formerly The Alliance for Traffic Improvement

Seeking cost effective ways to reduce traffic congestion on Oahu


The myths about rail transit for Honolulu


Myth #1 — “Honolulu needs ‘light’ rail.”

First, no one is proposing ‘light’ rail for Honolulu, they are proposing ‘heavy’ rail. ‘Light rail’ and ‘heavy rail’ are very precise terms.

Light rail runs in the street for a significant part of its route and takes its power from overhead as in Portland, Sacramento and San Diego.

Heavy rail is totally separated from the street and takes its power from below — the proverbial third rail — as in New York, Washington DC and Miami.


 Heavy rail is what is being proposed for Honolulu. However, proponents prefer to use ‘light’ rail since it is a more saleable term; heavy rail is not.

 Myth # 2 — "We're too big a city not to have rail transit."

Using the term ‘cities’ is very misleading. For example, as a city, Honolulu has a larger population than San Francisco. But the federal government and other institutions dealing with issues affecting contiguous cities, such as public transportation, discuss them in terms of metropolitan areas. One cannot sensibly discuss San Francisco’s transportation issues without including Oakland, South San Francisco, Berkeley and the many other cities in the immediate Bay Area. Thus, we must consider the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole, rather than just San Francisco.

The federal government’s term to describe such an urban area is Metropolitan Statistical Area — MSA’s or metro area’s — they do not use cities.

Honolulu’s population of 876,000 makes us the 56th largest metro area in the U.S.

The smallest metro area with an elevated rail line of the kind being proposed for Honolulu is Miami with a population of 3.9 million, which is 4½ times our size. It was built in 1984 and was the last American one built. It is such a loser the Miami Herald has dubbed it METROFAIL.  

View the top 60 MSAs in the U.S. Review this list and note that of the 55 metro areas larger than us, most do not have rail lines. If we were to build a rail transit line, we would be the smallest metro area in the U.S. with one.Tampa is three times our size and is building HOT lanes.

Myth # 3 "Rail will take cars off the road."

The decennial U.S. Census shows that there is a continuing decline in the percentage of commuters using public transportation in virtually all U.S. cities — regardless of whether they have rail transit or not; public transportation commuting has declined from 12 percent in 1960 to 4.7 percent in 2000. In Honolulu the trend is the same.

All U.S. Census Data for journey-to-work, 1960-2000







Percent of Workers by Mode






Private Vehicle






Public transportation












Other means






Worked at home






Just in the last ten years the 2000 Census data shows that the nation had 13 million more drivers than in 1990, and 2 thousand fewer commuters using public transportation. See Census details.

Secondly, even if the nation’s metro areas were able to halt this slide and maintain the same percentage of public transportation use, the growth in population and thus people driving to work would still totally overwhelm public transportation.

Let’s put this in Honolulu terms: Here 8 percent of our commuters used TheBus in 2000 and 70 percent drove their cars. Each future 10,000 increase in commuters will result in 800, or 8 percent, more bus or rail commuters and 7,000, or 70 percent, more drivers — and that is only if transit usage does not continue to decline.

Here’s some examples for individual metro areas for the past ten years: Washington DC had 35 thousand fewer commuters using public transportation in 2000 than in 1990, but had 317,000 more drivers; Portland: 22,000 more transit users and 173,000 more drivers. Denver: 17,000 more transit users and 248,000 more drivers.
Here’s the Census journey-to-work data for the
top 49 metro areas.

The following table shows all the metro areas with rail sorted according to greatest increases in traffic congestion ("Change in hours lost") 1982-2002, together with their ranking. The last column shows the Increase/(Decrease) in the percentage of commuters using public transportation. Thus, for example, Honolulu in 1980 had 10 percent of its commuters using public transportation and that dropped to 8.3 percent in 2000, a decline of (17.0) percent.


 Myth # 4 "Rail transit will mean less traffic ."

The recognized national authority on traffic congestion is the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A & M University. They issue a report annually on the changes of traffic congestion in the nation’s 75 largest metro areas. Read Texas Transportation Institute study

Their latest annual report on traffic congestion nationally divided the nation’s metro area’s into four population size categories SEE LIST as follows:

·         · In the ‘Very Large’ category of over 3 million in population, there were 11 metro areas, all of which had rail lines — except Houston and it had the least increase in traffic congestion in this group.

·         · In the ‘Large’ category of 1 to 3 million in population, there were 27 metro areas of which half had rail lines. Excepting the stable or shrinking metro areas of Cleveland, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, the best performing metro areas for traffic congestion were Milwaukee, Norfolk, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City — and none of these had rail.

·         · In the ‘Medium’ category of half a million to one million population there were 30 metro areas, which included Honolulu, and of these, only Salt Lake City, which is 50 percent larger than us, had a rail line (a real ‘light’ rail line), and they had the third worst showing in traffic congestion increases.

·         · In the 'Small' category of less than half a million, there were no metro areas with rail lines.

TTI’s latest annual tracking report on traffic congestion said that the nation would have to expand transit system ridership by 33 percent each year to maintain congestion levels and they added, quote, “It may be very difficult to convince this many persons to begin riding transit.” READ THEIR FULL STATEMENT

Myth # 5 "Rapid transit is faster than highways."

