Chronicle continues to fail us

I’ll get back to the Hawaii field trip reports when I get a bit more time, I promise; but in the meantime:
Katherine Gregor at the Chronicle has published yet another in what must be about a half-dozen articles by now promoting TOD on the commuter rail line. As I noted in comments, it’s now 2007 (3 years after the election; 1 year before service supposedly starts), and yet nobody at the Chronicle has ever bothered to analyze the service from the perspective of a prospective passenger.
As I noted in my previous crackplog You Can’t Have TOD WIthout Good T, the experience around the country is very consistent: if you expect people to pay more (relatively) to live in higher density development outside downtown, you’d better be sure that their transit alternative is a very good one.
So how about it? How have we done here? Well, each resident of these “TOD”s faces two shuttle bus rides (one each way, which will basically turn off all commuters who actually own cars), and an infrequently-running rail service (runs every half-hour during rush hours and only once in the middle of the day). Sound like good T to you? And as I’ve mentioned, well, about a billion times, it is impossible to morph this commuter rail line into something like 2000′s light rail proposal to eliminate that shuttle bus ride to UT, the Capitol, and the part of downtown where people actually work in offices.
Anyways, this is the kind of analysis the Chronicle ought to be doing. But, instead, the recent pattern has been basically fleshing out press releases with some fluffy and modest prose which tries desperately to avoid coming to any conclusions at all – unless, of course, they happen to be conclusions supported by the ANC (or the so-called “granola mafia”).
So what the hell is up at the Chronicle? I honestly didn’t think I’d be pining for the days of Mike Clark-Madison, who I thought was irrationally pro-neighborhood at the time, but honestly, he’s Woodward and/or Bernstein compared to the current crop. It’s a sad day when you actually get better analysis of local politics from the Statesman, but that day is just about here.

TFT Honolulu: Urban vs. suburban vs. rural

So the family and I went to Hawaii in May. Here’s the first of three detailed posts about the experience as it relates to urban design and transportation. I’ve tried to get at least one done in the originally promised week but had to finish this quickly, so no pictures (maybe later).

I’m a contrarian about Hawaii, compared to most tourists, and often residents. The complaint is often given that O’ahu is urban and crowded, and the other islands are natural, peaceful, bucolic, paradises. Of course, this complaint comes largely from the same people who can’t possibly conceive of a vacation in which you wouldn’t drive everywhere to everything, while to me, a good vacation day is one where I never drive. I visited twice as a kid, staying with my family at my grandparents’ condo about a mile from Waikiki for 3 weeks at a time; and a bunch of times since then in hotels. I also know a few people who have lived there for many years – although not all of them would agree with me by any means. So, given that perspective, let’s look at the islands in detail:

O’ahu is the only island which could be classified as anything but “suburban”. A lot of people think the other islands (Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii) are “rural” or “natural”, but if you actually spend any time on those islands, you spend so much time stuck in (100% car) traffic that it’s highly inaccurate, although sadly typical, to call them anything but “suburban”. In particular, all three islands (Maui being the worst) are infested with standard suburban subdivisions, strip malls, big boxes, and the like. So the other islands aren’t different because they don’t have suburban sprawl – they’re different because that’s ALL they have.

The three commonly visited “neighbor islands” listed above largely follow the same pattern: one (mostly two-lane) road winding around most to all of the island, with a trans-island route or two on Maui and Hawaii. Sprawling development, both tourist and local, has followed all of those roads – and zoning has strictly prohibited anything remotely urban in form. If your idea of a vacation is being stuck for an hour in traffic, visiting Wal-Mart, then driving back to your hotel, then driving from your hotel to a strip mall for lunch, then being stuck for half an hour in traffic again, then driving back to your hotel, then maybe hiting the pool: I’ve got great news for you – the Neighbor Islands are PERFECT!

O’ahu is different. It’s got BOTH suburban sprawl AND a high-density urban center (and arguably a few decent old small towns which are also urban in nature). Largely due to history – O’ahu was developed so much more than the other islands back before the whole country went insane and outlawed everything but suburban sprawl, and inertia from that development has even led to a slightly smarter urban policy (in places, anyways). Waikiki (which people who never visit, or spend half a day on a cruise visiting like to slag) is a gorgeous beach with a fairly nice urban environment (could be better, but is far nicer than most urban areas in most US cities). The influx of Japanese tourists in the 1980s and thereafter helped preserve and expand the urban nature of this development – as such tourists rarely rent cars (often travelling in big tour groups on big tour buses). Downtown Honolulu has some good pockets of density as well – and as I mentioned above, some of the small towns have chunks of nice Old Urban. There’s also, as previously mentioned, plenty of suburban crap on O’ahu too.

