Honolulu: Grand Themes from the Rail Transit Wars


Eight months ago, a freelance reporter asked for my views on the emerging argument over Honolulu’s proposed rail transit line, which would stretch most of the length of the populated southern shore, from west of Pearl Harbor through downtown to Ala Moana Center on the edge of Waikiki.  The Transport Politic has covered the background here and here and here.  A good blog on the subject is here.

DowntnStnFinal_webA mostly-elevated driverless metro, quite similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain, is the preferred alternative.  Unlike SkyTrain, though, it would not go underground downtown.  Instead, a substantial elevated structure is proposed, one that would definitely have some visual impact, as this computer generated image indicates.

Late in the process, long after this option had been selected and the environmental work done, there was a revolt.  One key player in the revolt was the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, who have devoted a section of their website to attacking the project.  They propose a light rail solution where parts of the line could run at grade, and which would go through downtown Honolulu on-street at low speeds with frequent stops, much like the downtown light rail segments in Portland, San Diego, Denver, and many other cities.  Last year, a study by transit consultant Philip Craig came out arguing for this option.

If you care about the eternal struggle for planning power between the architecture and transport professions, you’ll love this dispute.  It’s perfectly designed to heighten the contrast between transportation thinking and urban-design thinking, and to confirm the worst stereotypes each holds of the other.  The transportation solution — a mostly elevated driverless metro — is fast, frequent, and reliable, but it does require a pretty impactful elevated structure (presumably because the best solution, undergrounding it through downtown, is too expensive).  The urban design solution, surface light rail, is beautiful downtown — redolent of Portland, in fact — but unfortuately it’s also slow, less frequent, and less reliable.

The most striking thing about the debate, for me, is that it’s been discussed on both sides as though the main payoff of the elevated line is speed, rather than frequency, an example of the “travel time” fallacy I discussed here.

Speed is certainly a big difference: end-to-end travel times on the surface light line are about 20-30% longer than on the elevated line, and any modeller will tell you that’s enough to make a difference in ridership.  Moreover, the low speed is concentrated in the slow downtown segment, so medium-length trips that have to go through that segment could be more than 30% longer.

But the frequency difference is even more profound.  Driverless metros are easy to run frequently all the time, even late in the evening, while surface light rail, which requires drivers, will always be under financial pressure to run the minimum possible amount of service at low-demand times.  I guarantee that if the surface light rail is built, it will never run better than every 15 minutes at 11:00 PM, but the driverless metro is easy to run every 5-6 minutes even when demand is low, because driverless metros sever the link between frequency and operating cost.

Reliability will also unquestionably be superior on the elevated line, because it will have no interference from other traffic.  Surface light rail, even if separated from traffic, still has to interact with it at intersections.  These cause unpredictable delay as well as a much higher rate of crashes.  Browsing Mr. Craig’s report, though, I noticed alarming suggestions that the line could mix with car traffic at certain points.  It even suggests operating in the curb lane of some streets, exposing the line to constant interference with right-turning traffic, and all the crash opportunities that this will present.

(At one point, the Portland Streetcar’s two-year construction time is cited as a reason light rail can be fast.  This should be a screaming red flag, because it implies a common and dangerous categorical confusion between streetcar and light rail.  The Portland Streetcar is a fine example of a local-stop, low-speed circulator, but it is, by design, slow and unreliable.  It was also built on the cheap with more opportunity for disruption:  Proper surface light rail construction requires relocating utilities from under the line so that the line doesn’t have to be shut down to access them later.  The Portland Streetcar was built by digging barely two feet below the pavement, leaving all the utilities in place.)

Finally, the AIA suggestion of putting light rail through downtown’s current “transit mall,” Hotel Street, seems to assume that buses somehow just get out of the way.  There’s no thought on what the light rail does to the bus system, how the bus system would be revised to work with it, and what impacts this would have.  This is an example of an almost universal fallacy in thinking about rail transit outside the transit profession: that somehow, rail just makes buses disappear.

