i L i n d

Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

i L i n d header image 2



Wanted: Examples of bad road repair and maintenance

March 12th, 2013 · 33 Comments

Freakonomics had a good podcast recently on the issue of funding of transportation funding and the gas tax (“The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon“).

It’s just a short, six-minute segment but definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: As average mileage goes up, the gas tax–which still provides the backbone of all transportation funding–brings in less and less money even while total miles driven might go up. It’s not an effective funding solution.

It also got me thinking again about Larry Geller’s (disappearednews.com) recent probing commentary regarding Honolulu’s dismal track record in road repair and maintenance (“Throwing a shovelful of asphalt in a hole is lousy street maintenance“).

Here’s the guts of Larry’s post:

Maintenance is not Honolulu’s long suit, whether it’s roads or pipes, or the ugly posts and crumbling bridge in Chinatown. So unless money is regularly provided in yearly budgets to maintain the streets, they will fall into disrepair again. How much is needed? Without a step back to do the research and planning, we’ll simply get another layer of poorly done roads that won’t work any better for us.

Before budgeting for maintenance we need to be using the most appropriate, most durable technology to pave the streets in the first place.

Look at the results from the technology we’re now using. The asphalt doesn’t stick, and paint, when it is applied, disappears and is not promptly renewed. Reflectors installed on the highways don’t last and are not replaced. Road repairs (such as on the H-1 near Diamond Head Road in both directions) left a hazardous surface behind and it just stays that way (see here and here). Some areas of the streets and highways are so poorly marked that drivers can be confused about lane markings in the rain or at night.

I’ve lived in places with more traffic and similar rainfall, and the streets were in perfect condition. It can be done. If the city doesn’t know how to do it, step one might be to find out.

Larry goes on to make good use of Google Earth to check out roads in other major cities. Great idea, and it definitely makes the point.

I would ask a few more questions:

• How does Honolulu’s road maintenance compare to the neighbor islands? Better? Worse? The same?

• What is Honolulu’s road maintenance budget, per capita or per mile of roadway, compared to other cities?

• How do the specifications in our road repair contracts compare to those in other jurisdictions? Are those specs adequate?

• Who is getting these road maintenance/repaving contracts and is their work evaluated? Are specifications being met?

I’m wondering how to dig further into this.

How about identifying a few stretches of road with particular repair/maintenance issues, chronic potholes, repaving that doesn’t last, etc.

Then we could start digging into the background of those specific roads looking for answers.

So get in on the ground floor. Share your “bad road” suggestions, then let’s see where they lead.

Tags: Consumer issues · Politics

33 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Patty // Mar 12, 2013 at 8:16 am

    I think that it is a bad attitude concerning maintenance, whether roads or buildings. I have observed landlords doing little toward their property upkeep, but because of housing shortage, they are able to charge more than a rental is worth by mainland standards.

  • 2 Richard Gozinya // Mar 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Beretania Street between University and Kalakaua is an abomination. That’s my personal favorite road to perdition.

  • 3 Natalie // Mar 12, 2013 at 8:41 am

    I’m sure we can all come up with examples of roads in terrible condition. The question is, how do we solve that problem? You mention that with higher mileage comes less funding. That is the key point, in my opinion.

    I’m curious what others think about a vehicle-per-mile-traveled fee.

  • 4 CiCi // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Does the “weight tax” portion of car registration fees go toward road and highway maintenance at all? Seems like it should, and it’s the largest part of the registration bill. Using one of our vehicle registrations that was recently paid as an example, out of a $380 total annual fee, $308 of it is weight tax (part state and part city/county). What are they doing with that money?

  • 5 what // Mar 12, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Why do you automatically make the assumption that money will magically solve this problem? There are so many examples of clearly inefficient maintenance methods or crazy overtime hours. Throwing more money at the problem will only cause the problem to grow larger.

    A vehicle per mile fee seems like a total logistical nightmare just on the sole point of the city having to somehow monitor this. It also dispproportionately affects people who are already forced to live on the West side because they cannot afford to live in town.