Waikiki Beach – often slagged by residents and many tourists as being crowded, noisy, dirty, and just full of Japanese – is actually a great place to spend a week or more. I highly recommend you ignore the slagging as typically uninformed know-nothing suburbanality. There’s lots to do; there’s lots of good (both cheap and expensive) restaurants; and it’s safer and cleaner than most of the other places you’ll see in Hawai’i. The contention that it’s only for Japanese people is also a load of crap – at its highest point, perhaps a small majority of tourists in the area were Japanese, but now it’s perhaps a third at most. On this most recent trip, a lot of families were in evidence, as well as the obligatory retirees, Australians, etc. The beach itself in Waikiki is gorgeous and remember, I’m a beachophile. The water is cool (but not cold); the air is usually warm enough to provide good contrast; and the scenery in all respects is beautiful. And if, while you’re at the beach, you decide you want a soda (or my favorite – guava nectar in a can), you walk right across the street, get one, and walk back to your towel. There are a few beaches that I’d call nicer if you don’t mind having to drive, but not much nicer, and even those are still on O’ahu.

During the long years of suburban-zoning-code idiocy between roughly the 1950s and today, Waikiki barely hung on to its existing urban design – building too much parking (but not enough to make it free or even cheap), but additional development in the 1990s and later has thankfully hidden the parking, if it’s provided at all, and returned to the good practice of focusing on pedestrians rather than motorists. As a result, Waikiki is almost as good a place to walk and shop as is Manhattan. Buildings, apart from a few built during the Dark Ages, generally have pedestrian-oriented uses on the ground floor which encourage activity at sidewalk level. Traffic policy is another thing entirely – too much pavement and priority, by far, is effectively given to private motorists at the expense of buses (more on this in the Current Transit Conditions post to come).

As mentioned before, apart from shopping and eating, there’s also plenty to do within comfortable walking distance in Waikiki (and a lot more if you hop the bus, as we did to Hanauma Bay). There’s an aquarium, a zoo, a bunch of excellent beach segments (with surfing lessons from the best teachers out there – the beach boys near the Outrigger), a bunch of neat public gardens/water features/statues, etc. And there’s just plenty of good urban life to watch – one night as my wife and I walked back to the timeshare from a steak dinner, we saw a large group of people playing cards, chess, and some other games in pavillions right on the beach. You don’t get that in the suburbs.

Even the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where we spent two days after the week in central Waikiki, has some good urban aspects – although it’s separated a bit from the rest of Waikiki. Pedestrian traffic is highly prioritized over motorists – and even though most tourists here actually seem to have cars, they park in a garage out of sight, many days not moving their car.

As for the rest of O’ahu – the small towns which have a bit of good urban fabric are Haleiwa and Kailua. I haven’t spent any time in Kaneohe or Waimanalo (two other big windward towns) but see no evidence I’ve missed anything good. Kailua in particular, though, has so much suburban crap around that tiny old town that you’ll miss the good stuff if you blink.

The biggest mistake made on O’ahu in the last 50 years, though, is Kapolei, designed as a so-called “second city”, implemented as a highly dense form of typical mainland suburban sprawl. You’ll have a much smaller yard than you would in Round Rock, and a lot more of the dwelling units are townhouses, condos, etc.; but the design is still car-dependent suburbia as perfected in soul-killing suburban garbage towns like Round George Rocktown, Rolling west woodlake hills, and Leacedarparknder. As a result, traffic on the highways linking Kapolei and Honolulu is a disaster of epic proportions – and there’s no solution in sight (even the ‘express lane’ which would have been part of the BRT idiocy doesn’t help much – again, see next post in series). The naive hope was that building this crap on the west side of the island would actually HELP traffic, amazingly enough; but as anybody who bothers to study development knows, suburban sprawl doesn’t scale – and peoples’ jobs don’t always stay in the same place. For instance, employment centers do exist in Kapolei, but the number of Honolulu residents commuting out to Kapolei to work there plus the number of Kapolei residents commuting into Honolulu dwarfs the Kapolei-to-Kapolei commute by about a million times, and over time that’ll only get worse.

The JW Marriott Ihilani, where we spent our honeymoon and the last two days of this trip, is just past Kapolei on the beginning of the leeward side of the island. There’s some very nice manmade lagoons with excellent beaches out there – but the captive audience and suburban design of the area means that the experience of vacationing there is more like the Neighbor Islands than Waikiki. And even though it would have cost us $10/day to park a rental car in the garage at that resort, I still should have rented a car for those two days – because the only transportation option from Waikiki out here and then from there to the airport was a car service – 80 bucks each way (ouch).

