Is Honolulu really the 10th largest city in the U.S.?

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle spoke at yesterday’s Think Tech/Venture Capital Association of Hawaii luncheon. He was followed by two panels on the theme, “”The Press weighs in on Rail,” at the Plaza Club.

The mayor likes to tell audiences Honolulu is the country’s 10th largest city. I’ve heard the claim made before. The mayor says it, in part, to imply that such a large city can afford the high price of the proposed elevated rail system, and that being on the Top 10 list means we need to have these flashy projects to prove our standing on the national and world stage.

The problem is that Honolulu isn’t the 10th largest city in the country, unless you cook the numbers by comparing apples and oranges.

Here’s a list of U.S. cities ranked by population.

Pay attention to the fine print:

Note that this list refers only to the population of individual municipalities within their defined limits, which does not include other municipalities or unincorporated suburban areas within urban agglomerations. A different ranking is evident when considering U.S. metropolitan area populations.

So, on this list of cities, Honolulu ranks as #47, tucked down there between Tulsa and Oakland.

But there’s another, perhaps more realistic way of comparing “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” that is, adjacent urbanized areas that are related but may include more than one incorporated jurisdiction.

The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as a Core Based Statistical Area having at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties. The OMB has defined 367 MSAs for the United States as of March 29, 2010.

Among the ranks of metropolitan statistical areas, Honolulu sits at #53, between Tucson and Tulsa.

Here’s where the apples and oranges come in.

Carlisle’s reference to Honolulu as the 10th largest city only works if we include not just the urban core, defined by the Census Bureau, but Honolulu’s entire metropolitan statistical area, but compare the population of that larger area with just the urban core of other cities.

This is important because urban rail systems are most often regional, serving the larger metropolitan area and sharing the costs among the larger population.

The population of Honolulu’s metropolitan statistical area, which includes not just urban Honolulu but all of Oahu, is listed at 963,607. Other areas with light rail systems–generally less costly than Honolulu’s planned “light metro” train–include the metropolitan statistical areas of Dallas (pop. 6.5 million), Phoenix (4.2 million), Seattle (3.5 million), St. Louis (2.8 million), Denver (2.6 million), and so on.

You do the math. It isn’t comforting.

Carlisle’s second major point was that we can’t afford to walk away from the $1.5 billion in federal funds Honolulu hopes to receive.

That argument sounds a lot like pitch made for a sale at the mall. Shop today and save! In order to get the “savings,” of course, you’ve got to spend a lot. Same with rail. In order to get those federal funds, Honolulu taxpayers still have to at least come up with the balance. And since the funds are not guaranteed, we may still have to pay the entire tab.

To tell the truth, I don’t know if the projected cost is a deciding factor. However, there are clearly opportunity costs involved that have not been openly discussed. If you spend something over $5 billion on rail, we don’t have that money available to spend on something else. We are already seeing the initial rail spending squeeze existing bus services. The cutbacks in our area, for example, will mean only one bus per hour between Kaaawa and downtown Honolulu. If you miss that bus, or if it’s full, you will have to wait another full hour. That’s not a realistic level of service for our area, and other parts of Honolulu are facing similar cutbacks.

Someone at the city will say that there’s no connection to rail. Right….

25 responses to “Is Honolulu really the 10th largest city in the U.S.?

  1. I don’t follow your logic here and actually agree with our mayor. Honolulu City is synonymous with Honolulu County. Our entire island is Honolulu so the entire population of Oahu is one city.

    I grew up in Philadelphia, a city which currently has about 1.5 or 1.7 million people just within city limits. But the metropolitan statistical area is much larger as it includes many more counties outside or Philadelphia. But the actual City and County of Phila are one and rank as the 5th largest in USA.

    The City and County of Honolulu are one. I may live in Kaneohe but I pay my property taxes to Honolulu and my police are the Honolulu police. My mayor is the mayor of Honolulu. Kaneohe doesn’t have it’s own Mayor or gov’t.

  2. I am extremely concerned with the cutbacks in the bus service on O‘ahu.

    The bus that serves the Windward side, route 55, has had a stable schedule since at least the mid-1970s. Now, as a result of high gas prices and economic privation generally, bus ridership is higher that it has ever been before. Futhermore, we are constantly encouraged to “go green” and lower our “carbon footprint.” So, naturally, the appropriate response to this is to cut bus service.

