Hawaii Says Aloha to Safe Streets

    • September 2, 2011

Joe Bertram III moved to Hawaii as a 9-year-old in the 1960s and remembers walking to school and back home every day.

"It was a great form of exercise," he recalls, "and it was quiet, serene. You could hear the wind."

In the decades since, Hawaii's population has grown steadily, bringing more cars and ever-larger housing developments that frequently lack sidewalks.

"It got crowded, and people got pushed right off the road," says Bertram.

As a member of Hawaii's House of Representatives from 2006 to 2010, Bertram joined a national policy movement called Complete Streets, aimed at balancing the needs of all users—bicyclists, people with disabilities, automobile drivers and pedestrians—to create a transportation environment that's welcoming, safe and efficient for everyone. After attending a 2008 walking and biking advocacy summit hosted by the nonprofit Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii (PATH), he introduced complete streets legislation in the Hawaii legislature.

Passed in 2009, the Hawaii law was informed by a National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) legislative brief, funded as part of a Leadership for Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The multi-year grant has enabled the bipartisan NCSL to work with state legislatures across the country, providing technical and research assistance on complete streets policies, among many other issues. These policies mandate or encourage state departments of transportation to consider all users during the planning, construction, maintenance and improvements of transportation infrastructure. According to NCSL, so far 26 states have complete streets policies, 14 of which were created through legislation.

The case for policy change to increase pedestrian safety has been especially urgent in the state of Hawaii. From 2003 to 2007, Hawaii led the nation in pedestrian traffic fatalities for people over age 65, with an annual rate almost three times the national average.

"Hawaiians enjoy being outdoors," says NCSL's Douglas Shinkle. "And many of them don't own cars, particularly seniors. Nationwide, one in five Americans over age 65 doesn't drive. Whether they choose to or they have to, the fact is Hawaiians are already walking, even though the streets are not always safe for pedestrians."

In 2009, legislatures in 44 states considered pedestrian, bicycle and low-speed vehicle safety bills, most of which did not pass. What made Hawaii's efforts successful?

"Car-centrism has driven our development for too long," says Bertram, whose 2009 testimony before the House Transportation Committee helped win the votes needed for the bill to pass. "But finally we're waking up and, as I like to say, walking back to the future. Complete streets are fundamental to a healthy community."

In addition to NCSL providing sample legislation and other technical assistance, Bertram credits a well-organized, broad-based coalition called One Voice for Livable Islands, made up of local organizations, including PATH, the Hawaii offices of the AARP, Sierra Club, American Heart Association and the American Planning Association.

"They had clout, and they were totally behind us," he says. "Community residents were well informed and showed up at our hearings in the legislature. The room was always full of supporters. Everyone agreed we had to create a more walkable, bikeable environment. At first the Department of Transportation was adamantly against it. But we changed their minds. We got a far-reaching law and created a permanent Complete Streets Task Force in the legislature."

"While many states have taken a piecemeal approach," says Shinkle, "Hawaii's was more persistent and more comprehensive." The law requires that planning for any mass transit system run by the state include accommodations for bicycle lanes and bicycle routes to enable mass transit users to connect by bicycle to transit stations and bus stops. It also encourages off-road walking and bike paths. Funding from RWJF will support an evaluation of how the new policy will impact childhood obesity levels in Hawaii County over time, which will provide an indication of the potential impact in other parts of the state.

Still, advocates' work is far from over. Now that the law has passed, the next challenge is ensuring its implementation on all roads, including those maintained by counties. Advocates are reaching out to local public works directors and other county-level officials to develop new ordinances and to update road-design standards.

The coalition also is focusing its efforts on children's health and safety through its partnership with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, whose state network project is supported by RWJF. The Partnership works with states to help children become more physically active by walking and bicycling to school, and in the process reduces traffic congestion and air pollution.

Bertram is optimistic about the future.

"We now have a state task force, we have legal standards we can point to. We also have a grassroots coalition. And with all the great work going on around the country, we have inspiration and models to go even further."

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