City should take note of Big Isle free bus program
Ridership on Big Island buses has increased dramatically since fares have been eliminated.
HAWAII County is proving that drivers can be lured from their cars to take public transportation if the price of a ticket is right, which in this case it is.
Free fares have boosted ridership on Hele On buses significantly in the first week the no-cost program has been offered on all routes. Though factors on the Big Island differ from those on Oahu, city officials should take note as Honolulu moves toward establishing mass transit.
Since Oct. 1, when the free rides began, Hawaii County has seen a jump of as much as 87 percent to 12 percent on the dozen or so routes of the Hele On system. The number of riders the buses carry isn't large -- about 350,000 passengers a year -- but the program shows that people can be drawn to public transportation.
Mayor Harry Kim set up the free fares for a 90-day trial because gasoline prices that had risen to record levels across the state hit the Big Island harder. In addition to paying more, many drivers travel great distances to employment centers. Though Honolulu drivers bemoan their costs, most have only a few miles between home and jobs while Big Island commutes can stretch hundreds of miles.
Kim also hoped to lessen congestion on highways, especially in West Hawaii, where rapid residential and resort development has far exceeded the pace of road construction, and to reduce the potential for traffic accidents as many commuters start off before dawn to get to their jobs on time and make return trips at twilight or later on narrow, twisting roads.
Not collecting fares for the Hele On bus, which runs about 75 cents one way, will cost the county about $25,000 a month, but it appears that amount can be absorbed for the time being and officials are planning to continue and expand service with 10 new buses arriving at year's end.
For the Big Island, forgoing fares yields advantages. Starting a similar program in Honolulu would be problematic since TheBus operations are much more expensive, primarily because of labor costs.
However, as the city steps toward a transit system, officials must keep in mind that its success will hinge in part on persuading motorists to leave their vehicles in the garage. Even with sharply rising gasoline prices, Honolulu drivers remain averse to public transportation, largely due to a perception that riding TheBus is inconvenient, and to lifestyle choices.
Nonetheless, city officials should experiment with either discounted fares or free tickets for residents to see what will result.