  • 6 Hugh Clark // Mar 12, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Ian, come see me next time you are in Hilo and I can give you a day-long tour of bad roadways — poorly maintained and increasingly dangerous.

    My own Kaumana-Waianuenue stretch is awful with the Puna side lanes so devastated it is unsafe to use them. Oahu is not alone in the neglect department

  • 7 ohiaforest3400 // Mar 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    As is too frequently the case, Larry and you, Ian, pose questions but suggest no answers.

    I have to admit I was thrown off by Larry’s “H-1 near Diamond Head Road” reference. H-1 doesn’t run anywhere near Diamond Head Rd. and it wasn’t until I clicked thru multiple links that it appeared he was actually talking about the area before and after Kokohead Ave. The repairs to which he refers do, indeed, confuse drivers (especially in the “right” light), but they were not made for the reason he describes; they were actually made to extend the life of the otherwuise very durable concrete surface by tying together the massive sections of concrete poured earlier. So this was actually an example of good maintenance (or an overdue correction to a bad design) that needs to be improved with much better lane markings.

    As for the potholes, faded/evaporated lane markings, I can’t disagree. But the question is, as Natalie suggests, wehat to do about it? All those pictures of Hong Kong, Memphis, wherever, are very nice but the question has to be what are they doing that we are not? How are the two (or more) locales different such that the comparison is in fact valid, and so on. Maybe this is comparing apples and oranges (starting with the Grace asphalt monopoly). Otherwise this is just griping, like asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

    In case anyone wonders, no one suffers the effects of bad roadways — and their effect on driver behavior more than I (and Natalie). My principal mode of transport moves on two wheels and I feel road defects and swerving/clueless drivers like almost no one else.

  • 8 Lopaka43 // Mar 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    A good place for your research would be to review the reports on line from the City Clerk for the City Council’s Public Works and Sustainablity Committee.

    The City, as a result of Council appropriations last year, has just completed a study of its roadways and what needs to be done to improve maintenance.

    The study was the basis for the Mayor’s request for a nickel raise to the gas tax to pay for a very aggressive repaving program.

    You can find regular reports about the paving study and the assessment of what the source of the problems have been in the minutes of the committee.

  • 9 Constantinos Papacostas // Mar 12, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Dear Ian,

    This subject cannot be easily addressed via short comments here. I recommend you do a web search for “Pavement Management Systems.”

  • 10 Natalie // Mar 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Actually, I don’t think throwing more money at the problem is the solution. I’m thinking farther down the road, when more cars are getting higher mileage and we have less money going into our highway funds for maintenance and roadway work.

    As far as people coming from farther distances goes, they probably already pay higher taxes via the gas tax.

  • 11 Old Native // Mar 12, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    The Pali Highway is a disaster.

    We need a Ben Jay clone to start looking into things and asking the hard questions.

  • 12 R Ferdun // Mar 12, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    My bad road is University Ave between Dole St. and Maile Way. It is in terrible shape. The reason this concerns me greatly is that, as far as I can determine, it is not listed on the Mayor’s recently released 5 year plan for road repair. My opinion is that if it is left unrepaired for five years, you are going to need a four-wheel drive vehicle to traverse that stretch.

    I don’t think that your suggested approach of looking at the problem road by road to see why the specific road is in such bad shape is the way to go. As some of the other posters have said, we need to look at the problem on a global basis. What are we doing wrong relative to other cities/states? Is it not enough money, wrong technology, poor workmanship, what? If we keep doing things the same old way we will continue to get the same old results.

  • 13 Johnson // Mar 12, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Try Wai’alae Avenue heading Diamond Head from the intersection with Kapahulu some time. It’s astoundingly bad, no matter which lane you are in.

    And to keep things…umm…entertaining, TheBus pad that was just repaired/replaced a few weeks ago along that stretch? Well, where the bus pulls in to pick folks up, it’s nice and smooth now. Trouble is, it’s, I don’t know, 6 or 8 inches *LOWER* than the rest of the road, with no warning.

