Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Commuting Isn’t What It Used To Be; It’s Worse

Ask people to rank a number of activities in terms of the pleasure they provide, and “commuting” is likely to come in last if it’s on the list. A Nobel laureate and university economist collaborated on such a project a few years ago, and that’s what they found – sex ranked at the top and commuting at the bottom.

In a piece headlined Your Commute Is Killing You published last week, Slate covers the research that explains why we dislike commuting so much. Long commutes contribute to stress, social isolation, poorer health and even divorce, according to the research.

“So, in summary: We hate commuting,” says the article. “It correlates with an increased risk of obesity, divorce, neck pain, stress, worry and sleeplessness. It makes us eat worse and exercise less.”

Why do we do it? Because “the further we move from work, the more house we can afford,” the author writes, and that certainly seems to be the case on Oahu. A drive through the ewa plain passes through tracts with hundreds of new homes, where young families find more affordability than they can in established neighborhoods closer to their jobs in town.

Cost and Convenience

We’ll belabor the point yet again: An island like Oahu has no room on the flats for more arterial highways, no expectation to build an ocean-based “reef freeway” (debated and killed decades ago) and no environmental tolerance to build highways through the mountains.

Transit is the obvious answer, and many thousands of Oahu residents already use TheBus, making it one of the nation’s best transit systems. But as good as the system is, it still lacks what rail can provide – traffic-free commuting through the urban core.

Commuters give up driving in favor of taking public transit when they can achieve cost and convenience benefits by switching. With thousands of Oahu commuters already spending at least 45 minutes commuting by car each way between their homes on the ewa plain and town, Honolulu rail’s benefits in speed and cost savings are certain to appeal to them.

Rail’s goal of providing a rationale way for Honolulu’s growth will be achieved with transit-oriented development, which will create tens of thousands of residential units within walking distance of the 21 rail stops in the project’s first phase. And as the Slate article says, stress and worry are much less prevalent among commuters with negligible commutes.

The article concludes: “People who say, ‘My commute is killing me!’ are not exaggerators. They are realists.” Future generations of Oahu residents who realize the difference rail can make in the quality of their lives will gladly choose ride.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hawaii: Worst in Senior Safety, Worst in Driver Ed

Hawaii’s pedestrian death rate among senior citizens is the nation’s highest. Many factors contribute to that sad stat, but this one stands out:

Hawaii drivers rank last among the states in their knowledge of driving rules.

That’s the assertion by GMAC Insurance (formerly General Motors Acceptance Corporation) based on its 20-question multiple-choice test using accepted methodology.

Hawaii drivers scored an average of 73 percent, lowest among the states. Only residents of Washington, D.C. scored lower (71.8). The national average was 77.9 percent.

A score below 70 is failing, says GMAC; 32 percent of Hawaii drivers failed to attain that score. We couldn’t find results for each of the 20 questions, but we’d like to know how Hawaii drivers scored on the very first one on the list:

1. A pedestrian is crossing your lane but there is no crosswalk. You should:
    • Make sure the pedestrian sees you, but continue driving
    • Stop and let the pedestrian cross the street
    • Carefully drive around the pedestrian

Not listed was a possible fourth choice – “If the pedestrian seems to be at least 65 years old, accelerate toward the hapless senior citizen to scare him or her back to the curb.”

Judging from Hawaii’s death rate for pedestrians 65 and above that’s nearly 2.5 times above the national average, we think too many Hawaii drivers would select #4.

However you slice the recent news about pedestrian deaths and driver competency, Hawaii has much work ahead to improve its record in both categories. Take the test yourself and maybe you’ll learn something you didn’t know about the rules of the road.

Postscript: KITV carried a video report on the GMAC test. Near its end the video shows a car preparing to exit a parking lot; without waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, the driver pulls into the street, forcing an approaching driver to hit the brakes. And there you have it -- a ironic slice of driving life in the Aloha State.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

HI’s Senior Pedestrian Death Rate Nation’s Worst

Our first post of the year wasn’t focused on the Honolulu rail project but rather called for a reversal in Oahu’s horrendous pedestrian safety record. Our headlined goal on 1/1/11 -- “Not One” more pedestrian death -- was of course an impossible hope for the New Year after a spate of pedestrian deaths in 2010 that doubled those incidents over the year earlier.

The latest evidence of our collective indifference to pedestrian safety is especially damning because it shows how reckless drivers are around a vulnerable group -- seniors.

According to the Transportation for America organization, Hawaii drivers are killing pedestrians aged 65 and over at a far higher rate than the national average and even the #2 state, Alaska. Hawaii’s rate is 7.21 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 seniors compared to the national average of 2.92 and Alaska’s rate of 5.42 per 100,000. The rate for seniors 75 and older here is even worse.

What does that tell you? The Star-Advertiser editorial today uses these statistics to suggest better street design could help avoid pedestrian deaths. That’s undoubtedly true, but good design or bad, the primary blame when seniors and other pedestrians are run down goes to inattentive, aggressive drivers who don’t get this fundamental fact:

Pedestrians have the right of way whether they deserve it or not, whether they carefully look both ways before using a crosswalk or foolishly step into traffic in mid-block.