Bus headways aren’t Austin’s problem

(posted to a local neighborhood list in response to a portion of a long letter from an Eastwoods resident complaining about densification)
The position that transit use would skyrocket if we just reduced headways on our existing bus system seems logical but is, in fact, not likely to be the case given experience in other cities and a bit of common sense.
Those who can get and keep a job largely have the ability to check timetables and use their watch – and this gets even easier with new tools like Google’s – and most of the close-in neighborhoods have bus service with far better headways than the alleged 30-minutes-or-worse in Barbara’s note. For instance, from my house on 35th, I can choose the #5 or the #7 – combined maximum wait during the day approximately 15 minutes; meaning if I decide on a whim to leave the house right now, I can look at the schedule to figure out which one to walk to knowing that it won’t be longer than 15 minutes.
However, even if headways really were much worse in central Austin, it still wouldn’t matter (much) – peoples’ daily commute decision centers more around speed and reliability than on headways. For instance, headways on express subway service in Queens are sometimes long, but people take them anyways (over the local, the bus, and especially their car) because the subway simply works so much better. In our case, running buses more often would do nothing to the speed or reliability gap compared to the private automobile and could even make it worse (due to bunching, buses interfering with other buses, etc.).
The only technology which can compete well enough with cars on those two metrics (the only two that really matter, since our downtown parking isn’t currently and probably will never be expensive enough to be a major factor) is reserved-guideway transit. This excludes streetcar, but includes light rail (as proposed in 2000) and commuter rail (if it actually went anywhere near major employment destinations, which it does not).
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
(Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005)

Transit Field Trip: Honolulu

Or, why you haven’t heard from me in two weeks (click for large):

We (full family) returned yesterday morning from an 11-day trip to Oahu (mostly Honolulu), and I’ve got some transit talkin’ to do about it. Some lessons apply to Austin, and others don’t; but I’ve been meaning to write about good (and bad) experiences on other cities’ lines for quite a while, and am finally going to do it. This week, I’ll write a few posts trying to focus on particular areas of detail; this will serve as the introduction and outline. As for other cities, I’ll hopefully go back and address Atlanta and New York – which I travelled to on business and leisure in the last 6 months.
My wife and I got married on Lanikai Beach a little more than five years ago. Since then, we’ve been back twice; only the last time with both kids (at the time 1 and 11 years old). I’ve also been to Oahu for two three-week trips as a kid during the 1980s with my family (grandparents lived near Chaminade University); and once for a week to help them pack up and move to Florida in the late 1990s. As for other islands, I went to the Big Island once as a kid; my wife and I visited Maui for 4 days two trips ago; and the whole family did day-trips to Kauai and the Big Island on our last trip (had free interisland air coupons from my grandfather which we finally used up on the last trip).
This trip included the whole family and stays at three different places – the first week, as usual, we used the timeshare I bought about 8 years ago (on ebay; don’t ever do it any other way) which is roughly behind the International Marketplace in an old 3-story 1950s-era hotel building – much smaller than most buildings in Waikiki. Has a lot of charm, but is not a luxury property by any means. Since I own the timeshare, it’s a cheap stay (obviously) but not free – the yearly maintenance fees skyrocketed a few years ago after the management company went bankrupt and was subsequently discovered to have not been a good custodian of the funds, as it were.
The next two days, we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which is a little enclave on the end of Waikiki we don’t spend much time at on our visits. I got this hotel for 2 nights on priceline for a very attractive price. This place is famous – my wife and I both remember the old rainbow tower always being used on The Price Is Right (although it looks a lot less cheesy now after a recent redo).
The last two nights, we stayed at the hotel which we used for our honeymoon 5 years ago (almost exactly): the JW Marriott Ihilani at Ko Olina. Very luxury; but I was able to find a great deal – a PointSavers reward from the Marriott chain’s rewards program (most of the hotels I stay in for business are Marriott-owned chains). Had to buy a bunch more points, but it still ended up a steal overall.
Here’s what I’ll be covering this week:
Urban living and suburban sprawl: Waikiki is very urban and is a pleasure to walk around (mostly). Hawaii in general, like the town my family originates from in Pennsylvania, is about 10-20 years behind the times in discovering that suburban sprawl doesn’t scale, as Kapolei (the intended “second city”) has led to a traffic disaster. Other islands are largely Round Rock With A Beach – with all the bad that entails – I’ll talk about the standard suburban theory that the other islands are where it’s at.
Transit – current system: Waikiki (and most of Honolulu) is served by TheBus, a fairly well-run bus-only transit agency. We all rode the bus twice to Hanauma Bay, and I rode it once more on the way back from one end of Waikiki to the other. The system is well-used by the population – which has a high portion of transit-dependent and transit-leaning subgroups due to low median incomes and high parking costs. Had problems with bunching and reliability. Buses were very very full even though fares are very high. Outside Honolulu, service is still far better than you would expect – better than most of Austin; but other islands are essentially dead zones.
Transit – future system and needs: Honolulu’s been flirting with rail for a long time and should be a slam dunk. The city has a higher residential density than even New York(!) and fairly good employment density too. A disastrous debacle with BRT planning put them back about a decade, but they’re currently fairly far along with what finally looks like an adequately locally-funded rail plan to take to the Feds. Doesn’t go to Waikiki at first, of course; which is a bonehead move. Local trogolodytes bring out the standard anti-rail FUD spewed here by Neanderthals like Jim Skaggs – showing that no matter how high the case for rail, the guys on the other side say the same ridiculous crap.
That ought to be enough. Aloha.