Cruising Along: The Future of Bus Transit

Photo via Flickr/Daniel Ramirez

Cruising Along is an ongoing weekly blog series by Bianca Sewake examining Hawai’i’s alternative modes of transportation.

As I began to familiarize myself with the bus system and hear feedback from passengers and general comments or perceptions people have about the bus, I decided it was time to turn to an official. I talked with Roger Morton, the president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, Inc. who shared ongoing projects and ones O‘ahu riders can expect in the future that they hope will improve bus services.

“We have a very loyal ridership in Honolulu for many, many years,” Morton said. “Our ridership on a per capita basis is the fifth highest in the country, only succeeded by a few of the very large cities such as New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C.” A large part of the ridership can be attributed to the seniors who use the bus. An estimated 36,000 seniors are bus card pass holders. Overall, however, Hawai‘i has a diverse demographic of riders who come from all facets of society—low income, high income, workers, students from elementary to the university level. In fact, at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, around 18,000 students receive a free bus pass (the cost is included in their fees) for the year. Even tourists use our buses, making up an estimated eight to 10 percent of the ridership.

The large ridership does come with a flip side: crowded buses—a complaint often voiced by many who use the bus during busy times and days. Morton is hopeful that the opening of the first segment of rail, scheduled to open in 2017, will alleviate some of this passenger congestion. Morton said, “[Rail] will be a complimentary system to the bus where we will re-design many of our bus routes and corridor so that the rail simply becomes another bus route or another kind of mode that people will use to travel.” At this time, passengers can expect to see changes in bus routes, but all the new bus routes will not roll out until 2019 when the rail is extended all the way to Ala Moana Center.

Sometimes bus delays factor their way into all of this at peak hours, but Morton said that DaBus app, which shows where the bus is in real time and an accurate estimated time of arrival, has been helpful for planning bus trips. “It alleviates the anxiety of waiting for the bus and it could potentially allow someone to arrive at the bus stop a little later,” said Morton, which is exactly what his son does to get to the bus stop just a few minutes before his bus arrives.

There are also plans for a smart card system, which will modernize the bus system and replace the paper passes or bus transfers. It’s a stored value card, meaning riders can reload their cards. “This will allow riders to travel seamlessly between buses and rail and buses,” Morton said. “It will be a system that they can link to their smart phones and check to see how many rides they’ve taken or how much it’s cost them and add money to their accounts.” In the past, paper transfers have caused some problems, with riders using counterfeits or bus drivers issuing transfers with the incorrect expiration times. With a smart card, these problems will be eliminated and the next bus will know whether or not riders are entitled to their transfers. This method will also provide data, picking up general travel patterns to plan bus routes and services in a better way.

Morton is also excited for a new hybrid technology bus, which is not only energy efficient, but quieter. “When the bus is at the bus stop, the engine will actually shut itself off and when the bus starts, it will be running off of battery power and the engine won’t start for a few seconds,” he said.

In the meantime, Morton and others are always looking for ways to improve the current bus system and are actively coming up with ways to do that.

Cruise along with me next week as I shift gears and start exploring carpooling in Hawai’i.

Read about last week’s trip, Cruising Along: With Bus Passengers.

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