Is that being taught to young drivers? Does the Honolulu Police Department have a program to detect and ticket aggressive drivers who threaten pedestrians’ safety? Does the average driver here believe pedestrians deserve what they get if they aren’t paying attention?

You have to wonder when our senior pedestrian death rate is a third higher than the next state’s record. With the oldest demographic in the country and an expectation for it to skew even higher, Hawaii has an urgent need to improve its senior pedestrian record.

The Rail Tie-in

By 2030, there will be 40,000 fewer cars on the road with rail than would be the case if the system were not built. Fewer drivers will presumably mean fewer inattentive drivers. New transit-oriented development around stations likely will incorporate the “Complete Streets” design principles advocated in today’s editorial, and crossing streets to access rail stations will be safer.

Our pedestrian safety record is indefensible at any level. Better street design, alternatives to driving, stronger driver-education programs and pedestrian-friendly transportation all will help.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rail Basics, cont.: ‘Reliable & Safe’ Complete Need

Fast and frequent service – two “must have's” for the Honolulu rail project – dominated yesterday’s post, but to those you must add two other attributes the system will boast.

Many would agree that safety should never take a backseat, so let’s examine why the safety factor of elevated rail is immeasurably better than at-grade systems – a continuation of yesterday’s comparison of the two approaches.

There’s abundant evidence that at-grade rail is vulnerable to mishaps with other vehicles operating in the same space. It’s virtually unavoidable when bus, truck and car drivers don’t understand the signage designed to keep them safe, don’t see it, are impaired behind the wheel and/or just act too much like error-prone human beings. This photo of a train-van collision in Phoenix, AZ shows the result of an ill-advised right turn into the path of a train. Nobody was injured, but if passengers had been sitting behind the driver, fatalities would have been likely.

Trains running on the Houston, TX system, also built at ground level, encounter their own share of inattentive drivers at the wheel, including bus drivers. Blow a red light and this is what happens – injuries, damaged equipment, disruption in both bus and train schedules, all of which is avoided when rail transit is built on a different level, either below or above ground. The schedule disruption is more important than one might imagine; for a transit system to be attractive, it must be predictable, and accidents like this one make the system anything but.

Reliability Completes It

So the fourth leg of the “Desirable Transit Square” is reliability – having transit arrive and depart when it’s supposed to. Commuters on a system with a reputation for reliability can routinely schedule their trips based on a timetable. They’ll know before they even get on the train when it will arrive at their destination.

Grade-separated transit is the only transportation mode that allows you to do that. Buses and cars obviously don’t, since they’re subject to the surface congestion that elevated rail completely avoids.

Bring the four characteristics together in a system and you’ll have a fast, frequent, reliable and safe way to travel through town that’s virtually assured of success, especially when cost and convenience are part of the decision to ride.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rail Basics: ‘Fast & Frequent’ Rules Out At-Grade

Just how much attention the proverbial “average Oahu citizen” directs at the Honolulu rail project presumably depends on how much attention it’s receiving at any given time in the media.

Our anecdotal sampling at trade fairs, new-product shows and environmental conferences – like today’s Hawaii Build and Buy Green Expo at the convention center – is that most people who attend them are mystified about why it’s taking so long. “Just build it” is the common thread among attendees convinced that rail will make positive contributions to environmental, sustainability and quality-of-life issues.

But that sampling is no more valid than dipping into the comments sections below the Star-Advertiser’s online stories and editorials. They’re the hang-out of rail’s opponents who seize on every related story as an opportunity to condemn the project on those same grounds.

What’s the average Oahu citizen to think? Scientific polling in the Fall of 2009 found a strong majority supportive of the project. We’re speculating that an updated survey would show similar support, and if that were the case, it would effectively counter the repeated assertions by anti-railers that “nobody wants this train.”

Googling for Info

Citizens who want answers to their questions about the project often search the web, and our SiteMeter visit tracker records those searches when they lead to this blog. Search terms like “elevated vs at-grade” show up now and then.

We’ve often written about this fundamental issue – whether Honolulu rail needs to be elevated to distance it from surface traffic and cross streets or whether it could be built on the ground with less impact on view planes. There’s no disputing the fact of those impacts – the FEIS acknowledges them – so the issue boils down to whether the impacts are justified.

Rail supporters believe they are justified for numerous reasons. For rail to do its principal job of providing fast and frequent transportation through the urban corridor, the system simply cannot be built at-grade.

Surface transit must operate at much slower speeds than elevated rail. Dozens of intersections and the proximity of pedestrian and vehicle traffic along the route mandate slower speeds. For example, one local group supported an at-grade route along Hotel Street and others streets that loop around Honolulu’s civic center encompassing the State Capitol and Honolulu Hale. It’s inconceivable to imagine trains traveling 55 miles per hour or above – the intended elevated speeds – along those streets with all the pedestrians and vehicles in that crowded district.

More Drawbacks

At-grade trains also require drivers at the controls, unlike fully automated grade-separated rail. The time interval between trains must be greater when trains are manually operated, so the interval likely would be at least twice what Honolulu’s system anticipates during rush hour – trains arriving at stations only 3 minutes apart.

