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Honolulu Rapid Transit---Maybe a Bus?

creative commons
creative commons

TheBus, Honolulu’s bus transit system, is the only mass transit system to be honored twice by the American Public Transportation Association, the Oscars of mass transit.  TheBus is also credited with the lowest cost per mile of any U.S. system.  No wonder so many people today wonder why Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, cannot be expanded to address O‘ahu’s traffic mess.  Honolulu’s current bus network was developed during the Harris administration under Transportation Services Director, Cheryl Soon.noe tanigawa

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Planner Cheryl Soon, was Transportation Services Director during the Harris administration. She presided over the creation of our current bus system and attempted to implement a true Bus Rapid Transit system.

“We were examining what could be done with a BRT system.  We had examined them around the world; including the one most people are familiar with in Curitiba, Brazil, but there were others.”

In 2003, the Mayor who instituted Curitiba’s world famous bus system came to Honolulu. Under Jaime Lerner’s leadership, Curitiba had become a beacon for creative and sustainable urban planning.  Today, their bus rapid transit system serves two million riders a day, 85% of the population. 

“It’s not a question of scale, and not a question of money.  Every city in the world can improve its quality of life in less than two years.”  That’s Jaime Lerner.  He was Mayor of Curitiba for 3 terms, then governor of the state of Parana for two terms.  His desire for fast, low priced traffic relief drove the decision to invest in bus transit. 

“Every problem in a city has its own equation of co-responsibility, for instance, public transport.” In this case, co-responsibility meant the city provided the infrastructure and businesses bought the buses.  A new street design put buses in a far left designated express lane with stops on the median.  It wasn’t an instant hit.  But, over a fifteen year span they kept tweaking the system to mimic a subway’s efficiency, wider doors, prepayment, not having to step up.

“He created tubes at every station. You went up a couple of steps and you were standing on the landing platform, but that’s when you paid your fare.  So that when the bus comes, four or five people could move in at once and it loads really fast.  He was saying, I could do what rail does in terms of dwell times and doors.”  How long you spend at a stop

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Architect, Urban Planner Eric Crispin was City Planning Director under Mayor Harris and part of the delegation that visited Curitiba, Brazil to learn more about the bus transportation system under Jaime Lerner.

Eric Crispin was City Planning Director under Mayor Harris and part of the delegation that visited Curitiba.  Crispin says attention was paid to specific adjustments that could make the experience faster, more convenient, or more pleasant. 

“And these are minor tweaks.  The interesting thing is he would remind us, and say, look, we’re from Brazil, we’re from a poor country, we don’t have the billions of dollars to do a subway system or an elevated system. But we can take and jury rig little things, that’s not adding hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to the society.”  

Does that sound good?  Still stinging from the last City Council rejection of rail in 1992, in the early 2000’s the Harris administration planned a true BRT system.

“And we got nothing but grief from the City Council about the bus rapid transit system. Ann Kobayashi who’s now saying that’s the answer voted against it. Because in order to have it work like Jaime Lerner had it work, you have to have a dedicated lane which is taken away from something, often from parking. We had all kinds of testifiers as to why those parking spaces were needed. You don’t imagine the grief I went through trying to get a BRT system. At the end of the day, it was not popular. The bus system was award winning, but we were never able to put the BRT in place. The closest we got was Line E that went from Chinatown through Kaka‘ako, Ala Moana and into Waik?k?. It was a very popular line and the first week that Mufi became mayor, he killed it. Sometimes these things are political. Not to criticize any one politician, but one of the downsides of doing it with the bus system is that the next guy could stop it. Unfortunately we have learned with the bus system that a good line can be put in and a different political regime sees it differently. So those riders, people who have built a building assuming it’s there, all of a sudden it’s gone from them; they’re not going to trust I’m going to build or live in that place and not have a car because of this other thing and then have it taken away from them. The lessons of how easily things can be lost made a lot of us much stronger believers in rail.

But “rail” can mean several things.  There’s elevated, underground, and street level rail, for example, and cities around the world have been placing their bets, coping with dissention, delays, cost overruns and traffic all the while.  Ahead, what, specifically, are the problems we’re trying to solve? And, how have others done it?  

Jaime Lerner was cagey and so were his associates.  Trying to solve the city’s burgeoning waste problems, in 1989, Lerner’s assistant, Nicolau Klüppel developed a Green Exchange program where residents traded trash for tokens to buy produce.  An estimated 90% of the city recycles today, with over ten thousand participating in the Green Exchange.  Lerner maintained, “Garbage removal is a citizen responsibility.” And today, Curitiba recycles 70% of its garbage. 

Lerner remains an advocate of surface transportation and is often quoted as saying, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from the budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeros!”

How Curitiba's BRT stations sparked a transport revolution. 

How radical ideas turned Curitiba into Brazil’s Green Capital.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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