    Every time I go through there, I wonder about the City’s liability when some unsuspecting bicyclist or motorcyclist goes over that, maybe when it’s dark and rainy, or even in ideal circumstances, and does a nasty nasty face-plant into the road.

    It’s far past the definition of “bad.” I’d call it a potentially “deadly” situation, and maybe also a “massive lawsuit waiting.”

  • 14 Kevin Talbot // Mar 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Ian –

    My wife and I were on Maui for a long weekend in late February and there were two things we noticed after living on Oahu for just over three years:

    1) The roads in general are in SO much better shape that Oahu. In particular the road from the airport to Kihei seemed quite new and is a nice 4 lane highway. What a huge difference.

    2) I don’t think we saw a single white plastic bag blowing around or on any beach or in the water. I think that must be due to the recent ban on those pesky bags on Maui. It was a dramatic difference from Oahu.

    – Kevin

  • 15 Ian Lind // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    This comment just arrived by email:

    Waialae Rd, going uphill from King St to the top, near Goodwill–crappy just about all the way.
    And thanks for the good work!

    Aloha, Brian Emmons, McCully

  • 16 Natalie // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    The city did have signs up that said “dip.” Have they been taken down?

    You are correct about bicyclists and motorcyclists — that is a very bad drop off and then bump on the other side. I’ve been able to easily get into the next lane every time I’ve gone through there recently, but others may not be so lucky.

    I’ve put in a request with DTS to check on the signage.

  • 17 MakikiBarb // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    I live in the Makiki area and for the past several weeks there’s been extensive road work in my neighborhood. And for once, it’s being done right! The streets are completely stripped and a new surface, and, I think, underlayer, are being put down and steamrolled. The results are beautiful, unlike the “fill in the hole” approach. It looks like something is being done right here, though, of course, every project needs maintenance to continue to be in good condition.

  • 18 Natalie // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    The state registration fee is currently $45. Of that, $40 goes into the state highway fund. The remaining $5 goes into the emergency medical services special fund.

    SB495, SD2, would change that by increasing the fee and putting the increase into a “compliance resolution fund.”

  • 19 Natalie // Mar 12, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Oops, you were asking about the weight tax, and I responded with information about the registration fee.

    On the county side, the weight tax is deposited into the highway fund. Some of that fund is used for road maintenance. If you look at HRS 249-18 (http://www6.hawaii.gov/tax/hrs/hrs_249.pdf), you’ll see what else the funds are used for.

  • 20 ForPeople // Mar 12, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    How about making portions of the payment to the paving/resurfacing contractors based on longevity/durability of the surfaces they work on rather than on purely a “per mile basis” or “number of potholes filled basis.”

    Who are these contractors anyway? Are they performing their tasks up to standard? Do they donate to political candidates? Are there any sweet-heart deals and/or monopolies in this business?

    Surely someone could produce an analysis demonstrating that a more costly up-front investment in better quality materials/methodologies saves money compared to the constant crisis/repair cycles….

  • 21 Old Diver // Mar 12, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Every one of Ben Jay’s questions requires money to solve. Money he doesn’t have.

  • 22 Old Diver // Mar 12, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    I talked to someone at Grace Pacific about ten years ago with the same questions. He said roads should be repaved every ten years. In Hawaii it is done every twenty years. According to him it has nothing to do with poor workmanship or wrong technology. It’s frequency of repaving.

  • 23 Old Diver // Mar 12, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    It’s clear we haven’t been throwing enough money at this problem. For twenty four years Mayor’s have been afraid to keep the city fuel tax revenue high enough to keep our roads in prime condition. The math backs up the $21 per year increase in fuel tax to save on over $700 in car repairs.

  • 24 Rob // Mar 13, 2013 at 4:48 am

    The Pali town bound right lane should be temporarily closed. as it probably doesn’t meet a long list of federal highway safety standards. truly incredible we even let it get this bad.

