Cover Story

The City and County of Honolulu is preparing to unveil a new master plan for bicycling.


Cover image for Sep 2, 2009

On the first page of the first draft of the new Oahu Bike Plan, scheduled to be finalized sometime next month, the authors crank the vision thing about as far as such a thing can be cranked. “It is time,” they intone, “to promote the practice of Kamehameha I’s Law of the Splintered Paddle –the right of all people to be safe on our roadways.”

Elsewhere in the introduction, there is mention of Honolulu’s “great potential” as a bicycling haven. Many similar, seemingly grandiose phrases abound.

It’s hard to reconcile that kind of language with what appears to many observers to be the current state of bicycling in Honolulu. Cyclists and non-riders alike frequently complain–many of them to this newspaper–about unsafe roads, clueless drivers and other menaces. Anecdotally, too, it’s easy to see that bicycling ranks somewhere behind “hitching a ride” and “in my canoe” as a mode of transportation in Honolulu.

It turns out appearances can be deceiving, for bicycling and bicycling master plans alike. Honolulu, while not on par with European biking meccas or college towns on the mainland, is an active bicycling community by U.S. standards, with a bike-to-work rate three times the national average and a healthy dose of cycling-friendly city programs. And as the City prepares to integrate public comments and formally release the plan in October, many cycling advocates are supportive of what they say appears to be a positive–and pragmatic–step toward a more bicycle-friendly island.

A pragmatic plan

Honolulu is not Amsterdam. It’s not Davis, Calif., the most bike-positive community in the United States, where more than 14 percent of commuters ride their bikes. Oahu has followed the same transportation trends as most U.S. cities since the early 20th Century–a tiny bit of bicycling, a little bit of mass transit and a massive helping of personal automobiles. That balance, or imbalance, creates a challenge for transportation planners looking to improve bicycling convenience and safety.

Chief among the major elements of the Oahu Bike Plan are its emphases of connectivity and feasibility. Those goals stem in large part from lessons learned after the release of the 1999 master plan, the most recent major document devoted to bicycling issues. That plan, widely admired for its ambition and vision of a cycling mecca, bogged down when it came time to fund its ambitious projects. A centerpiece was an unbroken, dedicated cycling path winding from Kahala to ‘Aiea, one that never got off the drawing board.

“The 1999 plan I think is a very good plan,” said City Director of Transportation Wayne Yoshioka, whose department was responsible for the creation of the new draft. “And if all of that could be built at once, that’s fine. But typically plans don’t get built that way.” When Bicycling Coordinator Chris Sayers and the department’s outside consulting team began focusing in earnest on the new plan in early 2008, deteriorating economic conditions made it even clearer that funding would become an issue.

“So, we wanted an emphasis on having a pragmatic plan,” Yoshioka says.

This time around, planners avoided high-cost dream projects like circle-island bike paths and focused on what could be done to improve connectivity, planning jargon for making sure bikeways align to form clear routes usable for getting from point a to point b.

“We had to make sure we don’t have pockets of great cycling facilities unconnected to one another,” said Sayers.

Bicycles for miles

The City’s new vision calls for nearly 600 miles of new bikeways, a dramatic expansion on the 117 miles that currently exist. The proposal is most dramatic for the ‘Ewa plain, with bicycling lanes as well as storage facilities deeply integrated with the forthcoming rail transit network.

The prominence of ‘Ewa-side communities in the new plan is a prime example of how the planners sought to ensure feasibility. Sayers and Yoshioka say that one of their main strategies was to piggyback new bikeways onto already-funded projects, thus dramatically reducing costs. For the proposed new rail stations in Central and West Oahu, that means building bike storage facilities and bike paths into the blueprints. Yoshioka also says developers in the area, including the Department of Hawaiian Homelands with its Kapolei Two project, are already beginning to build bikeways into new developments from the ground up.

Other new cycling routes may be funded at least in part through a new national planning initiative known as “Complete Streets.”

“The idea.” Yoshioka said, “Is that all new construction and reconstruction is supposed to take all modes [of transportation] into account.” While federal funding through Complete Streets has not yet fully materialized, Yoshioka says he’s hopeful. “Complete Streets is a goal,” he said. “It’s logical to follow that up. I think the success is going to be that the [federal and state Complete Streets statutes don’t] say ‘we’re going to retrofit the world.’ But when the opportunities present themselves, we’re going to integrate all modes of transportation, and bicycling included.” The piggybacking strategy is already in effect elsewhere on the island, including in the nearly completed resurfacing of Keolu Drive in Kailua/Enchanted Lake.

“They were already putting down new pavement. You’re going to have to put down new lane markers anyway,” said Yoshioka. “We wanted to use it as an opportunity.”

By simply putting paint down in a different place, the City was able to create a new bike path, at zero added expense.

“We changed the road from four lanes to two,” said Sayers. The change allowed the City to connect almost all of winding Keolu Drive with an undivided bike lane. “Our traffic engineering division evaluated the plan to make sure it wouldn’t negatively impact traffic. We’ve still got some issues around the shopping center there, but soon virtually all of that road will be connected.”

Most of the bike routes in the master plan involve new lanes, not the paths many cyclists crave, an outcome born of necessity, planners say.

“In a built-out city like this one, you’d like to have separate paths, but it’s just very difficult and very expensive to accomplish that,” said Yoshioka.

While some in the cycling community have expressed frustration with the lack of paths, the Transportation department is confident that the incremental approach will lead to greater success sooner.

