Posted on: Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Safety improving here, but some see long road ahead
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Hawai'i is beginning to walk the walk.
Just look around.
Crosswalks are getting new designs and fresh coats of paint to make them more visible. Countdown timers are being installed at intersections so people know how long they have to cross. Some midblock bus stops have been moved or eliminated partly to counter jaywalking problems.
Those changes plus others in the works illustrate a more aggressive approach by government agencies to respond to growing concerns over pedestrian safety in Hawai'i.
But while the steps largely have been applauded, they don't go nearly far enough in addressing the problem, pedestrian advocates and others say.
"This is not a pedestrian-friendly city," said JR Buenconsejo, a Downtown resident who has twice been hit in crosswalks in the past year and a half. "It's not runner-friendly. It's not biker-friendly."
Some say pedestrian safety still hasn't received the priority it deserves, even though Hawai'i continues to be one of the most dangerous states in the country for walkers.
Some say Hawai'i never will become a pedestrian paradise until it starts taking major, painful steps to make the urban streets more walker-friendly and, invariably, less conducive to auto travel.
no easy answers
Listen to what Michael Ronkin, an Oregon-based expert on walkable and bikeable communities, says about O'ahu's urban core.
"Honolulu has all the basic ingredients to be a walkable and bikeable city, it just needs to follow a different recipe," Ronkin said. "The priority has been to get commuters in and out of town quickly. That priority has to change."
The kind of steps Ronkin suggests wouldn't be easy. Nor would they be pain-free. If some of his ideas were up for public consideration today, opposition likely would be intense, especially from commuters.
But if Honolulu residents want to see their city become one of the more walkable communities in the nation, these type of changes are necessary, Ronkin said.
The measures Ronkin said would work in Honolulu already have proven effective elsewhere:
Lower speeds, in some cases dramatically. In downtown Portland, traffic lights are calibrated for an average speed of 14 mph. "Speed reduction is the silver bullet. Once you get speeds down, magic happens," he said.
Narrow streets by taking away lanes, including from the wide, multilane thoroughfares leading into and out of Downtown Honolulu.
Shorten the time pedestrians have to wait at signalized intersections before they can cross, and lengthen the time pedestrians have to cross the streets.
Cap the amount of parking available Downtown as a way to discourage people from driving and encourage them to take mass transit. That would tend to lead to higher prices for parking, another way to discourage driving.
Make it easy for people who don't own cars to get access to one when needed. In Portland, businesses have set up car-sharing systems so dues-paying members can rent one simply by going to a nearby parking stall. The cars are scattered around downtown, parked in special reserved stalls. When a member needs one, he or she places an order, gets the key-code to the nearby vehicle and is able to use it for an arranged period. When finished, the car is returned to one of the special stalls, available for the next member to use.
With a planned rail system in the works for Honolulu, the city is at a critical juncture and can take steps now that will lead to a much better environment for pedestrians in the future, Ronkin said.
"Honolulu is poised right now to really make big decisions," he said. "There is no reason you can't become the most bikeable, walkable city in the country. But you've got a ways to go."
Efforts already are under way to try to close that gap.
The Legislature just appropriated $1 million for crosswalk improvements, including identifying and adjusting timers that do not allow the elderly sufficient time to cross. The state already has plans to spend roughly $18 million over the next two years on various pedestrian- and traffic-safety measures. The city for the first time in 15 years is updating its O'ahu pedestrian-safety study, a road map for the city's strategy, and the Department of Transportation for the first time ever is drafting a statewide master plan for pedestrian safety. More than $1 million, mostly in federal money, is expected to be spent on that plan, which includes proposals to create engineering positions dedicated to pedestrian needs.
Enforcement also has been boosted. A new state law took effect two years ago that provides pedestrians with more legal protection in crosswalks. Police also have launched enforcement campaigns, though not long enough to have lasting effects, some say.
"It's not for a lack of desire," said Dan Galanis, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health. "It's just that they can only do so much."
The state also is working with schools on pedestrian-safety programs, trying to get students to develop good habits that will carry into their adult years, and often meets with senior groups to remind them of safe practices. In addition, the city and state have devoted more resources to airing pedestrian-safety commercials, including $20,000 the city spent for prime-time TV spots before and after this year's Sugar Bowl.
Developers, meanwhile, are unveiling development plans in which walkable communities are integral parts of their projects. General Growth, for instance, recently disclosed its conceptual master plan for Ward Centers, which will feature three pedestrian plazas on the Kaka'ako property.
Galanis, whose job as epidemiologist for the past decade has included tracking pedestrian-safety issues, said he has seen more initiatives started in the past year or two than in all the others, though most of the programs are too recent to start having much impact.
Yet such initiatives are important in part because they help bring a more balanced approach to the transportation network, one now oriented predominantly toward driving, advocates say. Pedestrians, increasingly, are getting more attention and having more of a voice in the planning process.
"We're still making this shift," said Therese Argoud, walkable communities coordinator for the Health Department. "It's going to take a while. You'll need some patience."
One project the city considers critical to that shift is the planned rail-transit system.
The developments that are expected to go up around some of the planned transit stations will create walkable communities that complement the rail system, enabling people to get by without cars, according to Wayne Yoshioka, the city's transportation director.
"That's crucial to the future," he said.
Ronkin, however, expressed some reservations. Above-ground transit systems can be disastrous to efforts to create walkable communities, he said.
Honolulu's rail system, which initially will stretch from East Kapolei to Ala Moana, largely will run above ground.
One of the keys to creating walkable communities is to create vibrant, appealing activity along the streets, and having above-ground transit systems tends to work against that, he said. When the stations are above ground instead of at ground level, people are less inclined to use the system, Ronkin added.
While the city's plan to build a $3.7 billion rail system has been applauded by pedestrian advocates, some would like to see more emphasis on simpler, less costly measures.
They would like to see the city and state, for instance, step up efforts to move crosswalks slightly away from intersections to leave more room between a turning vehicle and someone crossing the street. Or to move vehicle stopping lines farther from crosswalks, creating a larger buffer between car and pedestrian.
Some believe officials should make more and better use of traffic-calming measures, such as speed bumps on residential streets or bulb-outs (which shorten the distance to cross a street) at some busy intersections.
At the AARP, a major advocate for more safety measures, officials say the state needs to focus on the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, rather than just making improvements based on where the next road-repaving project will be.
"Do not try to pass these (repaving projects) off as pedestrian improvements, because they're not," said Barbara Kim Stanton, head of AARP in Hawai'i.
The AARP was instrumental in getting the Legislature to adopt the bill appropriating $1 million for crosswalk improvements. The senior advocacy group two years ago identified what it considered the 50 most dangerous intersections in Hawai'i and urged the state to focus on them, noting that Hawai'i has become the most dangerous place in the country for elderly pedestrians.
But University of Hawai'i urban planning professor Karl Kim cautioned against taking an intersection-by-intersection approach.
"That's sort of like coming up with a quick response to a more complicated problem," Kim said. "You need to take a more holistic approach, looking at whole areas as part of a comprehensive strategy."
Brennon Morioka, the state's transportation director, agreed, saying doing targeted improvements without a broader strategy can backfire. "You're now piecemealing it, and that may make things worse ... (You) can get so focused on just pedestrian improvements and forget everything is intertwined."
With everything interconnected, the key is striking the right balance so pedestrians, motorists, cyclists and others can use the transportation network in an efficient, safe manner.
For now, though, the balance is skewed too much toward drivers, walking advocates say, and that needs to change.
Ronkin, the walkable communities expert, said: "You've got some very pedestrian-hostile environments there."
Reach Rob Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org