    Each morning when I get on the bus in Ka‘a‘awa, it is over half full. That means that when this new schedule kicks in, anyone who lives south of L?‘ie or Hau‘ula will be standing on the bus for over an hour on their way to town.

    No one who relies on the bus from any point north of Kahalu‘u is affluent. As it is, the bus is so inconvenient that the only people who use it are those who absolutely have to. And I suppose that is the real problem here. We are a population utterly bereft of clout. We are not constituents of anyone.

    When I speak to my fellow bus riders, they are all upset about this imminent change, but they will not say anything to anyone about it. Like most Americans of modest means, they have always known that, as time goes by, life only gets worse and worse.

    Thank you for bringing this up, Ian.

    • the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality lives on, forever.
      at least real crabs know how to fend for themselves against silly people.
      it should be renamed the craps-in-a-bucket mentality.

  3. skeptical once again

    Ian, thanks for the very articulate and well-reasoned commentary. But this point has already been rehashed lots of times: It’s not the overall population of the county, but the density of the area in question. (Former Mayor Hannemann used to recite that Honolulu has “in fact” the highest population density of all cities in the US, but that seems more like extreme outright misinformation than merely citing something out of context, the way Mayor Carlisle seems to be doing according to your commentary.)

    The question has long since shifted to whether or not the area that the rail is slated for will become high-density. That has now become the proverbial and literal “six billion dollar question”. Without that high population density around the rail stations, there’s a pretty good chance that the rail system will go virtually unused. And you don’t just lay down some track and a big city pops up; rail is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

    Another question is whether people in Hawaii really want high density. The very same people who tout the possibility of having people live in apartments and embrace a car-free way of life don’t plan on living that way themselves. Moreover, when a high-density mixed use project is planned in already high-density urban areas (say, in Kakaako), those same people object that “They’re paving over paradise!!”

    What is most interesting is how the reasons for the rail project keep changing, and how the project has taken on a life of its own detached from any real reason. Every 18 months the City and local business elites seem to come up with an entirely different reason for the rail project — even as early reasons for it whither under public scrutiny. Here are some of the reasons given over time for the rail project:

    1) A transportation project (even though it seems that will only make traffic worse).

    2) A project that promotes social equality (even though it seems that it is corporate elites that primarily pushing rail, even though they don’t seem to believe in it).

    3) A short-term stimulus project (that will be stretched out for ten years and begin well after the 2009 recession, and which will last for 100 years according to Senator Dan Inouye).

    4) A jobs program (that seems like it won’t really provide local workers with as many jobs as some might imagine).

    5) A way of keeping money in the state (even though most of the money will come from the state and ultimate go outside the state).

    6) A way of fostering high-density development on the west side of Oahu (even though this fizzled in Kapolei).

    7) A way of saving agricultural lands from further development (even though the rail project is being used as an excuse to develop ag lands in the case of Hoopili).

    And now for the latest reason:

    8) A way of diversifying Hawaii’s economy by attracting and retaining young, educated, creative-type people who are now forsaking suburban commuting life for renting apartments in the urban core (even though the rail, even with TOD, is essentially for suburban commuting).

    What is also fascinating and disturbing is not only that one has these ever-changing (and somewhat contradictory) rationales for the rail project, but that the politicians get themselves to believe them.

    The City comes forward with a long series of unlikely extreme best-case scenarios (“The rail system will transport 100,000 passengers a day….”) and then states them as though the improbable projection is already an established fact.

    The most talented politicians and members of the local business elite (Carlisle, Don Horton, who are not really politicians) do not actually seem to believe in the rail project, even though they go along with it. They seem amused at times.

    By contrast, professional politicians seem to tremble with anticipation. They tell a long series of exaggerations … and then drink their own Kool Aid. After all, what’s a little white lie in the service of a worthy cause? Unfortunately, if you have to distort everything, it’s probably not a good cause.

    But there is a persistent kind of utopian fervor that some of our less realistic politicians have exhibited, and it’s all a little sad.

    It reminds me of the last scene from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.

    Lennie said, “Tell how it’s gonna be.”

    George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was
    businesslike. “Look across the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”

    Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. “We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined.