The truth is more complex and interesting.  Rail replaces some buses but never all of them.  Major bus corridors still need to run into the city, and need to be accommodated there.  Even with light rail on the Portland transit mall, for example, buses are by far the majority of vehicles there, and the great design challenge of that street was how to integrate the light rail and bus services without letting them get in each other’s way.  It’s not an easy problem.  There are many solutions, but all of them have enough impacts that you have to think about this when you’re proposing your rail line, not just assume that bus people will figure it out later.

None of this is an endorsement of the current elevated plan.  I have questions about it, too.  One of the few transportation advantages of the surface light rail option is that it’s easy to imagine extending it into Waikiki, Honolulu’s premier tourism district, in the future.  (The line as now proposed ends at Ala Moana Center, within walking distance of Waikiki but not quite there.)  I have a lot more trouble imagining extending an elevated line into such a tourist-intensive and view-sensitive area.

Finally, as a planner, I have to share the exasperation of everyone at the City of Honolulu who brought this project through all its necessary stages, including extensive public consultation, only to encounter this objection at the eleventh hour.  The late-breaking nature of the objection is a major strike against it, because it implies substantial delay to a project that was close to moving ahead.  Claims that the surface light rail will be cheaper than the elevated line may well turn out to be true, but you don’t really know this until you’ve explored all the consequences of your project (such as where to put the buses!) and added the costs for all those effects and mitigations.  That’s what the environmental planning process is for, and only the elevated line has been through that process.

Before you comment, please note:  My purpose here is to note some of the interesting large themes raised by this dispute, not to wade into the dispute itself.  I am quite intentionally expressing no view on the politics surrounding the line, or on the funding challenges.  I do not have a view on which option is best.  In fact, the trade off between efficiency and aesthetics is one of those value-judgment decisions that don’t have a technical answer.  In a sense, nobody outside of Honolulu should have an opinion, because it’s all about what kind of city they want, and that has to be up to them.

27 Responses to Honolulu: Grand Themes from the Rail Transit Wars

  1. EngineerScotty April 15, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    A correction: You write
    Speed is certainly a big difference: end-to-end travel times on the elevated line are about 20-30% longer, and any modeller will tell you that’s enough to make a difference in ridership
    Surely you mean that travel times on an elevated line are 20-30% shorter?
    At any rate, not disrupting bus service in Honolulu–TheBus is extremely popular there, in part due to the reasonably high effective density of the settled parts of Oahu, and in part due to a high poverty rate among residents–and how a rail system integrates with the bus is of key importance.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org April 15, 2010 at 7:00 am #

    Thanks, Scotty! Fixed

  3. M1EK April 15, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    The built environment in large parts of Honolulu is ugly enough that an elevated rail structure actually improves things for the most part.
    As for Waikiki, my recollection is that the extension would follow the same path as the ill-fated “better bus” scheme – using Kuhio St, which is the less attractive inner artery – so nobody’s nice views of the ocean or of the Ala Wai Canal and the city would be ruined.
    Finally, to be fair to the surface guys, you may be underestimating the built-in demand for this thing – even at 11:00 at night, due to incredibly high transit patronage there (especially if/when it goes to Waikiki; huge numbers of people who now take taxicabs, tour buses or hotel shuttles can be mined for ridership).