    Guam has more rain, less money, and better roads. I think Hawaii just gets fleeced by the paving contractors. but then again, if they built roads that lasted, they wouldn’t get as much work.

  • 25 Reader // Mar 13, 2013 at 7:55 am

    I work at Campbell Industrial Park. They are rebuilding a 2-3 block long stretch of Kalaeloa Blvd, just south of Kapolei Pkwy, next to the Costco. It looks like they’re doing it right and it should be wonderful when completed. The only problem is THEY’VE BEEN WORKING ON IT FOR 3 YEARS AND IT’S NOT FINISHED. Shameful.

  • 26 Tom // Mar 13, 2013 at 8:19 am

    One of the worst areas, one which they seldom seem to fix is Waiakamilo Road between Nimitz Highway and Kalani Street in Kalihi. Numerous patches over the years, but now probably 8 to 10 potholes overall in both directions, some of which are deep and can do great damage.

  • 27 Natalie // Mar 13, 2013 at 9:32 am

    While quite a number of years the funding for road work was woefully inadequate, the last couple of years significant amounts have been appropriated. One thing I’m concerned with regarding this is that the staffing is not sufficient to properly handle the planning. If I recall correctly, city council increased the roadway repair budget last year by about $30M over what the Mayor had proposed, but then reduced salaries by $40k or so. When staffing is low, we end up with additional costs due to change orders to fix errors. In addition, one of the main contractors had a backlog and was unable to keep up with the additional work.

    As I understand it, another part of the problem has to do with the quality of the materials being used. There are different grades of asphalt, and the city (and state) have apparently been using a lower grade. There are alternatives out there, and I understand a couple of the councilmembers are looking at them.

  • 28 Nothing New // Mar 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I believe you are referring to “pavement warranties.”

  • 29 Constantinos Papacostas // Mar 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I know I said that I would not get deep into this discussion, because of its complexity and because of what I consider an inadequate forum for it, but I cannot resist sharing with you what pavement specialists and pavement preservation experts take for granted:

    In most situations, addressing “only the worst roads first” is a losing proposition. Usually the optimal strategy is to devise an optimal combination of reconstruction (fixing bad roads) and rehabilitation/preservation (stretching the life of good roads via a variety of treatments).

    Striking the proper balance within rational budget constraints is what good “pavement management systems,” are all about.

  • 30 compare and decide // Mar 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    There is a general tendency everywhere to build new things rather than maintain old things.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-anderson/the-problem-with-potholes_b_870196.html

    For decades, states have invested disproportionately in road expansion and left regular repair and preservation underfunded. As a result of these spending decisions, road conditions in many states are getting worse and threaten taxpayers with billions of dollars in preventable expenses.

    Between 2004 and 2008, states collectively spent $37.9 billion on road repair and expansion projects. The majority of these funds — 57% — went to just 1.3% of roads during this time. The remaining 99% of states’ road networks received only 43% of funding. Not surprisingly, without adequate funding for repair many roads across the country fell out of good condition during this time.

    Investing in expansion at the cost of repair doesn’t just mean a rougher ride on some roads: it’s a transportation investment strategy that poses huge financial liabilities for states. Putting off repairs today means spending much more on those repairs in the future, as repair costs rise exponentially as road conditions decline. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, repairing a road that has fallen into poor condition can cost up to 14 times as much as preserving a road in good condition to begin with. Compounding these costs is the fact that with every dollar spent on road expansion, states add to a system they are already failing to adequately maintain.

    Related to this is short-sighted government policy toward paying for maintenance, which up until a few years ago was best exemplified by California.

    In order to pay for the repair of decaying infrastructure, local and state governments encouraged (and paid for) the building of new suburbs, which stimulated the regional economy and generated revenues — temporarily.

    First, eventually those new suburbs also become a burden of inevitably decaying infrastructure (also, the young families in the new suburbs and the state and county government workers who serve them also inevitably decay and retire and become a burden).