Compared to Honolulu’s elevated system, at-grade rail would be less attractive to potential riders by offering slower and less frequent service. Would such a system have less visual impact? Almost certainly, although that impact is virtually non-existent at a distance due to the proliferation of construction within blocks of its route reaching up to 300 feet and beyond.

Honolulu rail will be faster, more frequent and safer when elevated than if it were built at ground level to preserve the ambiance along local streets. A surface system would not meet the mobility needs of Oahu commuters, who face increasingly congested streets and highways. Such a system might have less visual impact, but it would fail to meet the project’s goals.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Editorial: Let Honolulu Rail Authority Do its Job

For those not paying close attention to the ins and outs of the Honolulu rail project, it’s time to catch up. The hot issue this month is whether the City Council will exert its control over the activities of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) or allow it to become a relatively independent body, operating in the same fashion as the Board of Water Supply.

Voters overwhelmingly (63 percent) approved an amendment to the City Charter in November to create a semi-autonomous HART that, it was said, would run Honolulu’s transit program independent of political influence.

HART’s board already has been named – three members by the Mayor, three by the Council, with the remaining three being the occupants of transportation and planning positions at the city and state; a 10th member will be chosen by the rest of the board.

The board would run the Honolulu rail project, including its construction budgets, without being directly under the thumb of either the city administration or Council – that’s how the amendment was advertised.

But some Council members say the amendment did not relieve the Council of its budgetary oversight responsibilities for HART, and measures are moving through the Council that would give it power over the issuance of revenue bonds to provide temporary funding for portions of the rail project’s construction.

Today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial argues that the Council’s “nervousness” over HART might be understandable but could delay rail even more than it already has been. “Voters have made the decision for rail and have created HART to expeditiously bring it to fruition,” says the editorial.

The proposal before the Council will be up for third and final reading on June 3.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FTA’s Rogoff Repeats Honolulu Rail Support, Says Financial Risk ‘Under Control’ on 20-Mile Project

“Steady as she goes” describes the testimony of Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs yesterday. Rogoff specifically cited cost containment on Honolulu’s $5.3 billion rail project and expressed the FTA’s confidence that its financial risk is "under control."

Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI), who sits on the committee, engaged Rogoff in a dialogue on Honolulu rail and neighbor island transit issues. Rogoff said Honolulu’s traffic is “some of the most punishing” in the country and that the FTA is “working to make sure the project comes in on time and on budget.”

Here’s Rogoff’s statement as provided to Honolulu media by Akaka’s office:
As you pointed out in your opening statement Senator, I think - and this information is a surprise to a great many Americans - Honolulu and O'ahu in particular has some of the most punishing congestion in the United States. And the Honolulu Rail Project is something that we support quite strongly. This project has taken a long time to get off the ground, as you know. It has sort of been derailed twice before, and the only thing that's happened is the congestion on H-1 has gotten even worse. It was also pointed out that there is a good bus network on O'ahu, but the reality is, when you've got a congested road network, there's only so much you can accomplish with buses. So we, in our budget for 2012, have proposed 250 million dollars specifically for the Honolulu Rail Project, and we're hopeful of admitting that project into final design. We're currently reviewing their financial plan. We did recently conclude a risk assessment where we found that the risk was actually under control and the local authorities' proposal to lower the cost estimate was reasonable, based on how much of the projects they've gotten under contract. So this is the kind of project that will really be about traditional congestion relief. It will be about getting working people from the west side of the island to over to the east side and home in time to see their kids when they're awake. And it mirrors at lot of what can be accomplished elsewhere in the country.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

HI Bicycling League Hosts DTS’s Yoshioka Tonight

The long-anticipated briefing on the Honolulu rail project to members of the Hawaii Bicycling League (it’s been warming in the oven for a year) is finally happening tonight.

Department of Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka will discuss “Your Bike, Your Train and You” in Manoa Valley District Park’s multi-purpose building classroom, next to the gym, from 6 to 7:30.

Yoshioka will answer questions on the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project, the city’s Bike Master Plan and how they will synch once the rail system is fully operational.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

‘Everybody’s Looking for Something….’

West LA residents rally to support bus-only lanes.
We suggested yesterday that some mainland transportation concepts aren’t directly translatable to Oahu – among them, perhaps, highway flyovers that may not fly here. We’re reconnecting today with Los Angeles and a proposal that would help residents there achieve what Oahu residents will enjoy with Honolulu rail – faster, healthier and cleaner commuting.

The Wilshire Bus Only Lanes proposal would create a 7.7-mile stretch on which only buses would be allowed in the right hand lanes during rush hour along Wilshire into West Los Angeles.

One observer called it a “kumbaya moment” when both the Bus Riders Union and the Southern California Transit Advocates (pro-rail) group joined forces to support the proposal by lobbying three LA city council members.

