TFT Honolulu: Part Two - Current Conditions
Well, I'm all the way up to part 2 out of 3 on the May 2007 Hawaii trip, and I still need to backtrack and talk about Newark in June and State College in July. Argh. Here goes.
Background: O'ahu is the only island with any real transit service (up to the standards of a medium-sized mainland city, that is; the Neighbor Islands have some desultory bus service). Inside Honolulu, buses run all the time - you see them more often than in most big mainland cities. The system in Honolulu has for a long time been a vast network somewhat centered on Ala Moana Mall - a huge mall with a couple of large bus areas. Waiting outside in Honolulu is no big deal, so that's what they do. In Waikiki, where we spent almost all our time, the buses all run down the central two-way road (Kuhio) rather than the one-way couplet of Kalakaua and Ala Wai. The system is called TheBus which I find irritating.
The population on O'ahu outside Honolulu uses the buses a bit but the primary ridership is in Honolulu (and commuters to same). There's a huge proportion of the population that is transit-dependent; and I'll further divide that market segment (for the first time here, although I've been thinking about it for a long time) into two subgroups: the voluntarily transit-dependent (could afford to own a car but choose not to because the bus system is good enough) and the involuntarily (don't own and can't afford a car). Of course, choice commuters exist here too.
The transit-dependent are a larger proportion in Honolulu than in most cities on the mainland (save New York) because parking is difficult and expensive, wages aren't that high, and the weather is very favorable for waiting for a bus or walking to/from the stop. Not too difficult to figure. Buses don't get much priority boost except on the long Kapolei-to-Honolulu route, in which buses get a bit of a leg up by using the HOV "zipper lane". In the city, there's one bus boulevard (Hotel Street) in the small "downtown" Honolulu, but I have no experience there.
Bus fares are startlingly high. Subsidies are quite low - and you'd figure in an island where they have to simultaneously worry about earthquakes and running out of room, they'd want to subsidize people to leave their cars at home - but the farebox recovery ratio is very high (over 30 percent, which is quite high for a bus-only system). The system is recovering slowly from a strike a few years ago which induced a large number of the voluntarily transit-dependent (mentioned above) to get cars or find other ways to get to work. One-way adult fares are $2.00; anybody between toddler and adult is $1.00 each way. There are no short-term passes (shortest is a 4-day pass which isn't that good of a deal anyways). Monthly passes seem more moderate compared to mainland prices.
Tourist usage is moderate - the system is used heavily by hotel workers, but you will see plenty of people who are obviously non-local getting on and off the bus in Waikiki. This crowd is heavily weighted towards the hotels on Kuhio and on the Ala Wai side - the people in the most expensive rooms on the Kalakaua side probably don't even know the bus exists. But there's far more young people staying along Kuhio anyways in the moderately priced stuff, and the books they read (like Lonely Planet) highly recommend the bus, and we saw plenty of that sort as well as a few retirees.
Now for our direct experience, first the two trips to Hanauma Bay:
The whole family took the #22 bus twice to Hanauma Bay, which is a really delightful place to snorkel, especially when you can get to the outer reef (we couldn't on either time this trip due to high waves). Calm enough for very poor swimmers to get to see a lot of pretty fish; still interesting enough for the moderately adventurous; and very easy to get in. This is the beach where Elvis lived in "Blue Hawaii", by the way; and I've been here about 15 times going back to my first visit as a middle-schooler.
Although the drive to Hanauma Bay is fine, and the views are nice, parking is a problem - the lot is fairly small compared to peak demand, and on a previous visit we actually were turned away once (this happens fairly often but we've been lucky overall). Parking fees, stupidly enough, are only like a buck. Somebody failed basic economics. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out the bus - especially since the travel guides recommend it, and we were trying to save money by not having a mostly unused rental car all week.
We left our timeshare and walked out to Kuhio and waited. Actually, I had observed several buses running the route bunched together right before we got down there on one of our two trips (can't remember which one), which is understandable given traffic conditions on this route. The buses theoretically run every 20 minutes or so, but due to bunching we ended up waiting much longer one of the two times. Boarding the bus was fine but SLOW - they still use an old transfer scheme like Capital Metro did until a year or so ago (slips of paper), and feeding in dollar bills for us (5 bucks; Ethan was free) took quite a while. On the first trip, we were headed out in what was supposed to be early but ended up mid-afternoon (more like 2:30 as it turned out), and on the second trip we headed out right after lunch.