    Second, the new suburbs are over time proportionally smaller to the already built infrastructure. For instance, Los Angeles one hundred years ago would have doubled its size if it added a new suburb (as it did when it incorporated the San Fernando Valley, iirc); but one hundred years later, adding a new region to Los Angeles (e.g., opening the Inland Empire to massive development, which might happen eventually) would only add a small percentage on to the size of an already immense Los Angeles, not stimulating the economy so much.

    (Also, at this point in history, opening the Inland Empire to massive housing development would simply saturate the housing market with new supply, leading to a collapse in housing prices in California, thus driving up foreclosures, hurt banks and the economy, and accelerate the current migration of poor people into suburbs and young, educated people into the urban core — a recent reversal of the historical trend in the English-speaking world.)

    So in a sense, the tendency for the government to expand infrastructure to pay for infrastructure is a bit like a pyramid scheme, where past investors are not paid off with profits, but with the payments of new investors who will in the future need to be paid off themselves. And while the likes of Bernie Madoff knew that their scheme would hit a point of insufficient returns, politicians have not caught on up until recently to this dynamic in real estate (although California understands that now, but perhaps not Florida, which historically has been based on real estate booms).

    There is a kind of local saying one hears often that “Hawaii is good at building, but not maintaining.” That might need to be qualified. It could be that routine maintenance is quite good in Hawaii. In fact, routine services like the bus system and refuse collection are excellent. What might be lacking locally is not a commitment to routine maintenance, but fixing things.

    Fixing is a very different skill set from building things and maintaining them. Remember the old saying, “When you remove wallpaper, you never know what you are going to find.” Fixing things is a nightmare. It’s never exactly the same thing twice, whereas with building and maintaining, there is a set procedure.

    And this is perhaps true in most of the United States. For example, the TV show “This Old House” is really about fixing, renovation. But most of the tradesmen on that show are master craftsmen from New England, Portuguese and Irish guys from Boston. Structures in that part of the US sometimes go back centuries, so fixing and renovation are old school habits in New England. In the rest of the US, building stuff in the past two generations involves churning out generic pre-fab suburbs. So it’s not a Hawaii thing, it’s just that Hawaii is the most recently suburbanized and developed area in the US because it is farthest west. But as the nature of the economy and housing evolve, so will the skill set and orientation of local contractors and administrators. From here on, it’s mostly just fixing.

    And that has implications for the local and national educational system, because perhaps even tradesmen will need to become ‘college ready’ in order to deal more with the nightmare of fixing things and upgrading them to the latest technology.

  • 31 compare and decide // Mar 18, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Freakonomics had a good podcast recently on the issue of funding of transportation funding and the gas tax (“The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon“).

    It’s just a short, six-minute segment but definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: As average mileage goes up, the gas tax–which still provides the backbone of all transportation funding–brings in less and less money even while total miles driven might go up. It’s not an effective funding solution.

    1) It’s not a tax, it’s a fee, if it is dedicated to compensation for the particular service provided.

    2) Neither the article nor the podcast assert that it’s “not an effective funding solution.” They assert that it is an UNPOPULAR measure. People love government services (roads) but hate to pay for them. The problem is a lack of political will on the part of politicians. Everybody wants to be Santa Claus. (Related to this, the podcast notes that the fuel fees are not a percentage, the way a sales tax is, but rather a fixed sum that loses value each year in the face of inflation. Politicians want to keep the fees low in the face of potential oil price hikes.)

    The US has the lowest fuel fees in the developed world, by far.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fuel_tax_in_OECD_countries,_2010..png

    Remember, unless the government is expanding the road system dramatically, the overall cost of roads should be somewhat static and fixed. So again, the problem is very limited in scope. If everyone went out and bought a Prius and fuel fees were raised to pay for 100% of the cost of infrastructure, the cost to the individual driver would be no more than if everyone had gone out and bought an SUV (although with an SUV there is more wear and tear on the roads, entailing more overall cost).

