From streetcars to bike lanes: the story of Honolulu’s King Street

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Written by Natalie Schack and Taylor Ellis

Video by Jonathan Keao

Photos by Marco Garcia

To the uninitiated, Hawaii and its capital city don’t conjure a vision of automobile exhaust. But the narrow core of Honolulu, squeezed between an impassable mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, boasts one of the highest-priced housing markets in the country, and with it, an ever-growing population of drivers.

At almost 400,000 residents, Hawaii’s most populous city—which seems to sprout new, high-end condos overnight—relies heavily on South King Street, a nearly laser straight, one-way high-speed conduit from Iolani Palace, former seat of government for the Kingdom of Hawaii, to the University of Hawaii.

A view down King Street towards a couple of new condo buildings.
Looking south toward King Street from Piikoi Street in Honolulu. The glassy towers of the luxury Moana Pacific condo development rise in the distance.

When the five lanes of King Street are taken with the five lanes of its opposing sister street, South Beretania, this primary transit corridor has more lanes than the H-1 interstate, the busiest of the island’s three freeways.

Nonetheless, South King Street is the birthplace of enduring Hawaiian icons, ground zero for battles over transportation and access, and current player of a pivotal role in the future of community in Honolulu.

The 21st century in the Islands has, and is, seeing an explosion of development, with ocean-view luxury megastructures sprouting up faster than tropical weeds, and desirable units getting snapped up overnight. Concrete and glass towers line the world-famous coastlines, while hopeful homeowners engage in bidding wars over multi-million-dollar mountain rainforest residences.

In the middle of all of this, South King Street, through a combination of zoning, restrictions, and family and community ownership, has, on the surface, remained largely unchanged.

Long before someone even thought up the idea of an interstate, King Street was the main thoroughfare in the city. This is the road down which, in 1899, the first two cars in Hawaii were test-driven at a speed of eight miles an hour. The Hawaii Gazette was pleased to note that the automobiles “appeared to excite no undue attention from horses.”

A tree in front of the exterior of Precision Radio, which closed earlier this year and the building is now for sale.
Precision Radio opened shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and moved into this building on King Street in 1955. But after a drop in sales, the business closed earlier this year. The building is currently for sale.

1901 shook King Street up with the introduction of electric streetcars, a futuristic contraption that created an uproar of protests among the horse taxi drivers. The streetcars would end their service less than six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. entered WWII.

But, for a period, the avenue was a quintessentially multimodal corridor, one that would make any modern-day creative urbanite swoon: a bustling artery brimming with horse-drawn taxis, electric automobiles, sparking streetcars, trundling bicycles and dapper pedestrians. In what today would be called transit-oriented development, mom-n-pop shops, homes, and community nodes sprung up along both sides of the street.

Then something changed. In the new millennium, restaurant and shop closures read like obituaries in regular intervals on the front page. What happened?

A path snakes through the museum-like vacuum cleaner showroom. An example of the first vacuum ever made hangs on the wall above an elderly gentleman quietly dozing in the corner, while the shop owner looks up with a greeting from the disassembled motor on his counter.

Barry Schneider’s repair shop, Filter Queen of Hawaii, has sat on the corner of King and Pensacola since his father, the gentleman sleeping against the wall, set up shop in 1953, one year after he was discharged from the military.

The exterior of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, from the sidewalk.
The exterior of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, which has been on King Street since it opened in 1953.

Barry started working, officially, for his father Norman in 1977, but he’s been haunting the nooks and crannies between vacuum parts all his life. Barry can draw a map from memory of all of the locally-owned shops and restaurants that lined King Street a good 30 years ago: Wisteria Restaurant with its fresh green sea turtle steaks, or the iconic Washington Saimin, which closed in 2003 after losing a battle against fast-food chain restaurants.

To the Schneiders and their employees, King Street has always been a family neighborhood. In the old days, some of the staff lived nearby, and would walk the few short blocks from boarding houses. Even today, most of the shop’s loyal customers are from the surrounding area and the Schneiders, in turn, make an effort to patronize neighboring local businesses.

It’s a small community in this age of King-Street-as-automobile-corridor, but it’s one in whose character the Schneiders are invested in preserving. In fact, when a nearby restaurant attempted to get a liquor license, the family signed a petition to block it. They didn’t want the street to turn into “another Ke‘eaumoku,” a street known for bars, strip clubs, and sporadic violence.