  4. Zweisystem April 15, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    Some comments.
    Automated transit systems tend to have more employees than systems with drivers. You must have attendants at stations and trains and with automatic metros, you must have a much more comprehensive signaling staff to continue to make the signaling system operate at 100%. If not, “the train don’t go”.
    Because driverless transit systems tend to need more employees, automatic operation only becomes viable when ridership exceeds 15,000 to 20,000 pphpd. Also because driverless transit systems needs constant and expensive signaling maintenance, they must shut down for 3 to 5 hours every night.
    Many cities operate 24 hour tram/LRT service. Example: Toronto.
    Another reason for grade separated transit systems having faster journey times is that they have fewer stations and/or stops along a transit route when compared to LRT. Fewer stations = faster commercial speeds. The downside is fewer stations also act as a deterrent for transit customers.
    Let us also not confuse streetcar with LRT (where the latter operates on a reserved rights-of-way) and by operating on a RRoW can obtain commercial speeds of that of a grade separated metro, with commercial speed being determined by the number of stations per route/km. The optimum station/stop spacing for LRT in an urban area is 500m to 600m, where with a grade separated metro 1000m to 1,500m is more the norm.
    Here we see where metro gets increased speed, fewer stops.
    Transit Prof. Carmen Hass-Clau, with her well acclaimed international study “Bus or Light Rail: Making the Right Choice”, found that overall ambiance of a transit systems, ease of ticketing, etc. were more important factors in attracting ridership to a transit system, than the speed of a transit system.
    A local note: Vancouver’s SkyTrain was so named in a contest, when the largely elevated metro opened in 1986. It does go in a tunnel in Vancouver, but it was a disused railway tunnel, rebuilt to take the metro. The RAV/Canada line is not SkyTrain, rather a generic metro system; does not use Linear Induction Motors, and is incompatible in operation.
    In Vancouver, LRT gas never been allowed to compete against SkyTrain in an open an honest bidding process and the SkyTrain metro system has been forced on the public without debate.
    The often used phrase: “You will get SkyTrain whether you like it or not.”, well describes Vancouver’s transit planning.

  5. EngineerScotty April 15, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    Zwei, do you see Vancouver mentioned in this thread?
    Me neither.

  6. Boris April 15, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    If everything has been decided and the proper process followed, how can a small group of naysayers stop the project, even if they are architects? This whole argument seems moot to me. Unless they are threatening to sue, ignore them and continue.

  7. Tom West April 15, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    A driverless system can have unmanned stations and fare gates (monitored by CCTV). Yes, there are still costs assocated with running the system, but Jarett’s point is that they do not depend on the number of vehicles being run (and hence the headway).
    [Zweisystem points out that Toronto operates a 24hr streetcar system. Actually, only two out of twelve of the routes operate all night – the others are replaced by buses. (The subway is replaced by buses runnign every five mins or so). In all cases, the level of bus/streetcar reflects demand.]

  8. dejv April 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Let us also not confuse streetcar with LRT (where the latter operates on a reserved rights-of-way) and by operating on a RRoW can obtain commercial speeds of that of a grade separated metro, with commercial speed being determined by the number of stations per route/km.

    That’s oversimplifying, the speed of at-grade transit in reserved lanes/row regardless of traction is also limited by intersections with busy streets. Traffic lights have some 90-120 s intervals and timetables must be padded to account for that. The problem gets worse with amount of traffic and close spacing of signalled intersections.

  9. Corey Burger April 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    Zweisystem, you claim that “driverless metros have more staff”? Have you ever actually been to Vancouver? The vast majority of the times I have ridden it (I live in Victoria), I have never seen anybody. If I do see staff, they are usually transit cops doing fare checks, which has nothing to do with whether or not the system is automated.

  10. Ericorozco April 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    That rendering above has some cheek, hah!
    At the very least, the AIA’s protest should bring a good early focus to the urban design quality of what does get built. The preliminary design of the Waipahu transit center is at least more inspiring.
    But some functional advantages just aren’t worth it in the end. Is it sad that we have come to the point where urban design and urbanism matters to folks? Hmmm? Shoot…I’d be firing renderings like the one above if I lived in Honolulu. Miami Miasma …not in my backyard!
    I’m assuming that Honolulu’s geographic issues and existing streets may be leading to this option. Still, to be convinced, I’d love to see more street sections to go with Craig’s report. If they haven’t studied boulevarding options and tinkering with the network, who knows how many other things you could potentially improve by going back to the drawing board? This could be a great opportunity. A chance for a hard rethink (however inefficient) may pay off more for posterity than initially bargained for in any heretofore studied solution. I’m just saying…Who knows?

  11. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org April 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    @Eric. But as you know, getting anything built requires a process that leads to a decision, and the process is the source of the decision’s authority. Have you ever worked on a project where, after the EIS was certified, somebody wasn’t still saying “let’s go back to the drawing board?” If you don’t have the discipline to respect the process, and not reopen its decisions, you set a precedent for endless quarrel and nothing gets built.