The advocates recruited community-based groups to support the proposal, such as the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. Representing the Alliance, Seung Hye Suh’s description of the benefits to be realized by the Bus Only Lanes project might well apply to Honolulu rail:

“A project like this holds out so much promise to unite our city and our communities and move us in the direction we must take in the 21st century… We can reduce the greenhouse gases that are killing our planet and make bus (rail) travel a more attractive option for commuters who have a choice. We can encourage a healthier and less sedentary mode of life as we clean the air we all breathe.”

LA residents are seeking a speedier route to work and health care facilities, such as the Veterans Hospital on Wilshire, using bus-only lanes. Some push-back is coming from those who don’t believe banning cars from the right hand lane would be a positive way to address traffic concerns. Here in Honolulu, the elevated rail system will leave surface street lanes intact and open for vehicles as it transports more than 100,000 daily riders through the urban core.

"Everybody’s looking for something," according to the Eurythmics. In transportation, that something is freedom from traffic congestion, and each city seeks it in its own way.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Mainland Ideas Wouldn’t ‘Flyover’ Here

The Judge Harry Pregerson interchange in Los Angeles
Honolulu rail continues to be among the community’s top ongoing news stories, with challengers rallying around a new lawsuit and supporters vowing to re-energize their efforts to meet that challenge with a coordinated response.

Rail’s opponents favor other approaches to improve mobility in the urban corridor that feature new highway construction in various forms – HOT roads, HOV lanes and flyovers.

An island has limited capacity to accommodate highways, and that's worth repeating whenever proposals surface for new ones. What works in Los Angeles, for example, likely would confront massive resistance on Oahu.

The above photo shows the Judge Harry Pregerson interchange for Interstates I-105 and I-110 that includes HOV lanes and HOV connector flyovers allowing vehicles to transition from each highway’s HOV lanes to the other’s HOV lanes.

It’s a classic “mega-interchange” and larger than what proponents want in Honolulu, but without question, any new HOV lanes and flyovers to connect them would have significant impacts on space here -- whether it's open or space already occupied by businesses and homes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Poll Shows Support for Honolulu Rail Is Strong; Public Still Not Clear on Project’s True Purpose

Listen up everybody, and that includes Star-Advertiser editors, reporters and pollsters:


Shouting it in red is annoying, but it’s also necessary because too many people JUST DON’T GET IT! These are critical distinctions that apparently are not understood by the people who fashion questions to sample public opinion on rail and reporters who cover it.

Rail’s True Purpose

Rail will restore MOBILITY to Oahu residents – the ability to move whenever you want and at any time of day through the length of the east-west urban core completely unaffected by traffic congestion. This fact is so critical it’s first among equals in the project’s four goals. “Solving traffic” is not one of them! It’s also what is missing in nearly all media coverage of the project.

Rail ironically suffers from Oahu residents’ frustration with traffic. They want a SOLUTION – something to relieve their daily upset with traffic. Rail is the biggest thing going, so they naturally expect the project to be that solution. (Also lost in the media coverage is the $3 billion in road improvements to relieve congestion already targeted in the long-range transportation plan by the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.)

It doesn’t help public understanding when the Star-Advertiser’s pollsters confuse matters by asking for reaction to this statement: “Something needs to be done about traffic, and rail is the best solution.”

Fifty percent either strongly or somewhat agreed with that statement, which suggests support for the project has not waned despite the high-visibility efforts of opponents. But one wonders how high the agreement would have been with this statement: “Honolulu rail will be the only way for commuters to avoid all street and highway traffic.” Our guess is at least 80 percent and maybe more.

The 'Solutions' Problem

Even some well-meaning supporters rally around the “solution” angle. The pro-rail group formed 20 years ago got it wrong by calling itself Honolulu Taxpayers for Traffic Solutions.

Cliff Slater and other opponents immediately seized on “Solutions” and said simply, “Rail will not solve traffic. See for yourself; we’ll still have traffic after rail is built, and in fact, traffic will be worse than it is today.”

And he was right! It’s self-evident that traffic increases with population growth, and Oahu’s population is steadily growing and will continue to do so. Compared to the island’s 2005 population, another 200,000 residents are anticipated by 2030.

Mr. Slater continues to over-simplify the issue. He told Civil Beat last summer that he starts his presentations to audiences with two facts: 1) the project’s anticipated cost, and 2) traffic will be worse than it is today after the project is built.

We’ve repeatedly pointed out Mr.Slater’s tendency to obfuscate and “dumb down” the rail project. He’s the anti-railer-in-chief and almost an automatic drop-in to any rail story, including today’s. What he’ll never say without being forced into a corner is what he told the City Council last July: “We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all.”

Rail Will Be a Choice

The undeniable truth about riding Honolulu rail is that those who do will experience ZERO TRAFFIC! Nobody says TheBus system is a failure because it hasn’t “solved” traffic. It’s one of the best systems in the country and was written up as Number One just two days ago in the Star-Advertiser.

People choose to ride TheBus for whatever reasons that suit them – convenience, cost-savings, they don’t own a car, etc. The same will be true for Honolulu’s rail system.

Finally, you have to wonder about the newspaper story’s focus in the first few paragraphs this morning. Highlighted were the views of a writer and jazz musician who lives in Kuliouou near Hawaii Kai, about 10 miles east of the nearest rail stop.