For now, the plan is to augment the hundreds of miles of new bike paths with an increased emphasis on public awareness and education programs designed to improve both ridership and safety. There are a number of physical infrastructure projects–clearer route markings, safety-enhancing “bike boxes” to facilitate turns at major intersections– in the plan, but Sayers and Yoshioka point to evidence nationally that the best way to increase bicycling safety is to increase bicycle ridership.

“It’s based in reality. We’d like to be Amsterdam overnight,” said Sayers, “but it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be more of a snowball effect, where more and more people become aware of biking. Somebody sees somebody they know bicycling and thinks ‘I’m gonna give it a try.’ And pretty soon it becomes more accepted.”

The draft version of the Oahu Bike Plan is available at [].
While the official public comment period has closed, Honolulu Bicycling Coordinator Chris Sayers says he welcomes questions, and comments about bicycling in Honolulu. He can be reached at [email: csayers].


Other voices on the Oahu Bike Plan, and on bicycling in Honolulu.

Charles Djou

Honolulu City Council member

Djou recently introduced a bill calling for a “three-foot rule” when autos pass bicycles on the road.

“The three-foot rule has been adopted and implemented in numerous other places. My bill is modeled after a Colorado law. The current law states that a motor vehicle driver must pass a bicyclist “safely,” which basically means “successfully.” In other words, as long as you don’t hit the guy, you passed safely. We want to make it easier to enforce biking safety.

I do hear from constituents about bicycling issues. I think there are a lot of people who want to ride but aren’t sure how to start. I think the new plan is great. There are a lot of good things in it, but the City is broke. While it’s a good plan, realistically I don’t see much of it getting implemented because of budget problems. My rule accomplishes a lot of the same goals without enormous taxpayer expenditures.

I hope [the plan will be implemented in part]. There are good things in there that are not new expenditures, but anything to do with new construction–realistically it’ll be a least a few years. But every little bit helps when it comes to improving the quality of our bicycling options.”

Mitchell Nakagawa

Executive Director, Hawaii Bicycling League

Looking at this plan compared to 1999, I think it’s a very good plan. It looks at bicycling more holistically, in the sense that we’re looking at not only structural and engineering issues, but the education, the enforcement, the role of advocates. Multiple things stand out in the new draft: one is the acknowledgement that we have a very fragmented bicycling network now. Placing an emphasis on connectivity existing bike routes, and integrating them with rail–that’s good.

For many of us, connectivity is the greatest source of frustration. Looking at commuting: we don’t have an east or windward to downtown route. Look at signage: the routes exists, but they aren’t always intuitive.

A general comment about the draft plan: in addition to working on the implementation and ensuring funding for all of these projects, we need to have some way to reach out to the broader community who [is] unaware. Something akin to a citizens guide. I think the city does a good job while the plan is being drafted, but I think there needs to be more ongoing communication about cycling.

[The new plan] is an improvement for two main reasons. One, it encompasses the entire island. Two, it includes all the other influences, like education, outreach, employer support.

I think the plan is very ambitious. They identified lanes, paths routes to be built. That in itself is a very bold step. The key here is to make sure the funding is there at the time of implementation, and that’s going to take immense public and political will.

Is it currently safe to bicycle around here? I think that there are options for all types of bicyclists. Still, urban Honolulu is not bicycle friendly in the sense that is defined nationally.

As soon as people begin seeing more bicyclists on the streets, similar to themselves, their uncles and aunties, it becomes a different equation. The single greatest barrier is either a lack of awareness or the perception that bicycling isn’t safe.

Overall, I think the community is ready for improved conditions and the decades of work by advocates are about to come to fruition.

Frank Smith

Owner of Island Triathalon and Bike

I have spent time looking at bike plans…my own opinion is that they’re kind of waste of time. I’ve seen them since 1978, I think this is the fourth one, and pretty much nothing happens. The real revolution in cycling will come when people learn to cope with the streets the way they are rather than waiting for some magical construction project we’re never going to see.

I vehemently object to people who say it’s unsafe to bicycle here. I don’t think it is. I think if you acquire the appropriate skills that it’s reasonably safe. I’m exhibit A.

You have to be totally aware of your environment. It’s not the time to zone out with your sound system. You have to be on full alert. You need to be visible, typically in the daytime wearing brighter colors, lights at night. Where you position yourself in the traffic is a huge help. People think it’s safer to be far away from cars, they hug the curb or ride on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are terribly dangerous. I’d like to see an educational and an enforcement program for the sidewalks.

There’s plenty of drivers that violate our right to share the road. I attribute my success to being able to anticipate every stupid thing that a car can do, so that you’re prepared for it. I teach this class called Traffic Kills 101. Really, the answer is to teach the bikers how to cope.

Oahu is very accommodating, with the exception of the streets being bumpy. I really point my finger at the State. Kamehameha Highway, on the Windward side and the North Shore. It’s like the Incredible Shrinking shoulder, where you have sand build up, then vegetation, then the shoulder disappears.

I think bike lanes are passe. I don’t think they help at all. They become a debris magnet, It makes cyclists and motorists behave contrary to the regular rules of the road. If you’re making a right turn, and there’s no bike lane, they merge safely. With the bike lane they don’t know what to do, so they accelerate or cut you off.

The biggest issue is that we just don’t have a lot of room. We just can’t carve paths out like they can on the mainland.

Everybody has to follow the same rules. It’s a dance. It’s not a war. We’re not fighting each other. Aside from a very small number of sociopathic people, you know, there’s jerks out there, but the vast majority of motorists are accommodating.