    And this is the real problem: equity between drivers of different types of vehicles. The real problem is that drivers of bigger and older vehicles would pay more.

    And those drivers tend to be working class. Moreover, they tend to live out in the fringe suburbs and have the longest commutes. So this would really hurt a lot of folks who are already hurting.

    But, to a certain extent, this might be a good thing. Raising fuel fees dramatically to pay for infrastructure would be a reality check on what has become in this day and age a lifestyle choice of living in the suburbs and driving a gargantuan vehicle.

    In 2008, there was an article in the NYTimes about fuel prices and suburban expansion. When gas is cheap, suburbs grow; when its price rises, suburbs halt their expansion or even shrink.

    And people who live in the farthest suburbs (‘fringe suburbs’) tend to be people who grew up in small towns. They will live in a small town or a suburb, but they won’t move to town. The same s true of an urbanite like Woody Allen, who will move from Manhattan to Paris or London or Rome, but not to a small town (although he might live in a suburban area just outside of town).

    But in the NYTimes article, it noted that cultural values do change in an oil crisis. One woman who had a fifty mile or so commute had a neighbor who owned a pink Cadillac when she first moved into the new suburb. Every morning she would see the Cadillac and think “Wow, now I’d like to travel in style like that!” In 2008, she would see the Cadillac and think “Honey, you need therapy.” Under pressure, these kind of people will move to a suburb closer to town (and into a smaller house) for jobs and to save on fuel costs, but not usually into town itself. They are small-town cultural conservatives wedded to their cars and houses. (Conversely, Woody Allen probably does not know how to drive a car.)

    Now, there might be a chance that increased fuel fees will eventually become more palatable to American politicians. If more educated people live in town or closer to town and drive cars like the Prius, they will be more amenable to maintaining fuel fees to sustainable levels — because it will hurt them less. And these are the people who vote.

    So raising fuel fees might be a virtuous circle, compelling less driving, more urbanization, greater purchase of fuel efficient cars, which leads to greater willingness to raise the fees further, etc., etc.

    (Also, people tend to imitate their social superiors. In the English-speaking world since the Industrial Revolution, this has meant moving into nice safe suburbs. In the US, it meant buying giant houses and cars. But now young, educated people don’t want giant anything, and they don’t want to commute, whether it be by plane, train or automobile. They want to work at Google and hang out with Woody Allen in the city. So over time this sentiment will spread to the rest of us.)

  • 32 Carrie // Mar 19, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Lunalilo Home Road in Hawaii Kai. It was JUST repaved last year — as a cyclist I’ve been loving it because it’s soooo smooth. I was riding there last weekend and it’s horrible — huge potholes in the middle of the street and all of them in the new pavement. That is so very wrong!

  • 33 compare and decide // Mar 22, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    It is often argued that gasoline fees are a ‘regressive’ tax that, like the sales tax, hurts lower income families the most.

    But this is precisely what makes fuel fees so compelling and necessary.

    This is because fuel fees in part represent a type of ‘sin tax’.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sin_tax

    A sin tax is a kind of sumptuary tax: a tax specifically levied on certain generally socially proscribed goods and services, for example alcohol and tobacco, candies, soft drinks, fast foods, coffee, and gambling.

    Taxing automobile usage has always been considered a sin tax because of the negative externalities associated with air pollution. (In this sense, it is a fee used by the state to compensate outside or ‘third parties’ – neither buyer or seller of a pollutant – who are affected by the transactions of others.)

    Sumptuary taxes are ostensibly used for reducing transactions involving something that society considers undesirable, and is thus a kind of sumptuary law. Sin tax is used for taxes on activities that are considered socially undesirable. Common targets of sumptuary taxes are alcohol and tobacco, gambling, and vehicles emitting excessive pollutants. Sumptuary tax on sugar and soft drinks has also been suggested.

    There are criticisms that a sin tax is a regressive and hurts the poor the most.

