An Opinionated Review of TheBus and Honolulu’s Transit Success (Part 1)

PART 1: The Land Use-Transit Nexus


In his book Trains, Buses, People – An Opinionated Review, Mr. Spieler provides a brief, but insightful review of Honolulu’s transit success. He highlights our geographical advantage that creates a dense/linear corridor, that is perfect for transit. But he considers Honolulu a “basic” bus system. He mentions the current controversy over the rail cost overruns and schedule delays, and it’s lack of connections to Waikiki and University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM). In the end, Mr. Spieler provides hope that Honolulu can live up to its transit potential.

Overall, I was expecting a more detailed and critical analysis of our current and future transit system. Instead, I got a brief one-page write-up and a few maps. To be fair, Mr. Spieler did have to review 46 other cities, and Honolulu is a relatively small, somewhat insignificant, outlier of a city.

Still, I think Honolulu deserves a more thorough analysis. To fill this gap, I’ll extend Mr. Spieler’s review of Honolulu’s transit system using the “Basics of Successful Transit” described in his book. I divided this analysis into two parts: PART 1: The Land Use-Transit Nexus, and PART 2: Transit Quality of Service.


How efficient transit is dependent on population density. Honolulu’s urban development follows a dense linear corridor that parallels the coastline. This naturally leads to high-density development which is great for transit.

However, within that corridor, cross-sections can be thought of as valley-sections. In valley-sections, the terrain gets steeper when headed more up the mountain (mauka) and density decreases.

This is Honolulu’s geographical challenge: strong transit supportive areas with mixed-use development near the ocean (makai), which transitions to low-density residential neighborhoods higher up the mountain (mauka). This type of development pattern is difficult to serve efficiently with transit because there is just one turnover point near the bottom of the route.

Put transit in densely populated places

Because of Honolulu’s unique geographical advantage, 41% of residents live within a half-mile of high-frequency transit. Incredibly, nearly 99% of residents live within a half-mile of any transit line.

Honolulu could have more high-frequency service, but it has focused on providing direct-to-downtown routes. This provides abundant one seat rides but results in duplicative routes which do not truly function as high-frequency corridors.

I believe a ubiquitous high-frequency network is possible in Honolulu. I believe Honolulu can redesign its transit system to provide frequent service to more than 90% of residents! But as Mr. Spieler points out, Honolulu’s unique geographical advantage is the key. And the future rail line exploits this advantage to its fullest. The rail line will serve as Honolulu’s high-frequency, highly reliable trunk. Though the rail line doesn’t reach many residents and jobs directly (only 10% of residents and 38% of jobs are within the future rail walkshed), it will free up the bus system to reach the remaining residents and jobs. For this type of system to work, Honolulu will need to create seamless connections between both modes.

Mr. Spieler correctly notes that the future rail line does not directly Waikiki. Salt Lake, Aliamanu, and Makiki also all lack frequent transit service despite having very high population densities. These areas will need bus rapid transit (BRT) like service. Other lower density areas will also need some sort of frequent transit.

Build up density where transit already is

“Instead of building transit where density is; build up density where transit already is.”

As far as Honolulu’s future rail system is concerned, this point is moot. The alignment of the rail project has long been decided and construction of the rail line is already approaching partial completion. Unfortunately, Mr. Spieler is right that building new transit lines in dense areas is very costly and highly disruptive. Honolulu’s future rail system demonstrates that. However, high-quality transit (grade-separated, high frequency, and useful transit) is an investment. Imagine if New York never built its first subway lines; it wouldn’t be half the city it is today.

With the rail alignment set and construction inevitable, Honolulu is diligently planning for and promoting Transit Oriented Development (TOD) around future rail stations. However, Honolulu’s TOD is a mixed bag of mostly greyfield (infill), but also greenfield, and even some brownfield development. In Kakaako and Ala Moana at least, the rail project has seemed to spur some revitalization, other areas (Pearlridge, Aloha Stadium, and Kalihi) also have redevelopment projects in the works.