Given a choice between writing about someone living in Kapolei who commutes to town today and likely would ride the train of the future and someone who clearly doesn’t and won’t, the reporter chose the latter. Does that make any sense at all?

Only the media’s built-in tendency to highlight negativity explains it. And you wonder why rail has such tough sledding.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Given Opportunity To Take His Best Shot at Rail, Opponent Recycles Arguments from Years Ago

Yesterday’s City Council Transportation Committee meeting was another opportunity for Cliff Slater, whom we’re calling anti-railer-in-chief, to give his most persuasive arguments against the Honolulu rail project. As it turned out, Mr. Slater simply recycled one of his old misleading arguments that he’s been using to combat rail for years.

Mr. Slater attacked the project’s ridership projections yesterday based on his oft-repeated observation that transit ridership as a percentage of all metropolitan trips in cities with rail systems across the country continues to decline. He also noted that traffic congestion increases after cities build their rail systems.

It’s the same Cliff Slater from yesteryear. He wrote numerous Second Opinion commentaries for the Honolulu Advertise over the years; this one was printed on June 3, 2002. “Rail systems have not reduced traffic congestion…. Every single U.S. city that built a modern rail system (or has an old one) has had consistently worsening traffic congestion no different from other cities – but at a far greater cost. If people who believe ‘Fixed rail is our only answer’ (Letter, 4/29) could only point to just one rail system in the U.S. that had reduced traffic congestion, it would be different. But they cannot.”

It’s a neat and appealing argument for some people who are moved to oppose rail because traffic congestion will grow on Oahu along with the population whether rail is built or not. Rail planners and just about everybody else recognize that fact, but only anti-railers appear shocked by it.

One of Slater’s followers is the talk show host who attacked the Honolulu project again this morning because of the it-won’t-reduce-congestion pitch while ignoring rail’s true purpose (two paragraphs down). Carrying that argument to one’s own family, you might conclude that if your child has straight A’s, a black belt in karate, leads the school’s basketball team and has the best part in the school play, she’d be a failure if she didn’t win Miss Hawaii or make the Olympics team.

But if you apply just a little thought to Mr. Slater’s argument, you can see it as another example of his tendency to over-simplify and therefore mislead his audiences, including the City Council – the one audience he shouldn’t attempt to manipulate.

The goal of a rail transit system is not to reduce the number of vehicles on our highways! Unless society halts population and vehicle growth, traffic also will grow. Rail opponents have yet to suggest how they would actually reduce traffic from current levels 10, 20, 50 years from now. Like all rail transit systems, Honolulu rail will be an alternative to riding in the mix of surface traffic congestion. Grade-separated and right-of-way-separated transit removes the rail commuter from surface traffic.

The most revealing and obvious example of Mr. Slater’s tendency to over-simplify was his interview with Civil Beat last summer in which he said he begins his speeches to audiences about rail by stating two facts: 1) the cost of the project and 2) that traffic will be worse after rail’s built than it is now. Having thus spoken, Mr. Slater asks, “Any questions?”

We called attention to the intellectual dishonesty of his presentation at the time and several occasions since, including yesterday’s Yes2Rail post. Of course traffic congestion will increase with the population even with rail, but as Mr. Slater himself admitted before the City Council last July, there will be less of it with rail than without it. His quote from July 14: “We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all.”

Suburbia Exists

His argument that transit is grabbing a smaller market share in metro areas is similarly simplistic. The development of suburban bedroom communities long distances from our major cities since 1950 was dictated by the quest of the American dream of home ownership and the resulting overwhelming reliance on the private automobile for work and pleasure.

Suburbs pushed back the countryside around virtually every metro area to meet the demands of house-buying families that relied on their car(s) for transportation between home and work. Center city populations slowed their growth or actually experienced reductions in some cities.

Either Americans embraced what car manufacturers offered or Detroit responded to consumers’ demands. Whatever the driving force, America became a car-driving nation. Mr. Slater criticizes rail transit for not being able to attract riders from those spread-out suburban communities even as populations grew. That’s hardly rail’s fault.

But time has a way of correcting past excesses. Even Los Angeles – the epitome of the car-dependent city – is now building several rail lines to serve its population decades after the area’s original tracks were ripped out.

Back to the Future

Here’s an accurate reproduction of what Mr. Slater said yesterday at the City Council committee meeting – not an exact quote but close enough to capture the essence. It’s essentially his same anti-rail argument from 2002:

For the last 20-year period of census data, from 1980-2000, when the DOT analyzed ridership on all transit projects it found that transit’s market share, the percentage of trips taken by riders as a percentage of the population declined for all those metro areas that have rail over that 20-year period except for one. The only one was San Diego, which had a 3-percent increase in its market share…to 3.3 percent. All the others declined…. The city is projecting a 23-percent increase, not a decrease. Those are two facts -- looking at 6 percent to 7.4 percent (transit ridership), a 23-percent increase in market share. We won't get that increase unless we do something extraordinary that no other metro area has done. You should look skeptically at that. The only conclusion I can draw is that you're not going to get it. It's not going to happen.

