On Hawaii island, some residents drive two hours in the morning, from Puna to the Kona coast, to work in the hospitality industry. When night falls, most head back in the other direction. Others sleep in their cars on the west side of the island, reducing the number of trips they need to make it back to the east side during the work week.
A similar dynamic exists on Maui, with workers commuting 40 minutes from Wailuku (or an hour from Haiku) to work in tourist-hub Lahaina.
On Oahu, the morning commute from Waianae to Waikiki can take more than an hour. Accidents can sometimes make that a two-hour drive from the West Side to town. My auntie used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to beat the rush hour traffic, driving from Ewa Beach to her job at Kuakini Medical Center.
Long commutes are endemic to the islands, but they are not inevitable. Investments in multimodal transportation, digital infrastructure and strategic siting of workforce housing can release people from their commute, freeing time for friends, family and all that makes life worth living.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed an inequality between those who must commute for work and those who can work remotely. The “laptop class” (of which I am a part) had it relatively easy.
When Hawaii Pacific University decided to move all classes online in March, 2020, I didn’t lose my job. Instead, I was able to work from home, eliminating a 20-minute bus commute from Ala Moana to the classrooms at Waterfront Plaza.
It was remarkable at that time to walk the streets of Honolulu’s central business district and see it free of cars and pedestrians. But the banks and law firms didn’t go out of business. White-collar workers went remote, and everything was fine.
Essential workers – those who work in grocery stores, health care, delivery, retail, agriculture, and other essential industries – continued to commute. There was less traffic, but the commutes still took time, and these essential workers were put at risk of contracting coronavirus as they continued to serve the community.
My compatriots in the laptop class didn’t all go to seed. Freed from the tyranny of a commute, some exercised at home and lost weight. Others celebrated the time they had to spend with their children. And many questioned whether the daily commute was necessary at all.
Some tech companies – like Square and Twitter – took this thinking to the limit, announcing that employees could work remotely forever. Many companies adopted more flexible work arrangements, allowing employees to work in the office two days a week and remain home the rest of the time.
The math checks out. An hour commute each way is two hours lost each day. Those two hours could be dedicated to family, a hobby, starting a business, joining a church or sports league, volunteering with a nonprofit or participating in civic affairs.
What would it take to free essential workers from this tyranny?
First, it would take substantial investments in multimodal transportation.
“Complete Streets” is one effort to design and operate transportation infrastructure which recognizes and responds to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, transit riders and the disabled. Making neighborhoods accessible on foot or by bicycle is one key to reducing dependence on automobiles.
Major mass transit projects could help. After all, Honolulu’s rail project (now expected to cost $11.4 billion and running only 11 years late) was initially intended to reduce the time that people on the west side spend commuting into town. If rail is completed and if ridership meets projections (and these are big ifs), it would make a substantial difference.
But on Oahu, our humble bus and van service deserves attention and investment. If mass transit is safe, clean and reliable, it is more likely to attract riders. And for those who can’t afford cars and must rely on the bus or Handi-Van, the quality of transit is equivalent to the quality of their commute.
Since the Native Hawaiians first established irrigated agriculture in the islands, infrastructure has been the key to prosperity. But today’s vital infrastructure is largely invisible. Think: submarine fiber optic cables or radio waves carrying data packets.
Groups like Broadband Hui have highlighted the digital divide in our state. Many residents lack “the information technology capacity needed to participate fully in our society, democracy and economy, including civics, social and cultural activities, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”
Digital access allows for the provision of telehealth and education to remote areas. It creates business opportunities in the digital economy and allows access to government services. Addressing disparities in digital access is key to making suburban and rural areas less dependent on urban centers.
Everyone should have the opportunity to join the laptop class, and investments in digital infrastructure are crucial.
Siting Workforce Housing
The current mantra in mixed-use development is “live, work, play,” referring to the co-location of residential, commercial and recreational spaces. This model of development reduces the need for a commute, allowing families to save time and money.
New developments should aim for “live, work, play” as an ideal, but it can also be applied to allocating current resources, especially housing.
Is it possible for our state to go beyond a narrow focus on income when allocating affordable housing?
If a proposed affordable housing project is sited three blocks from a major hospital, should we restrict access to those earning less than 60% of the average median household income?
What about nurses working at the hospital, who earn between 80% and 140% of the AMI but are currently forced to commute an hour?
A similar issue arises for civil servants, teachers, hospitality workers, agricultural workers and every profession that requires a commute to a fixed location.
Workforce housing requires fewer subsidies to build, and strategically sited workforce housing can accommodate essential workers, eliminating their commute, saving time and money, and improving quality of life.
A world without an hour-long car commute is possible, and not just for the laptop class. All that’s required is strategic vision and a willingness to break from tradition.