    Critics of sin tax argue that it is a regressive tax in nature and discriminates against the lower classes, since taxation of a product such as alcohol or cigarettes does not account for ability to pay, therefore poor people pay a greater amount of their income as tax.

    However, if the item being taxed is, like tobacco, widely understood to be both self-destructive and addictive, then it is good that the tax or fee is regressive. The tax is saving the lives of the poor, and is not primarily a form of compensation to outside parties.

    Adam Smith supported the medical and moral arguments in The Wealth of Nations: “It has for some time been the policy of Great Britain to discourage the consumption of spirituous liquors, on account of their supposed tendency to ruin the health and corrupt the morals of the common people.”

    One could argue that cars and suburbs and the culture of commuting have always been a kind of drug, a kind of idealized escape from the realities of urban life.

    And suburbs are hugely destructive, culturally and spiritually, but also materially. In the words of the popular critic of suburban sprawl, the development of suburbs in the United States is the single greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. But it’s not just the environment that pays the price, or the finances of the nation. In terms of personal finance, suburbs are complicit in shopaholic behavior, with ordinary people buying big houses in order to pack away all the stuff they buy but never use.

    But suburbs, like small towns, have always been a magnet for cultural conservatives. They perceive suburbs to be wholesome and pure. Their image of the good life is a house surrounded by a white picket fence. (Even Prius-driving liberals in so-called ‘red states’ have bumper stickers that ask “What would Jesus drive?” – assuming that Jesus would live outside the city and drive a car.) In contrast, people typically associate ‘sin’ with dirt and pollution … and with city life.

    This perception is both true as well as an illusion. For example, Manhattan is, per square meter, the most polluted place in the United States in terms of air quality. However, per capita, Manhattan is the most energy efficient place in the United States, with people getting around on foot or taxis or by mass transit, and by living and working in apartments and offices that are insulated by other apartments and offices.

    There is understandably a tendency to segregate homes from workspaces based on cleanliness, both in terms of physical and moral pollution. The first zoning laws were passed in San Francisco, because there were tanneries in the cities surrounded by homes. The second city to establish zoning laws was New Orleans, because there were brothels surrounded by homes in the city. But these two places were urban areas, not suburban. One can have zoning laws in the city without fostering the desire to have far flung suburbs that provide an escape from urban ills. So the appeal of the suburbs is not entirely rational.

    All of this begs the question of how culturally conservative Hawaii is, and wedded to cars and suburbs and the commuter mode of existence. An interesting example is found in the debates over developing Kakaako. The most outspoken critic of development there argued against the construction of residential buildings in Kakaako on the grounds that it would contribute to more traffic. But the whole purpose of building high-density mixed-use areas is to preclude the need for commuting. This is understood by pretty much everybody (e.g., on Oahu, it has been explicitly stated in the City’s General Plan in regards to Kapolei for a long time now). But astonishingly, this critic just did not get it. Even among critics of development in Hawaii, residential life is automatically associated with commuting. That is very culturally conservative.

    Similarly, in regard to the condition of Oahu’s streets, let me relate a story that was conveyed to me somewhat recently. There was a wealthy family that left Hawaii in the early 1990s, just prior to the recessions that began to hit Hawaii every five years, who returned to vacation here. Now, back when they lived here, they were always complaining how liberal and leftist Hawaii is, about how Hawaii was a kind of Soviet Socialist Republic, with UH tuition set at $1,000 a year for a full-time student (even though their kids went there). On their recent vacation, they drove around Oahu, and noticed how all the streets in wealthy neighborhoods were nice and smooth, and how the streets in poorer areas were cratered with potholes. They were shocked and outraged at this. Hawaii is not socialist after all, they concluded. Hawaii is elitist. Like the billionaire investor Warren Buffet says about the stock market, when the tide goes out, you can see who is not wearing a bathing suit. When the easy money was coming in to the State, it was going out nice and fast to things that seemed progressive. But the political system showed its true colors when the money became scarce.

Leave a Comment

*