Mr. Slater’s entire case before the committee yesterday rested on rail’s market share or percentage of all daily trips. It’s not difficult to see the flaw in his reasoning. To satisfy Mr. Slater’s criteria for transit success, ridership would have to attract more than half of all new travel trips in a metro area each year.

That’s simply not going to happen unless all future housing and population growth is directed to transit-oriented development. America's history of home development patterns shows how improbable that would be.

No matter how fast transit ridership increases, the growth in car commuting due to suburbia's growth is bound to be faster in a nation that’s so in love with the automobile. Here’s how a 2008 Station Access and Capacity study by the Washington Metro system views the suburban growth issue:

“Outside the system core, ridership will experience faster growth than the growth inside the core, indicating a continuing trend of job and population growth in suburbs and an increasing demand for transit service outside the system core.”

The demand for transit in the Washington metropolitan area will increase but surely not as fast as car travel will grow. Metro anticipates a 42-percent increase in ridership on the system between 2005 and 2030, yet Mr. Slater apparently would have you believe an annual growth rate of 1.7 percent to produce 970,000 daily trips by 2030 would be a failure because daily trips by cars will far exceed that number. That is twisted logic at best.

A Closer Look

Mr. Slater’s uniformly negative assessment of rail transit begs the question of what would have happened to his preferred travel mode – the private automobile – if all that rail transit had not been built across America. Street and highway congestion would have been worse during for all the years of his 20-year survey. His solution -- build more highways -- is unacceptable on an island like ours.

One wonders also how Mr. Slater characterizes the 2009 ridership increases among light rail systems in North America – Baltimore (11.5%), Oceanside, CA (10.7%), Seattle (9.2%), Philadelphia (9.1%) – and on heavy rail systems – Los Angeles (3.9%) and Chicago (2.2%). Are those systems failing because the market share of car trips was far greater than transit’s share, or are they successes because they drew drivers away from streets and highways and gave commuters an option to sitting in traffic gridlock?

You can use statistics cleverly and loosely to make any argument you want; somebody even wrote a book on how to lie with statistics. As always, let the buyer beware – especially when the anti-railer-in-chief has the microphone.

Mr. Slater and his friends will surely have many microphone opportunities, now that they have filed a lawsuit to block construction of Honolulu rail.

Extra Credit Reading: Mr. Slater has created his own obfuscation problem and has to live with it. You'll find more examples in this post from July 2010.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Some Still Don’t Have a Grip on Rail’s Purpose

How many words have been spoken and written about the Honolulu rail project so far, would you say? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Tens of millions? This current project began in 2005, so a guess at a high number is undoubtedly a good one.

So it’s almost beyond comprehension that some people who’ve taken a great interest in opposing rail seem shocked or uninformed about what the project is all about and what it’s intended to accomplish. Yesterday’s City Council hearing provided more evidence.

Take the issue of whether traffic congestion will be reduced by the rail project. One testifier at the hearing earnestly told the members that congestion will not be less after rail is built. Her premise apparentely is that rail’s purpose is to reduce (eliminate maybe) highway and street congestion. The inference one drew from her testimony is that rail doesn’t deserve to be built if congestion will continue to grow.

What she failed to mention or perhaps doesn’t recognize is something that anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater had to admit at the very same lectern 10 months ago in another Council rail hearing:

“We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all.”

In other words, traffic will be worse without rail than with it – and this is right from the horse’s mouth, the man to whom yesterday’s anti-rail testifiers look for guidance on all these matters.

Mobility vs ‘Ending’ Congestion

Any clear-thinking person will appreciate that with about 200,000 more people on the island in 2030 compared to 2005 (the FEIS’s demographic prediction, which is proving to be fairly accurate), the number of cars and other vehicles will also increase, and so will congestion. This is an island after all, where sentiment to build more freeways is virtually absent.

Rather than be shocked by the fact that traffic will be worse in 2030 on surface lanes than it is today, anti-railers might well expend their considerable energies on figuring out how the population can avoid that congestion.

Grade-separated transit is not a mysterious concept. It’s been adopted all over the planet for not just scores of years, but for well more than a century in places like New York, Chicago, Paris, London and Berlin. Many more cities than this handful currently provide grade-separated transit around the world.

Grade-separated transit – elevated rail in Honolulu – is the only path to restoring what we’ve lost, our freedom to travel across town at both the departure and arrival times of our choosing. That’s one definition of true mobility, and you can't do that in a car or bus. Just ask drivers who are stalled or diverted by construction, accidents and congestion on a daily basis.

It’s convenient to attack rail because it won’t end traffic congestion, but it’s also shallow to do so. Even Mr. Slater says rail will help reduce future congestion. He doesn’t say that often and it’s only with reluctance when he does, but when forced to come clean at the City Council on rail vis-à-vis traffic gridlock, he gave the only response possible without destroying any credibility he claims: Rail will help.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hawaii Gas Prices Retreat from Record Highs

All three “metro areas” in Hawaii have lower average prices for a gallon of regular gas today than yesterday, so the much-publicized sudden downturn in oil prices last week has produced the anticipated result here.

