaints about streetcars were always that they had to load and unload passengers without pulling into the curb.

(8) The first streetcars were replaced by buses (not General Motors buses) in 1933. The last streetcar in Honolulu ran in 1941.

(9) Only 9.3% of commuters used public transportation for that purpose in 1990. See 1996 State of Hawaii Data Book. Table 12.03. Far fewer used it for other trips.

(10) No other city has increased public transportation by anything like that amount. In fact, the only city with any significant increase in market share was Houston because of their use of busways. Virtually every other MSA in the U.S. registered declines. For details see:

(11) To reduce automobile traffic from 90.7% to say 81.4%, a 10% reduction, would necessitate increasing public transportation from 9.3% to 18.6%. This would be going against the national and local trends of reducing public transportation use for commuting.

(12) Under pressure from the federal government, the State submitted the 1990 rail transit proposal to a panel of the nation’s leading transportation experts from universities around the country. A team from the University of Hawaii summarized the individual papers submitted by the various scholars. The resulting document was:

Evaluation of the Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project's AA/DEIS. Hawaii Office of State Planning. February 1991.

(Note: Busways as used by the consultants here refers to grade-separated or barrier-separated lanes reserved for buses, vans or high occupancy cars. They are also referred to as transitways.)

"It is not clear why dedicated busways...and a broader range of TSM options (regional vanpool services, timed-transfer bus facilities and auto-restraint measures) were excluded from consideration in the alternatives analysis."
Evaluation of the Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project's AA/DEIS. Hawaii Office of State Planning. February, 1991. University of Hawaii Executive Summary. p. 1.7.

"In particular, what is lacking is a serious investigation of several viable dedicated busway options." Dr. Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley. p. 3.4

"Where the current set of alternatives really fall short is in ignoring various busway configurations as a fundamental option to rail transit." Dr. Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley. p. 5.4

"Quite aside from the neglect of low cost TSM alternatives, there is no exploration of the possibility of investing more in HOV lanes for buses and carpools, as an intermediate level of investment between the No-Build alternative and the rail alternatives." Dr. Donald C. Shoup, UCLA. p.12.8

"The additional riders that might be drawn to busways (by virtue of the superior quality of service offered buy buses feeding directly into neighborhoods) might more than make up any higher costs (if indeed cost estimates are accurate). If presented in terms of a more traditional benefit-cost framework, it is likely that busways would compare far more favorably with fixed guideway rail options." Dr. Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley. p. 4.9

"The real advantage of that they reduce...transferring, the Achilles heel of mass transit in many modern, low-density metropolises like Honolulu." Dr. Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley. p. 4.3

"...(an alternative study) could be considered that...might include contraflow lanes, busways, reversible bus streets ... " Dr. Scott B. Rutherford 7.2

"In summary, I would recommend that an additional study be commissioned that seriously examined a range of busway options as legitimate contenders to the fixed guideway rail options." Dr. Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley. p. 5.3

Comments by other parties about busways have been:

"...(busways) permit the operation of high-volume, reliable service at a cost far less than new rail construction...what might be an undesirable two-transfer ride on rail system (auto to rail to walk/bus/subway) could be a no- or one-transfer ride on a bus/HOV system." U.S. Department of Transportation. National Transportation Strategic Planning Study. 1989. p. 12-17

"(This) comparison of person moving capacities for various U.S. rail and HOV projects...appears to cut through the myth that HOV facilities (e.g. busways) do not have the person carrying equivalent of rail lines. Both modes can serve the person carrying capacity needs of about any corridor in North America." Charles A. Fuhs. High Occupancy Vehicle Facilities. Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas. December 1990.

"A number of busways, bus priority lanes and contraflow bus lanes have attracted and carry tremendous amounts of traffic. The Shirley Highway busway carries more people into and out of the Washington region's urban core during rush hours than any of the several rapid rail lines that serve Washington. The Express Bus Lane into New York carries more people across the Hudson during rush hours than any other single facility, despite the fact that it is only one lane.
All these busways carry more people per lane than a conventional expressway traffic lane. Busways can avoid the tremendous expense of widening urban freeways. In some cases, where widening is impractical, converting lanes to busways can increase overall carrying capacity.
Busways also reduce transit operating cost. They make van and carpools more attractive. Pool vehicles require no public operating funds and can reduce peak bus requirements. Direct bus operating costs are reduced by increasing operating speeds and reducing maintenance cost for brakes and other components that suffer less wear and tear on busways than in congested mixed traffic. Busways also encourage competitive provision of transit services since different bus operators may use the same busway." U.S. Secretary of Transportation. The Status of the Nation's Local Mass Transportation; Performance and Condition. Dept. of Transportation - UMTA. 1988.



"The automobile itself is so exasperatingly convenient that it drives the transportation inventors almost mad trying to devise competitive substitutes." Holmes, Edward M. Highway in Our Future. Traffic Engineering. May 1961. p. 34.