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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).

This entry was posted in the following categories: Transit Field Trips , Urban Design

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