“Transit needs to serve where people live, but also where they go.”

Honolulu does a good job of connecting its activity centers. More than 65 percent of Oahu’s jobs are within ½ mile of high-frequency transit service (15-minute headway or less), and a whopping 95 percent are within ½ mile of any transit line. Like population density, I expect the number of jobs within a ½ mile of high-frequency transit service to reach nearly 100% after the redesign of the bus-rail network.

Connect Centers

“All successful transit networks serve concentrated employment hubs, medical districts, universities, cultural centers.”

Honolulu’s largest employment areas (Downtown Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and Waikiki) are served by high-frequency transit, however, some major activity centers are not. These areas listed below deserve high-frequency transit.

  • Sand Island Industrial area – a major industrial area supporting nearly 30,000 jobs.
  • Lagoon and Mapunapuna Industrial area – a major industrial area supporting more than 20,000 jobs.
  • James Campbell Industrial Park – the largest industrial park in Hawaii and one of the region’s largest job centers with nearly 250 businesses employing 7,000 people.
  • Ko Olina Resort – a popular resort area.

Other areas with high-frequency bus service, but no direct access to rail include:

  • Queens Medical Center – Honolulu’s largest hospital with over 500 beds, 1,160 nurses, over 1,100 physicians, and the only designated trauma center in Hawaii.
  • UHM – more than 25,000 students, professors, and staff; 21% of whom commute by bus.

These areas will need to be thoughtfully integrated into the future bus-rail network soon.

Serve all trips

Mr. Spieler notes that “Only one-quarter of daily trips are work trips.” In other words, 75% of daily trips are non-work related. E.g., dropping kids off at school, grocery shopping, going to church, etc. Transit needs to go everywhere people go; not just to work. Honolulu needs to refocus its bus system from being a direct-to-downtown network to an all-purpose one. Again, bus-rail integration will be key. Rail and new BRT lines will provide the longitudinal transmission of people between communities, and the bus will provide the vertical (mauka-makai) distribution within a community.


Mr. Spieler notes that convenient, comfortable, and safe walking environments (i.e., good walkability) build ridership. However, he doesn’t analyze Honolulu’s walkability.

Walkability is highly dependent on pedestrian conditions, which is inherently a very localized analysis. As a result, Honolulu is a mixed bag of walkability conditions.

  1. Relative to mainland cities, Honolulu has a good climate for walking (not too hot, not too cold), but does get rainy and humid at times.
  2. Pedestrian infrastructure varies widely depending on the neighborhood.
  3. Honolulu’s urban core is relatively flat, which makes walking easier. However, many neighborhoods are built on the hillside, which makes walking and any form of active transportation substantially more difficult.
  4. Honolulu’s street network has always been disjointed. According to the historian/sociologist Lewis Mumford, Honolulu’s streets in the ’30s were arranged higgledy-piggledy. Streets were closed off to create superblocks in the ’50s and ’60s, which made walkability even worse. Today, Honolulu’s disjointed street network makes wayfinding more confusing and difficult.
  5. Most street frontage is not pedestrian facing, but auto-oriented, with the exception of new neighborhoods like Kakaako.

I disagree with transit planner’s tendency to prescribe a hard and fast rule for bus stop spacing. That said, the ¼ miles between bus stops standard does provide a useful starting point for identifying areas with stops that are potentially too close together. Using this standard, Honolulu has way too many stops.

Street networks in Honolulu are too irregular to use a hard and fast rule. Instead, I think every bus stop on each line needs to be evaluated based on walking distances and coverage area. This is easier said than done, but still not hard. In an upcoming post, I’ll describe a GIS tool for measuring changes in walk distance for aiding bus stop spacing.


Honolulu has great geography for transit. Its singular high-density urban corridor contributes to it’s high per capita ridership. I believe that this huge comparative advantage could allow Honolulu to become one of the great transit cities of the world.

In my next post, I’ll dive into the internal factors that influence Honolulu’s transit success.

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