Pandemic traffic makes travel easier in Hawaii. If there is one thing that we can agree on about the pandemic it is that traffic has been a dream. Free flowing, sometimes even allowing motorists to actually go up to the speed limit, and traffic jams are almost an anomaly. Of course, the circumstances are far from ideal, but imagine a post-pandemic world with dreamy traffic. 

In the first of this two-part series on what Hawaii needs to do to make this dream a reality, we discuss how it is possible to put fewer miles on your car, get to where you need to go, make life less expensive, better, and well, just dreamier.

Commuters are putting more miles on their cars, pre-pandemic. Growth in vehicle miles travelled (VMT), or how much you’re putting on your car, has continued to rise across the U.S., according to federal data, even if it is not growing as fast as it did in previous years. In Hawaii, too, VMT has risen, and is now about 15 percent higher than in 2009. Pre-pandemic, according to experts at UH, the tourism industry and a thriving economy will continue to increase driving miles in Hawaii (2).  In Driving Down Emissions, Smart Growth America puts it succinctly: For 70 years, we have built our communities in ways that make it difficult and unsafe to access daily needs outside a vehicle.  

The car: A pernicious thing of the past? Single Occupancy Vehicles—SOVs–are expensive in terms of lost lives, lost productivity from congestion, and increased pollution/emissions (5). Worldwide, traffic accidents cause 1.25 million deaths. In Hawaii, pedestrian fatality rates are the highest in the U.S. – 27% higher than the national average. Traffic congestion costs $305 billion in 2017 in the U.S. alone (3).  In Hawaii, two-thirds of all commutes are in a single occupancy vehicle contributing to some of the worst traffic congestion in the US. In Honolulu, motorists spent an average of 50 extra hours in traffic due to congestion alone in 2014, putting the paradisiacal city in the top 20 percent of cities in a study by INRIX—and that’s not a good thing (4). Excess fuel burned costs each auto commuter $1,125 per year, giving the city a rank of 24 in the same study. Hawaii’s Blue Planet Foundation says motorists logged more than 11 billion miles in 2012, and if even 5 percent of those miles were walked or biked, the shift would save Hawaii $100 million on gasoline, and 500 million pounds of CO2.

We need buses and bikes to move the needle on emissions. Experts agree that electrification of transportation alone will not help Hawaii achieve its climate change and clean energy goals. We need to get people out of cars, and into transit, biking and walking, or, as experts put it, reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT)(6). The SGA report asks “What if, instead of only trying to make our existing cars cleaner, we decided to think a little bigger, asking, “what if we had fewer vehicles per capita, and were able to drive them less each year?” “ And, as the state’s climate change mitigation and adaptation commission also turns its attention to thinking a little bigger here are some thoughts on how a state legislative framework could support buses, and bikes and things that generally fit into the active transportation bucket (7).   

Active Transportation-Transit: A “two-fer that help “pandemic proof our commutes and travelAll these “two-fers” aside, one of the best reasons to encourage active transportation is that these are generally pandemic resilient” modes.  There is little evidence that transit poses a risk of coronavirus outbreaks, and cities such as ParisMilan, and Bogota are expanding biklanes to increase options for car-free mobility. 

Biking and walking are socially distanced modes, if the appropriate space is provided. According to Streetlight, interesting surges in “everyday” bike trips have been recorded, even as bike commuting decreased during the pandemic. While we do not have exactly mirror image data for Hawaii, bike sales in Hawaii saw similar spiking trends during the pandemic as in the rest of the country. Honolulu’s Open Streets in July saw over 5,000 attendees at each event, many of whom were on bikes (1). 

Transit is an essential service that many workers depend upon.  This was even more evident during the pandemic, when mayoral and gubernatorial orders prohibited riding transit unless for essential trips, even as other activities were shut down. As Hawaii emerges from its response phase, and addresses recovery, pandemic proofing will become even more important, and active transportation-transit must be further incentivized to address a “two-fer” of equity and resilience—and of course, emissions.  

In this section, let’s talk about the first.  

1. Articulate a VMT goal. Currently, Hawaii does not have a goal for VMT reduction.  HCEI articulated a VMT goal of 4 percent below 2011 levels by 2020. However, these goals have not made it into plans, let alone, been implemented. Unfortunatelyat this time, there seems to be no consensus on  how VMT goals should be calculated for Hawaii, and this is an area for action. 

2. Start by requiring VMT tracking. In the meantime, at least tracking and reporting VMT for the state’s transportation process, and for new development in Hawaii would be a useful first step. While DOT currently estimates and reports VMT for highways and capital improvement, there is no tracking required for new development in Hawaii, and requiring such tracking would be a good first step 

3. Estimate VMTs for future projects. UC Davis and cities of San Francisco and San Jose have developed tools to estimate VMT of new roads and new development. It would be worth looking at these for Hawaii.  

4.Follow up with meaningful and regular reporting.  Tied closely to VMT reduction is the development of a multi-modal system that uses active transportation-transit. Hawaii’s Complete Streets program is one place where the right report could produce such progress tracking (with progress metrics) that clarify the active transportation investments made by the state.  Such a report would produce a baseline status survey, and ideally, lay out recommendations for metrics to be measured in future years to track progress. A stellar example of such a report is Florida’s Complete Streets Implementation Plan.

5.Instate a threshold for mitigation. In future years, calculate a threshold for when VMT increase will need to be mitigated. California’s SB 743 articulates such a process-of tracking, threshold, and mitigation. For Hawaii, this may well be within the EIA process, but appropriate entry points need to be identified. 

 Putting these together with modernized parking policies at the state and county levels, providing equal benefits for commuting (the subject of Part 2 of our blog post), and instating a suite of policies that encourage the use of active transportation will give us the better life that we all dream about after this pandemic is “all over.” 


  1. City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services. Email communication. October 2020

  2. Prevedouros, Panos. Civil engineer, UH-Manoa, and Chair, Freeway Operations Simulation Subcommittee of the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council. Quotes.
  3. Schneider, Benjamin. Traffic’s Mind Boggling Toll. Citylab, 7 Feb. 2018. The INRIX study cited here includes direct and indirect costs of congestion—fuel burned while idling in traffic, but also the business costs passed onto consumers from trucks idling in traffic. 
  4. Schrank, et al. 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard. Texas A&M and INRIX, August 2017.
  5. According to the American Public Transport Association, “[a] person can reduce his or her chance of being in an accident by more than 90% simply by taking public transit as opposed to commuting by car. A household can save nearly $10,000 by taking public transportation and living with one less car.”  
  6. Expert reports generally agree there are three main ways to reduce such emissions: 

    • Decrease vehicle miles travelled (VMT) – this can include full trip elimination but also shorter trips and trips that shift from vehicles to other low-carbon mobility options.  
    • Increase efficiency – this focuses on improving the overall efficiency of the transportation network such as re-timing signals for reduced delay or optimizing the bus system to have its emissions reduce through improved operations.   
    • Switch to cleaner fuels – This usually includes the electrification of the vehicles that remain on the road, but can also include other types of vehicle fuel technologies, such as biodiesel and hydrogen. 
  7. The mitigation priority of the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission is to reduce emissions from ground transportation