Planning Director George Atta on planning for a more convenient Honolulu, HI

honoluluArtist’s rendering of light rail service through downtown Honolulu. Image via AIA Honolulu.

Honolulu, HI is known for its natural beauty. The city unfortunately also has third worst traffic in the nation. To help remedy that, the City of Honolulu is working to create alternate ways for residents to get around the island and George Atta, the Honolulu Planning Director and a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, is one of the leaders making it happen.

Atta grew up in Honolulu and has been in the planning profession for many years. Doing this work on a small island, he explains, makes many smart growth lessons more immediate.

“Planners on an island see the consequences of our actions pretty quickly,” Atta says, “The problems we create stay here. So it’s been easy for us to understand the benefits of a smart growth approach.”

The City is putting that approach in to action. In 2012 Honolulu passed a comprehensive Complete Streets policy and is now working to implement it. Complete Streets policies are designed to make streets safer and more convenient for people of all ages and abilities, and Honolulu’s policy applies to all new road construction and repaving. The city’s first major protected bike lane was built last year, and so far at least three more Complete Streets projects are in the works. As an added bonus, the City is also using Complete Streets strategies to improve how it manages storm water. Complete Streets additions like bioswales, rain gardens, and street trees will help the City meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s low impact development standards and requirements.

To improve connectivity and reduce traffic, Honolulu is also working on a 20 mile above ground rail line that runs east to west. Currently under construction, the rail will connect Kapolei in the West to Ala Moana Shopping Center in the East. There will be 21 stations in-between that service four major universities and the airport. The city is responsible for redeveloping 19 of the stations, two of which are currently under development in hopes that they will become transit oriented development hubs. To help that happen, the city has changed the zoning around the stations to allow for higher density and protect the countryside from further sprawl. An extension to University of Manoa is planned, as well as a possible transit connector to Waikiki. The first phase of the construction, which includes the first seven stops, is slated to finish in 2017 and the goal is to complete the entire project by 2020.

Atta is passionate the future of Honolulu, and it shows. “We want to create a new kind of vibrant urbanism,” says Atta, “one that integrates good transit and natural space into the urban fabric, attracts and retains young people, and is safe for an aging population.” In the future, he hopes that the rail line is finished on time, that the extension is built to the University of Manoa, and that the combination of the Complete Streets policy and the rail line will reduce traffic and help preserve natural land.

Local Leaders Council