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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

City van service gains fans daily

 •  Bus company, union resume talks today
 •  CityVan shuttles to serve seniors during bus strike
 •  Getting around without TheBus: Information you can use

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Nothing in Breene Harimoto's career prepared him to be a bus dispatcher.

A woman notes the route of the city's temporary van service at the Chinatown Gateway, where passengers line up for the next free ride to stops around Honolulu.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But there he was yesterday, racing up and down Hotel Street — clipboard, walkie-talkie and cell phone in hand — coordinating the city's fleet of school buses, shuttle vans and SUVs, all providing alternative transportation for the thousands of people stranded or inconvenienced by O'ahu's 16-day bus strike.

"Welcome to Honolulu's Grand Central Station," said Harimoto, just before rushing off to deal with another little problem.

What began as a stop-gap effort by the city to help people get around is growing in popularity and size, numbering in the dozens of city and rented vehicles.

The shuttle van fleet will nearly double today, as the city adds 40 seven-passenger vans to new and existing routes to help senior citizens (see story).

City officials also said yesterday they would increase the regular in-town shuttles as demand grows, and they had started hiring temporary contract workers as drivers to replace some city workers — including Mayor Jeremy Harris (who drives the Kalihi route nearly five hours a day) and 21 Cabinet members — who have been working the routes.

Rented school buses provide afternoon express service to Hawai'i Kai, Wai'anae, Mililani and other outlying communities.

Riders say they appreciate the service. "I don't know what we'd do without them," said Kalihi resident Jim Petersen, who yesterday accompanied his elderly landlord to a legal appointment downtown, then missed their ride home with a friend.

"We were going to walk, but then I saw the signs and decided to give it a try," said Petersen, who learned from Harimoto that one of the vans could drop the pair at Kamehameha Shopping Center, within walking distance of their home. "I bless them," Petersen said.

John Sablan, one of the city employees driving a city van route from Chinatown, normally works on a road crew on the Windward side.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Many people using the vans between Kalihi, Waikiki, Manoa and Chinatown yesterday were first-timers. As the strike by union bus drivers has dragged on, more and more people have discovered the convenient — and free — option, said Harimoto, deputy director of the city's Information Technology department.

"I ended up in charge by default," said Harimoto, who volunteered to be a driver but quickly discovered his previously unknown talents as a dispatcher and ended up being the van coordinator at the Chinatown Gateway transfer point. "And it's definitely getting busier by the day."

Although the city doesn't have complete costs for the program, it costs about $330 to $350 per week to rent each of the private seven-passenger vans (some of the vans being used are city-owned), said spokeswoman Carol Costa. The money comes from an estimated $180,000 a day the city is saving on regular bus service, she said.

Usually, John Sablan drives a backhoe and front-end loader for a city road crew in the Windward area. But he has spent the last two weeks working almost 12 hours a day as one of the van drivers.

Yesterday, he made several commuter runs from Kane'ohe, then switched to the hourlong route between Chinatown and the University of Hawai'i, with stops at Ala Moana and Waikiki, before returning to the Kane'ohe route in the evening. Meanwhile, his wife, who usually takes the city bus to work, used the family car to drive their son to school and football practice.

"I feel a little like a bartender, listening to all the people grumbling about the bus strike," Sablan said. "It's nice to be doing something different. At least I'm giving my safety shoes a rest for a while."

While the downtown shuttle vans don't provide the full range of service that buses did — they run every 10 to 20 minutes from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays — they have helped people find a surprising degree of mobility during the strike.

"I ended up in charge (of dispatch) by default," Breene Harimoto said.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"For the first eight or nine days, it felt like we were trapped in a playpen," said Waikiki resident Anne Johnson, who was taking the shuttle for the second time yesterday on a lunch-and-shopping outing to Chinatown.

Johnson said she and her husband had made a conscious decision to live without a car when they retired to Hawai'i six years ago from California, and have made good use of the bus service since, including weekly trips to Windward Mall in Kane'ohe for line dancing, which "are on hold for now."

Lisa Salter, a biology student at UH, uses the shuttle to get to her daily swims at Waikiki, but hasn't been able to go out with friends or shopping as often as she'd like.

Sablan said the shuttles are supposed to stop at only a few designated sites, but many drivers try to help out people on their routes.

"If I have to stop to check my tire pressure at Lewers Street, where a lot of students want to get off, well ..." he said.

There's a "we're-all-in-this-together" camaraderie that's developed since the strike began, Salter said. "You get to know your van drivers and get friendly with them," she said. Many riders have begun dropping off manapua, dim sum and pastries for the drivers, most of whom work for other city departments but volunteered for driving duty.

Several riders yesterday said they preferred the small vans to the buses and wondered if the city shouldn't consider continuing the service when the bus strike is over.

"A lot of people aren't going to be so nice to the bus drivers when they come back," said Natara Stuber, who was waiting for a shuttle to get from one job in Chinatown to another at the Hawai'i Convention Center. "And a lot of people are finding out that the bus isn't as necessary as they thought."

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.