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Getting Around Honolulu

TheBus is the public transportation service on O’ahu. TheBus has a ridership of approximately 71.7 million boarding annually on its fleet of 531 buses, providing daily service on 107 routes. TheBus is privately managed by Oʻahu Transit Services Inc.,which operates the system under a public-private partnership with the City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services.

TheBus’ origins trace back to its early days as The Honolulu Rapid Transit and Land Company, which operated buses and trolley lines mostly in the Honolulu district, while most of the outlying areas were serviced by competing bus companies. HRT was founded on June 6, 1898, the same date and year that Hawaii was annexed by the United States, and would start streetcar operations in Honolulu in 1901. Honolulu Rapid Transit operated streetcars from 1901-1941, motor buses continually from 1925 onward, and trolley buses from 1937-1957. During its tenure, the HRT Boards were part of the power structure that dominated Hawaii politics and industry for the next 50 years and were related to practically every other important business in Hawaii by either kinship or interlocking directorates. It would also see other issues that caused its downfall in later years, which included a series of strikes by union workers and reports of a hostile takeover of the company by its then new owner Harry Weinberg in 1955 after he began buying up other properties in Hawai’i.

By the 1960s, it became evident that the City & County of Honolulu, being affected by HRT’s operation/management structure and constant strikes that at times left passengers without bus service for as long as 60+ days (most notably a 67-day strike in 1967 followed four years later by a 60-day strike in 1970), would look at acquiring HRT and its competitors as more cities in the United States were taking over operations of privately owned bus companies. So on September 14, 1970, and under the guidance of then-Mayor of Honolulu Frank Fasi, the city established Mass Transit Lines (MTL) Limited, a management firm and forerunner to The Oahu Transit Services, to oversee operations. After careful negotiations the city would purchase HRT for $2 million for a down payment along with an additional $1 million to buy new buses. Fasi later went to Dallas, Texas and bought 50 ex-Dallas Transit System 1964-built GM air-conditioned New Looks (TDH5303), followed by adding 17 new New Looks (T6H5307A) from GM’s Pontiac, Michigan plant, after his visit there. On February 25, 1971, the city council officially approved a contract for MTL to take over operations[7], and on March 1 of the same year HRT was renamed TheBus.

The success of TheBus and its business model has been well-received by the public, the visitors, and of course, the transit industry itself. Ridership for TheBus has grown from 30 million passengers per year to approximately 71 million. TheBus is now the 20th most utilized transit system in the country, the 13th most utilized bus fleet, and the sixth highest transit ridership in the country per-capita. TheBus also has the lowest cost per passenger mile of any system and one of the lowest cost per boarding passengers in the industry.

Despite its success, TheBus also had its share of setbacks. In August 2003 a strike by union workers left Honolulu without bus service for nearly a month. This move and its settlement the following September coincided with the City Council approving a fare increase to $2 and other increases in rates and pass fees, in part to fund the city’s promise to the Teamsters not to cut service and employees. By 2006, ridership and profits rebounded thanks to the implementation of programs geared toward college students who commute to school and work, and rising gas prices.

In 2009, ridership for TheBus dipped slightly due to 2 percent due to its July 2009 decision to increase its fares to $2.25 (it will be raised to $2.50 starting in July 2010), lower gas prices, and a rising unemployment rate. But overall, Honolulu has had relatively high bus ridership. In 2008, 5.6 percent of Hawai’i commuters used public transportation, while 66.8 percent drove to work alone, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

On September 29, 2009, Oahu Transit Services and the City & County of Honolulu announced plans to build an intermodal transit center that will be located at TheBus’ facilities at Middle Street. The $8.2 million dollar project, called The Middle Street Intermodal Center, whose location will take up a large portion of the Middle Street-Kamehameha Highway intersection, is scheduled to open in October 2010. The newly expanded facility will incorporate TheBus, HandiVan, bicycles, cars, walking and the future light rail line, that, once completed, will include a bridge and walkway for passengers who want to make connections to the rail line’s Middle Street station from the transit center. In addition, the center will also have a 1000-car parking facility, an enclosed transit layover bay for waiting passengers, an electronic information billboard, a customer service center, two restroom buildings, a utility building, and security office.

Since its inception, TheBus has been the only mass transit system to be recognized twice by the American Public Transportation Association as America’s Best Transit System for 1994–1995 and 2000-2001, beating other transit systems. In addition, TheBus has received other accolades and awards for its long-standing tradition of providing customers and visitors a well-efficient bus operation, its commitment to Honolulu, and its strive to improving service islandwide.

With such a high level of dependability and frequent schedules, many locals advise visitors to use TheBus for transportation around O’ahu, rather than renting a car. The advantages are that riding TheBus allows visitors to avoid the problems associated with driving unfamiliar, narrow and winding roads, to save on the costs of car rental and gasoline, and be freed from having to pay for parking (which may be difficult to find near popular venues such as Waikiki, Iolani Palace and Aloha Tower). However, the primary reason for tourists to ride TheBus is that they are able to view the scenery without distraction. When they see something of particular interest, they can get off at the nearest stop, then catch another bus when they are ready to move on.

This is especially popular with visitors to famous sites such as the Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea, who can ride the Route 55 bus, which travels the Kamehameha Highway along the North Shore and Windward Side shorelines.

Due to its low cost and wide coverage, TheBus is a very popular means of travel by high school students. The fact that free school bus routes are not provided for the majority of Honolulu’s students, as they are in many other parts in the United States, also contributes to high usage of TheBus among high school students. Because of this popularity, and the fact it was developed during Fasi’s tenure as mayor of Honolulu, it received the nickname “Uncle Fasi’s Limousine Service” which is usually shortened to “Uncle Fasi’s” or “Fasi’s Limo”. (Q:”How are you getting to the prom?” A:”Fasi’s Limo!”). It should be noted that this terminology is very rarely used today and those of younger generations will probably not know what ‘Fasi’s Limo’ is.

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