The route took us past Diamond Head and provided opportunities for a lot of nice views there on a road I actually haven't driven before. Both times, the bus was very full - at times, every seat was full (perhaps 30 seats) and up to 10 were standing. People constantly got on and off the bus - apparently some folks use this same route to travel to/from Diamond Head to hike, although you have a much longer walk to the ostensible beginning of the hike from the bus stop than from the car parking. Also noticed many middle-school age kids using the bus to get from school to various spots along the Kalaniole - some to go home, others obviously to bodysurf (headed past us to Sandy's Beach). A handful of tourists like us were obviously headed to Hanauma Bay on both occasions. The bus rejoined my normal driving route near the Kahala Mall and then I got to enjoy the views like I hadn't since my one bike trip there (before the arthritis many years ago) since usually I'm driving in traffic with enough lights that I can't look at the ocean as much as I'd like.
The dropoff/pickup location at Hanauma Bay is awful. It's a much longer walk to the entrance - and I feel every inch of it on my bad feet while also carrying our heavy snorkel bag.
Compared to driving: The total trip time was about 50 minutes, compared to maybe 35 in the car (but add in 20-40 minutes for the wait for the bus, and add in 10-15 minutes for what it would have taken me to get the car out of the garage and come back to the timeshare for a more accurate comparison). The cost of the individual trip was competitive - figure $3.25/gallon gas and a 12 mile trip = $1.95 each way, $1 to park for a total of $4.90, compared to $10 for bus fare. But since we were "voluntarily transit-dependent", we didn't have to worry about being turned away, and for the whole trip we saved about $250 on rental car costs ($300ish for a weekly rental car + $10/day to park it, compared to two daily rentals we did do at about $60 each). That made going without a rental car a great decision for the week we spent in Waikiki, but as mentioned in part one, I wish I had rented one for the couple of days we spent on the Leeward side (about the same price as using the car service!)
Return trip: We waited with a large group each time at the inconveniently far out bus stop, where Ethan amused himself by chasing chickens. Don't know how close to schedule the bus was; we didn't care much at this point. Ride back was nice - again, standing room only at certain times.
I also hopped the bus once by myself on a trip back from the rental car dropoff (on the Sunday when we switched from the timeshare to the Hilton) and helped a couple figure out which bus would take them to the airport (they were Australian; most Americans, even those who took the bus while here, would know it'd be better to take a cab to the airport when you have to deal with luggage). Unventful for the most part, and at the Hilton it's obvious that nobody there takes the bus - the stop is outside the property and a bit of a hike. The Hilton seems like a spot where people who don't know what they're doing end up spending $20/day warehousing rental cars, frankly. Like is often the case when I'm returning to my house from downtown, I had a choice of four or five bus routes - whichever one came first, in other words; I think the one I took was the #8.
Finally, we all took a tour bus to the Polynesian Cultural Center one day, which was a nice trip - but not transit per se. The place was a lot less hokey than I anticipated - I actually recommend giving this a try, although bring a hat - it's very hot out there.
Summary recommendations: If you go to Honolulu once, rent a car. You'll want it to do the North Shore, Pearl Harbor, and a few other things you should do at least once. But if you've already been to those places, try getting by without it if you can - you'll be surprised at how much money you save, not to mention time (parking a car in Honolulu takes quite a bit of time as well as money - and rental car agencies are even slower there than on the mainland). On our trip, we rented a car for 2 out of the 11 days - I just walked to one of the four or five options in Waikiki, got a car, and went back to the timeshare to load up the family (Lanikai Beach, where we got married and where we spent parts of both of those two days, is unfortunately not feasible to reach on the bus - although you can circle the island on one route if you're sufficiently adventurous, it doesn't go back down towards Lanikai; the only way to get there is two transfers, the second one of which runs very infrequently).
Whenever I get to it, look for the final part: Future plans for transit on O'ahu.