The all-time record in Wailuku, Maui was set just yesterday at $4.987, nearly 3 cents more than today's average. We’re speculating, but that probably is the all-time record for a metro area in the United States as well. The closest we could find in a quick review of the AAA site is $4.814 in Juneau, Alaska in 2008.

Maybe the lever pullers behind Hawaii’s “Curtain of Aloha” just couldn’t bear to see gas go to $5 per gallon and pulled back in their unseen and mysterious ways. Statewide, the average price for regular gas today is $4.567, down from yesterday and nearly 3 cents below the record price of $4.594 reached last Friday.

Conspiracy theories aside, a better explanation is that the futures price for oil delivered in June fell 15 percent last week, but the price rose 5 percent yesterday and has risen again today. Consumers are left to guess, along with the experts, about what their pump prices will be this week, this summer, next year, etc. (The "screen shot" of this graph is already outdated 30 minutes after posting, with WTI crude priced at $103.77 at 9:02 am.)

One thread of current media wisdom as reported today in the Los Angeles Times is that prices will fall as much as 50 cents a gallon this summer. The same newspaper wrote only two weeks ago that the national average would continue to rise and could reach $4.25 by Memorial Day.

Mandatory observation in this rail-related blog: The higher the cost of driving one’s personal automobile, the more attractive public transit becomes. Long-term, that attraction will grow, a view with near-universal agreement.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Where’s the Evidence of ‘Public Distrust’ on Rail?

With all due respect to the editorial writers at the local newspaper, the view here is that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser is overplaying the alleged distrust about Honolulu rail among the general public.

Today’s editorial says the project is “still encountering headwinds of public distrust.” Whatever it’s encountering, it’s more like breezes (hot air?) from the same sources, isn't it? Heaven forbid that the paper is relying on the comments section below its rail-related stories to judge public opinion; that’s a fool’s game.

The same opposition has been fighting rail for decades – the conservative talk-show hosts, the anti-government-spending activists, the I'll-never-ride-it glass-half-empty crowd, the at-grade (slow) transit advocates, the publicity seekers.

A Couple Suggestions

The only daily newspaper in town could undertake a couple activities to get to the heart of public opinion about rail – one scientific, the other anecdotal.

The paper could position a reporter at the rail transit booth to eavesdrop on the public the next time there’s a big expo at the Blaisdell. The pro-rail sentiment is flat-out overwhelming; 9-to-1 support is not an exaggeration.

But that would be anecdotal reporting. A more scientific assessment could be derived from a newspaper-sponsored professional public opinion survey, the kind undertaken by local firm QMark at the City’s behest two years ago.

Conducted in Fall 2009, the survey found strong support for rail in each and every City Council district, including East Honolulu’s District 4, which was represented at the time by the Council’s most vocal rail critic. The survey’s complete results are readily available at the rail project’s website.

Judgment Time

Honolulu was a two-daily-newspaper town at the time, but neither paper printed the survey’s results – an editorial judgment that still boggles.

Newspapers certainly should be skeptical of every poll presented to them conducted on behalf of this issue or that politician. The way they express that healthy skepticism is to report on who sponsored the poll and its plus-minus accuracy. "We report, you decide" is how Fox News puts it.

But to just ignore the poll altogether? That’s something else again and revealed more than the papers might want to admit about the quality of their reporting at the time.

Try to find out what the public really thinks, Star-Advertiser. And if you won’t initiate such a poll, let’s hope you do report somebody else’s results if another rail survey is presented to you.

Raising a finger in the breeze isn’t good enough.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Oil Price Falls Off Cliff; What about Pump Prices?

Gasoline prices move in the same direction as the per-barrel cost of oil – that we know. Gas costs about $1 per gallon more today than it did a year ago in Hawaii because until earlier this week, oil was priced at about $30 more per barrel than May 2010.

One look at today’s oil charts suggests we can soon look forward to reduced prices at the pump. Both Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate prices are falling like a rock at the end of the week.

Why? It’s anybody’s guess, and you can find plenty of them, including this one, all over the ‘net.

Hawaii drivers want to know if we’ll see pump prices take a similar dive. Drivers grumble when prices don’t fall as fast as they rise. Station owners insist changes in their pump prices lag what’s happening in the oil market because they’ve already locked in the cost of the gas sitting in their holding tanks. Today’s average price for regular gas statewide and in Honolulu set new records again today -- $4.594 and $4.481 respectively – thanks to the lag even though prices have fallen all week.

The last time oil’s price was at today’s level was in mid-February. The chart below shows the rise in the average price of gas in Honolulu over the past three months as oil’s price ramped up.

If this week’s trend continues, drivers will expect – no, demand – to see a downward slope in gas prices over the next three months.

But that’s a big “if.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How Quickly Things Change – in LA and Honolulu

Yes2Rail reported six months ago today that newly elected Governor Abercrombie said he would not consider a financial study on Honolulu’s rail project commissioned by former Governor Lingle in deciding whether to accept the project’s final environmental impact statement.