You often hear that ‘light’ rail will ‘whoosh,’ or ‘whisk,’ you into town. However, the trains on the rail line projected for Honolulu are to stop every half mile and this and the deceleration and acceleration involved is what limits average speeds no matter what the top speed. The FTA tells us that the average speed of the type of ‘heavy’ rail proposed for Honolulu is 22.5 mph and even less for real light rail. VERIFY THESE SPEEDS AT FTA WEBSITE

On the other hand, HOT lanes are uncongested highways and will move traffic at 55-60mph.

Myth # 6 "Rail transit equals 12 lanes of freeway ."

A single lane of freeway has a three times greater capacity than is carried, in practice, by the nation’s busiest rail line, New York’s 8th Avenue subway.

Here’s why: A single lane dedicated to buses has the capacity to carry 1,500 buses an hour with 75 passengers each or 112,000 people peak direction per hour. But that is just theoretical capacity, and is as meaningless as those statements rail proponents make discussing rail capacity.

The fact is that, in practice, neither a rail line, nor HOT lanes, could possibly use all the capacity available to it. But, in practice, HOV lanes generally carry far more riders per hour than do rail lines of any kind. Only New York's 6th Avenue subway carries more than the busiest HOV's.

Example, Portland’s Eastside MAX light rail line carries 1,980 passengers per hour in the peak direction whereas Portland’s 6th Avenue HOV lane carries 8,500 passengers per hour in buses. Review the federal data.

Myth # 7 "There is no room for new highways ."

The reversible HOTway being proposed by the us at Honolulutraffic.com would be elevated and run in the same alignment as the proposed rail transit line and be only a few feet wider. Therefore, any objections about “no room,” or on other environmental grounds, will apply equally to both the rail transit line and the HOT lanes.

Both rail and HOTway would offer far more capacity for high-occupancy vehicles than could be used. The HOT lanes, however, would cost far less and get bus riders, vanpool riders and toll-paying motorists downtown much faster.

Myth # 8 "Honolulu has the right density for rail. "

Population density.

One of the statements that rail proponents make is that Honolulu has the right population density. CBT, a pro-rail group, says,

Population density is equally important than pure population as a determinant of the potential for rail transit ridership. As reported in the 2000 census, the population density for the entire island of Oahu was 1461 people per square mile making Oahu the nation’s 16th most dense metropolitan area. The population density of the primary transportation corridor is more than 50% higher than the Oahu average and is higher than all but four metropolitan areas on the mainland. The potential of rail transit on Oahu is greater than many other successful rail systems on the Mainland.”

If you examine the data they are using you find that while they correct about the number, it is not one you can use. For example, if you look at the first table below, you will note that Las Vegas only has a population density of 40 people per square mile. The main problem is that land areas used to calculate density are somewhat arbitrary. For example, the Honolulu MSA has a population density of 1461 per square mile. Las Vegas MSA has a density of 40. However, the area used for Honolulu’s MSA is 600 square miles while that for Las Vegas is 39,369 square miles. Obviously, such a disparity does not make sense. Anyone who has been to Las Vegas knows that the population density there is somewhat similar to that of Honolulu.

MSA (metro area)

Area in sq. miles







Las Vegas




There is another way to judge available Census density data, other than metro area and that is “Central city only.” When we do that the results appear to be in line with what one would expect as in the table below:

Central city only

Area in sq. miles







Las Vegas




An interesting way to look at this “Central city only” data is to assemble it for the top 49 metro areas, and then add Honolulu[i]  and then sort these areas in descending order of population density. Click here for the result.

Any group of ten contiguous metro areas in the list shows a remarkable diversity in the use of public transportation for commuting. For example, Honolulu’s central city density is at the center of ten metro areas that have densities of plus or minus ten percent of Honolulu’s. Yet, these journey to work percentages range from 9.5 to 1.8 percent.

The average of these ten metro areas is less than the next higher ten metro areas in the table which have a range of 2.0 to 24.9 percent. The ten metro areas below the Honolulu Ten in the table have a range of 0.8 percent to 5.7 percent. And so on.

This teaches us that while there is, on average, a correlation between aggregations of central city densities and public transportation use, it is not useful as a predictive tool for any one area.


[i]  The journey-to-work data for the six cities larger than Honolulu that also did not make the top 49 list are currently not available.

Myth #9: New roads will not improve traffic congestion:

          “The congestion is not going to be solved by building new roads,” says [Hawaii DOT's Brennon] Morioka. “The more roads you build, the more you encourage people to drive. There needs to be other programs and incentives for people to get out of their cars.”

We could not disagree with Brennon more.

          This is a myth that government officials and environmentalists keep repeating: Of course they do not bother to think through such a statement. For example, what change induces new traffic to come on to the highway? It is quite simple: The new highway reduced traffic congestion. Duh!

          The fact is that if you add highway space to relatively uncongested corridors, it will induce little or no new traffic to come onto it. Conversely, if you add space to a heavily congested corridor, it will induce many new automobiles to join.

          But what will induce them to join it is that the new space reduces traffic congestion somewhat despite inducing some new drivers to come onto the expanded highway space.

          Here’s what the Texas Transportation Institute, the nation’s authority on traffic congestion, has to say, “The difference between [highway] lane-mile increases and traffic growth compares the change in supply and demand. If roadway capacity has been added at the same rate as travel, the deficit will be zero.” READ MORE