Investing In Walking, Bicycling And Transit Will Help Hawaii

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One of the best ways to avoid or mitigate a recession, help families under the weight of inflation, and save government money is to invest in improving infrastructure for walking, bicycling and transit.

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As the Hawaii Legislature and the various city and county councils convene this year and are crafting a budget, they do so with a challenging economy that may worsen shortly. While our local government may have a large surplus, this may not always be so, and the federal government has a lot of debt.

Lots of complaints have been made over the years about how heavily subsidized transit is. However, it is far less than the subsidies automobiles receive, never mind that bicycling and walking save individuals and society a lot of money.

It has been a long-time myth that people in the United States are overtaxed for their cars, paying for all of the roads and subsidizing the government. At its height, during the 1960s, all car-related federal taxes and fees at best paid for 70%. Today it is closer to 48%.

Many consider Hawaii the most taxed state in the U.S. However, all of the taxes taken from automobiles, whether through registration, parking, gas taxes, only cover at most 76.3% of roads.

It’s why the state of Hawaii has been seeking input on how to change the way they tax automobiles as road maintenance and improvements are falling drastically behind their repair schedules, just like the rest of the United States. (Please think about this next time you hit a pothole)

an electric bike at Magic Island
Electric bikes are an increasingly popular mode of transportation in the islands. Courtesy: Anthony Chang/2022

This is not factoring subsidized or free parking, cleaning up pollution from liquids or CO2 emissions, the time lost in traffic when too many cars on the road slows down travel time, and ambulances and police whenever a collision happens.

There’s also the cost in life and lost income, as everyone who dies or is severely injured before they retire could have earned income for themselves or their families.

Road deaths are still one of the leading causes in killing children and was the leading cause in death for children in the U.S. for 60 years until recently. That’s the cost of the funeral along with the lost income wage-earners and of those in mourning.

Automobiles are the least spatially efficient vehicle — they move the fewest people per hour across roads. In cities where there is a high population density or neighborhoods with high job densities, this results in slower traffic and thus time that is lost that could instead be used to grow income.

Roads could be widened to accommodate more cars, but this is space that could be used for homes or businesses, further increasing the demand for land and increasing the cost of rent in the long run. The same can be said of parking, which also adds to demand for land (Please think about this the next time you pay your rent).

Not owning a car is seen by some as elitist. In reality, nearly 17% of households in Honolulu don’t own a car, and many of those households are classified as low-income. Subsidizing automobile use is effectively taxing the poor to support the more privileged, as people who don’t drive subsidize those who do.

While a city bus pass, a Biki pass, a bicycle and comfortable walking shoes all have their costs, they pale in comparison to monthly insurance requirements for cars, gas prices, that goes on top of annual registration and any repairs and maintenance needed.

The savings from bicycling, walking and using public transportation is further passed onto society by lowering demand for parking. You can fit anywhere from 12 to 20 bicycles in the average parking spot.

Wahiawa Transit Center as riders wait for buses to arrive.
TheBus is a relatively inexpensive way to get around Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

There’s also the benefit of lower emissions, which is a savings to society and the planet. And buses and bicycles are far less likely to kill other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, reducing the demand for police, ambulances and hospitals.

This would build on the current high demand for electric bicycles, as they have outsold electric cars in the U.S. and around the world for years now.  This has happened even with little support from the federal government tax or infrastructure wise, while electric cars have gotten a lot of both.

My family didn’t use a car while I was growing up on Oahu in the neighborhood of Salt Lake. We walked mostly and caught TheBus when we had to go farther. My mom did so because she couldn’t afford a car and would have had to choose between owning an automobile over paying rent and feeding her two kids on her own.

Some will argue we cannot afford this, however in the long run we cannot afford not to.

Still, I have fond memories of catching TheBus with mom, her parents who also never owned a car and helped my mom a lot financially, and my sister. It helped that we had a bus stop in front of our apartment building and a shopping center about a 10-minute walk away.

Recently I invested in an electric bike that can support another adult or two children, or do large grocery runs. Not only has it been good for me health-wise, it helps the environment and is also the fiscally responsible thing to do — for my own budget and for society. Government needs to invest in changing infrastructure so this is feasible for more people, making walking, bicycling, and public transportation more safe and comfortable.

Some will argue we cannot afford this, however in the long run we cannot afford not to.