Lingle’s $300,000 study was released soon thereafter and predictably was critical of the planned system inasmuch it was partially written by a pro-bus, anti-rail activist whose long-time advocacy of buses instead of rail transit for Los Angeles received considerable media attention.

Within 10 days of taking office, Abercrombie accepted the FEIS, an act that set in motion a chain of events that included final action on the Programmatic Agreement, the FTA’s Record of Decision, a SMA permit from the City Council and the appointment of members to the New Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

That’s a lot of transit-related change within six months in Honolulu, and Los Angeles hasn’t been standing still on transit either. As Dana Gabbard of the Southern California Transit Advocates wrote recently:

“What an amazing era we are living in for Metro in its press release on the budget to state ‘Trains on the new Expo light rail line to Culver City are being tested, and the second phase of Expo to Santa Monica is about to break ground. Construction of the Foothill Extension of the Metro Gold Line to Azusa is in the construction phase. Within a year construction should begin for the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line with other rail projects in the immediate queue.’ Not so long ago some of us wondered if the Gold Line to Pasadena would be the last rail project completed in our lifetime. I knew the situation would eventually improve but the magnitude of where we have gotten in a fairly short period of time is truly breathtaking to contemplate.”

Rail transit in the LA Basin has never been stronger, so has Hell frozen over? With no personal knowledge of that improbable event, our conclusion is that common sense has taken hold in the Southland.

LA has moved beyond its era of single-minded car dependence. Honolulu is moving in that direction, too. Our gas price set yet another record today.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kitchen Heats Up, but Speculators Don’t Get Out

School children know that what happens in April doesn’t stay in April; May flowers do follow April’s showers. So we had thought heavy publicity in April on the upward march of oil and gas prices might produce a downward push on prices in May as oil speculators run for cover.

It’s too early to know if that’ll be true throughout this month, and the evidence so far is mixed. Hawaii’s statewide average price for regular gas retreated one penny today to $4.562, and the average price in Wailuku ($4.954) was down slightly from yesterday.

But Honolulu and Hilo averages have continued to rise. Honolulu reached a new record price today of $4.473; Hilo’s average of $4.599 is still nearly 6 cents below its 2008 record.

The Christian Science Monitor reports today that six states have passed into record gas price territory in recent weeks, and according to the AAA, a quarter of the states are averaging $4/gallon or more.

Effect on Transit

Conventional wisdom says transit ridership increases with the price of gas and the cost of driving. Google searches confirm it for municipalities around the nation, and so do figures released by Honolulu’s TheBus.

We’re hoping to obtain updated figures on ridership any minute now, and when they arrive, they’ll probably show a continuation of the trend reported last month. TheBus reported a 4-percent increase in bus pass sales compared to a year earlier and a 3-percent increase in March ridership.

Honolulu broke through to a new record for the average price of regular two weeks ago today. The price has risen 7.3 cents since April 20, so you can safely bet the farm on higher pass sales and ridership in April.

High ridership on Honolulu’s future rail system is virtually assured due to the ever-increasing cost of car ownership.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Aloha Spirit Aside, Is Honolulu a ‘Shareable City’?

After literally decades of anticipation, the Honolulu rail project has moved rather quickly from the “preparation phase,” which spanned years of work on the Alternatives Analysis, the Final Environmental Impact Statement and other milestones, into the current pre-construction phase.

Utilities relocation has begun and will be followed by actual construction of the overhead guideway once final federal funding approval is received later this year.

As noted in a February commentary by a project leader, “the city has turned a critical corner in developing a long-overdue transportation alternative for Oahu’s residents and visitors.”

We’re closer than we’ve ever been as a community to achieving that alternative to twice-a-day traffic congestion for commuters traveling through Honolulu’s urban core.

That means we’re also closer to considering concepts about urban living that improved transportation already has fostered in cities like San Francisco, where the Shareable City movement has taken root.

Getting To Know You

Honolulu rail likely will be a catalyst for more sharing within our diverse Honolulu neighborhoods and more interaction between neighborhood residents than car travel can provide.

It’s ironic to consider the car as a limiting factor in this so-called sharing, but the ever-increasing cost of driving, road congestion and difficulty in finding a parking space at your destination don’t support the car’s billing as the great liberator.

Consider also that the H-1 freeway is anything but neighborhood friendly. It exists to move commuters around and beyond our neighborhoods and their commercial districts by connecting suburbia with job centers.

Honolulu rail will do that and much more. Its stations will be centered in communities the highway so obviously avoids. Neighborhoods that are only loosely connected today by buses that may require transfers and an hour of travel will be within minutes of one another using rail.

Don’t Think Twice

Once rail is built, residents won’t think twice about hopping aboard a train to travel from their neighborhood to another one across town to shop, explore restaurants and just get acquainted with a part of their city they’ve avoided for years. Rail travel will be especially efficient with a transit pass.

We think the answer to our headline’s question is “no.” Honolulu is not yet what they’re calling a Shareable City because it lacks a practical and pleasurable travel connection through the urban core to connect its diverse neighborhoods.

Because rail will change all that, the project ‘s construction phase might well include an wide effort by individuals and groups on how the system will help Honolulu become an example of Shareable City living.