    A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.

    “Go on,” said Lennie.

    George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

    “Go on,” said Lennie. “How’s it gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”

    “We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens . . . . an’ down the flat we’ll have a . . . . little piece alfalfa—”

    “For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.

    “For the rabbits,” George repeated.

    “And I get to tend the rabbits.”

    “An’ you get to tend the rabbits.”

    Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live on the fatta the lan’.”

    Lennie turned his head.

    “No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.”

    Lennie obeyed him.

    • “(even though it seems that will only make traffic worse).”

      It’s already doing that. I think I’ve already lost over half an hour being stuck in traffic caused by the drilling of holes in Kamehameha Hwy for the train.

      The drilling has also taken what was one of the smoother routes through Pearl City and riddled it with potholes in training.

  4. It is a way of simply Thinking Forward that is needed here and you know it. There is so much that has just not happened, even right now (get it?), in thinking in Hawaii, in its potential smart activities, in its inventiveness, its transport on the clunky Route 55; in such draws as the recent Stiglitz lecture at the UH; the actual depths of “local” ( meaning aloha and Pipeline tube-smart) as cited by the Dalai Lama; the national (and beyond) implications of Ben C and his lively Benjamin Franklin spiffy Hawaii home-spun life-of-the-solar-dried-laundry (much-esteemed-Ben’s-wife-inspired) cleansing of Honolulu society; Barack Obama and the value of those workouts at KMCAS, with Michele; Alan Wonl’s; plus, hey Posse, these fabulous, every weekday, Aku mornings with the natural, Mike Buck ( this Thinking Forward talent from way back in time graced with an open microphone that you do not want to miss – just get back to me at 9 tomorrow and tell me not! Nothing is stopping people from Thinking -forward, not backward: c’mon guys, something more original that lamenting potholes! But if you say “rail!”, then here you go again – its a mantra, all self-absorption stuff. Didn’t Ben Franklyn set up the Senate to lead? Betty Farrington was humble about the future and for good reason.

  5. I’m late to this discussion, but I’d like to point out that if we are looking at the people over whom Mayor Carlisle has jurisdiction (i.e., the people for whom he was mayor), then it’s nearly a million people, making Honolulu up around the 10th largest city in the United States.

    As for the rail argument itself, urban and suburban Honolulu’s linear geography (i.e., it’s long and narrow) is unique among large cities, which necessitates a better public transportation option, preferably one that doesn’t have to compete with all the cars on the highway.

    Rail could be that answer, but it will be successful only if it follows the model of places like Salt Lake City, where the rail went to/from the large university in the beginning stages.

    If there is to be rail, it needs to both serve that population (which is often too poor to afford automobile transportation) and tap into it as a future market (i.e., get them used to living comfortably in Honolulu without a car even after they graduate, if possible).

  6. I’m way late to this, but the City and County of Honolulu — which is the definition of Honolulu’s city limits — is close to a million people, as Mayor Carlisle states. As mayor, in terms of the number of people he was mayor of when he said it, it’s the tenth largest (maybe now 12th largest).

    As someone who lived in a city where rail became the norm, I see rail as very promising in Honolulu. We have a linear city along the southern side of the island, even if we stretch it all the way to Hawaii Kai. Even stretching an eventual line out to Kaneohe and Kailua would be a neat single spur.

    Yes, construction projects create inconvenience when they are built. That was true in Seoul, Los Angeles, New York City, and Honolulu will be no exception. But in the long run, it is worth it.

    True, many people today will not give up their cars, but young people today and new arrivals will be able to live here and not buy a car. This is a future-oriented system.

    What they should be doing is connecting the rail to UH Manoa in its first leg. That will easily lead the rail to have the magic numbers that make it successful, while fulfilling its mission of providing cheap transportation for those who need it and can’t readily afford their own private cars.

  7. Mass transit will only succeed if 2 things happen. 1st, it must b convient, it has top make stops throughout the city, in and out of town and from all directions. 2nd, the city, state and county governments have to make people use it – this is done by closing off the freeways/highways during peak hours. In other words once the highways have reached their capacity no more traffic is allowed on until after a certain time.

    You see we are spoiled bitches, we want and we take but we do not give, our government has to make us give.

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