  12. CroMagnon April 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    If I picked the correct downtown streets on GoogleEarth correctly, the street is at least 100 feet wide. I really don’t see this messing things up, necessarily. Great points.
    The problem with some projects is that some people bring up points publicly and in print before and during the study process and they are still ignored and dismissed without actually technical evaluation. The architects sound too late and honestly are all about aesthetics and not functionality. If downtown Honolulu doesn’t mind, who cares? The rest of the line doesn’t really impact much visually that I can tell.

  13. mike0234 April 15, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    There has been much interesting debate recently about urbanism and elevated guideways.
    Here, for example: http://stephenrees.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/olympic-line-short-closure-notice/
    The claims about SkyTrain needing attendants on trains and at stations is not true. There is no basis for the claimed ridership numbers required to justify automated metro.
    The claim that centre-running light rail in dedicated lanes can operate at the speed of automated metro, 80 – 90 km/h, is not true. The claim about operating speeds being equal and only dependent on station spacing is consequently not true.
    Skytrain’s elevated guideways aren’t pretty, and elevated stations are more difficult to build around than surface stations. But the claims of some light rail fans (or is it just one) that light rail can match the speed and reliability characteristics of Skytrain are simply ridiculous.

  14. EngineerScotty April 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    Much of the objection is about cost, and it appears that many anti-transit activists are eager to use any pretext to kill the proposed line.

  15. Alon Levy April 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    You must have attendants at stations

    Um, Vancouver and Copenhagen both use POP on their driverless metros.
    Do you actually know anything about good transit operations that isn’t “light rail good, subway bad”?

  16. The Overhead Wire April 15, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    This is an interesting back and forth discussion. There are some new urbanists who have the same feeling, light rail bad streetcar good because of its easy urban integration. At the same time you can’t get anywhere in a large region in a good amount of time. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t better ways to integrate Metro type operations into the built environment but the speed is just not compatible with the speed of walking.

  17. anonymouse April 16, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    because driverless transit systems needs constant and expensive signaling maintenance, they must shut down for 3 to 5 hours every night.
    False. The JFK Airtrain, which uses the same technology as the Vancouver Skytrain runs 24 hours a day.

  18. Andrew Carne April 16, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Zweisystem, you claim that “driverless metros have more staff”? Have you ever actually been to Vancouver?

    Just ignore him. He takes every opportunity around here (Vancouver) to bash Skytrain, constantly relying on ‘facts’ that seem utterly absurd. He seems to suffer paranoid delusions that there is a vast “SkyTrain lobby” controlling the workings of our transit system behind the scenes, and is unable to understand that Light Rail won’t work in every situation.
    With regards to the SkyTrain here in Vancouver shutting down overnight, I believe that’s largely due to track maintenance issues, which would be the same regardless of chosen technology.

  19. Nathanael April 16, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    There will be no trouble extending the elevated to Waikiki. As M1EK said, Kalakaua over the canal, Kuhio Ave. through the middle of Waikiki (surrounded largely by the backsides of highrise buildings, halfway between the canal and the beach), terminating at the Zoo.
    Extension eastward from the Zoo would be trickier (starting with the need for a sharp eastward turn at the zoo).

  20. Corey Burger April 17, 2010 at 3:02 am #

    Andrew, Skytrain suffers from “zoom-woosh” which politicians love for the big shiny announcements. Seems more futuristic than mere light rail or a streetcar. So it isn’t shocking that there are some that think there is a “Skytrain lobby”. Then again, transportation solution blinders are not unique to Vancouver or even transit. For example, many people in Montreal complain about the city not being able to create anything but fully separated bike lanes and as a result do not put any bicycle infrastructure where that “solution” won’t fit.

  21. cph April 17, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    As far as I’m concerned, “Skytrain” means the linear-induction technology used in Vancouver, at JFK airport, and elsewhere.
    Conventional LRT can go either on an elevated structure, in reserved surface street lanes, on its own right-of-way, in freeway median, or underground in a subway/tunnel. All of these choices will have tradeoffs in terms of cost, speed, ease of access, and aesthetics. (e.g. subway costs the most, but is fast and avoids the appearance of an elevated structure; elevated is fast and cheaper than subway, but then there is the structure to look at forever, etc, etc.)
    What’s right for Honolulu? Not knowing the local politics, I’d hesitate to hazard a guess. But I do know that there has been an effort to build a rail system there for many decades…

  22. Ben April 20, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    Honolulu would be a perfect candidate for monorail. Here we have a city which has decided to implement a fully grade separated transit line in an urban area, and to build it above ground due to cost restraints. While the look under the stations could cause controversy, at least the areas in between stations would be more pleasant than what is proposed.
    On the plus side, if this line becomes accepted by the public, we could see more elevated rapid transit lines being built due to faster construction and more affordable construction costs, and public pressure from socioeconomic factors (increasing gas prices, air pollution and climate change, traffic congestion, etc).

  23. Lauri Kangas April 23, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    “Moreover, the low speed is concentrated in the slow downtown segment, so medium-length trips that have to go through that segment could be more than 30% longer.”
    What is the definition of medium length trips here? One must remember that with an elevated or underground system there is always extra walking involved and in downtown environments walking is almost always very slow. To reference another post in addition to frequency a key difference between roads and especially highways and public transport is that cars have seamless connecting trips which are never very slow. For public transport transfers or walking tend to always incur a penalty, so they must be factored in.
    Not to say one or the other is the correct solution here.

  24. Jonathon October 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    A situation experienced in Toronto that may be relevant in Vancouver is that of “subway envy”, whereby a suburb or district (Richmond Hill, for example) wants a subway solely because another suburb got one (North York, or Vaughan, under construction) even though their situation is not appropriate for a subway, and thus deciding that only a subway and nothing else will suffice (and thus stopping development/implementation of a separated BRT instead) There isn’t some kind of subway lobby present, rather some kind of sibling rivalry.

  25. John Roco October 19, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Why spend $5.5 billion for a line that does not reduce jams, from key places jams begin?
    Why spend 5 times the $$$$$ for a line that does not reach Nanakuli, Heart of Kapolei, Ko Olina, Ewa, West Loch, nor in front of Plant on Leeward Coast, from where MANY jammed cars come?
    ‘Cut Costs Combine:’
    OR&L line + Light Rail + Bike Plan = 1/5 of $5.5 Billion
    Using existing resources, we can have ‘LIGHT Rail’(as we VOTED for). See my website, and click the tab ‘Cut Costs Combine.’ Thank you.
    John Roco

  26. Andrew January 11, 2011 at 12:21 am #

    The trouble with LRT: it does not have the same peak capacity as heavy rail, because of level crossings. To achieve the same speed with light rail as with heavy rail, signal priority is needed, but this breaks down when you try to run very high frequencies (e.g. 2 minutes) – you end up with trains every 1 minute (2 minutes in each direction) constantly blocking level crossings and blocking cross traffic, and the signal priority system ends up being turned off so trams end up waiting at red lights.
    (Of course, this does not mean one cannot use trams on both grade separated and non-grade separated sections, with grade separation on the busiest sections and no grade separation on branches. For example, if there are two branches with 5 minute peak frequencies and the trunk route runs a combined 2.5 minute peak frequency, then the trunk route can be grade separated and the branch route can have level crossings to reduce cost.)

  27. Alan Cunningham September 21, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Just came to this from a google search and wanted to endorse Skytrain for the geography of Vancouver. I have not been to Honolulu, and would not be able to contribute anything to that that hasn’t already been said. I do live close to Tysons Corner, however, where the elevated versus cut&cover debate raged for a bit before settling on elevated.
    To my mind, Skytrain fits the geography of Vancouver well. Its a series of peninsulas, with the central tourist/business district squeezed on a 3*4 mile peninsula with Chinatown at the neck and bridges across Granville.
    Surface transportation into this peninsula would probably be a disaster, with limited roadways into the city. There are not very many Skytrain stations in this peninsula, but they are within walking distance of the main businesses along Burrard. The wide network offers short headway service for a lot of the clock, connecting the CBD to much of the rest of the city.
    Honolulu seems similarly constrained, I wonder if it could be as successful. In my glance at this issue, it seems that H-1 is ludicrously congested during peak. Whatever the medium-heavy rail system can do to alleviate that, via stop choice and park and ride would be great.