Still, Bruce Onouye, a long time employee of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, fears that the sense of community will continue to decline, despite their efforts and petitions. “There’s no more “aloha” anymore,” he bemoans, adding that the whole culture and climate of the neighborhood has shifted to suit the modern rat race. “People gotta make a living, working two jobs to live in Hawaii.”

The median home price for this area of Honolulu is over $600,000, meaning that even with a 30-year mortgage, a family would face a minimum payment of around $3,000 a month.

In this area of Honolulu (zip code ), the median home price is , with an average family income of . (Compare to your zip code, , which has a median home price of and a medium household income of .)

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“People are in too much of a rush to get where they’re going,” agrees Schneider. “When people have more leisure time, they’re more relaxed.” Words to consider from a content shop owner, who takes a five-minute commute to a job he’s passionate about.

The Schneiders may be enjoying a picturesque sense of community, reminiscent of the Street’s glory days of yore—but for the 54 percent of the population that has to face the daily, near hour-long commute through some of the worst traffic in the nation, things look considerably less rosy.

A view from the street of The Punahou Auto Service, the exterior is blue steel scraps that were initially salvaged from Pearl Harbor.
The Punahou Auto Service shop at Punahou and King Street. When World War II ended, Koon Hoy Ho built Punahou Auto Service with steel scraps he salvaged from Pearl Harbor, where he had worked as a mechanic during the war.

From the neighboring Punahou Auto Service, a corrugated steel structure that sits on the corner of Punahou and King Street, fellow business owner Malcolm Ho has seen firsthand the economic and social changes to King Street’s community.

Physically, Ho says King Street looks much the same as it did decades ago, when he took over from his father in 1983. Ho believes that modern building regulations, while generally considered positive for place-making, are to blame for the stagnation, in this case.

According to Ho, any changes to these old buildings would void grandfather clauses that exempt the owners from requirements, such as 15-feet of green space setback, or an increased number of parking stalls. While the street and structures haven’t changed, the people and sense of community have.

Currently, the street itself is zoned industrial, but in a teeny city like Honolulu, industrial and residential neighborhoods with culturally distinct boundaries often stand shoulder to shoulder, a few steps away from each other.

A cyclist riding on the bike lane on King Street.
A cyclist using the bike lanes on King Street.

Two-story walk-ups and war-era single-family homes border the road on parallel streets a block to the North and South. The Ho family lived on King Street themselves with Ho’s early memories involving foraging for fruits and exploring culverts under the road by torchlight.

The two-mile-long King Street Protected Bicycle Lane, which opened in 2014, has been a point of contention with its removal of one lane of vehicle traffic and the, occasionally literal, friction between people on bicycles and people in cars.

Daniel Alexander, Advocacy, Planning, and Communication Director for the Hawaii Bicycling League, explains that King Street is intended to be the central spine of a future “minimum grid” of bicycle infrastructure that connects people to places, while fostering interactions.

“People need to have a paradigm shift where they no longer see their commute as wasted dead space,” says Alexander. For those traveling by bicycle, there are opportunities to engage: to stop and talk to friends on the route, perhaps. Or, even to discover small hidden treasures, like a bagpipe group that’s been practicing in a neighborhood parking garage for the past 30 years.

For Alexander, “[The bike lane] is one of the lowest-stress riding environments in Honolulu. I noticed, without me thinking about it, that my speed drops when I get onto King. I don’t feel the need to race to maintain speed with the cars tailing me.”

McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods was started in 1923 by Giyei Takayesu, and it has been serving the King Street community since 1971. The shop grew out of a gas station that sold fishing poles and repaired bikes near a sugar plantation in Waipahu, and business expanded steadily after World War II, with each generation of the Takayesu family working in the shop. The current location is the third incarnation of the store.

Ryan Takayesu, Giyei’s great grandson, grew up around the shop and is now the manager. In an era of big box stores with liberal return policies and online retailers with one-click free shipping, it’s difficult for a brick-and-mortar shop to survive.

He talks of the street’s supportive community, in which “some people would buy local no matter what—but we want to earn it.” Their family business has managed to outlast the Sports Authority several blocks to the west, which closed, along with all of the retailer’s Hawaii stores in 2016.

Given the new bike lane, it’s important for the Hawaii Bicycling League to win over business owners. “There is tension between the big transportation corridor view and the reality of the vibrant small business community,” says Alexander. “You can get almost anything you’d ever want on King Street, but a lot of shops are so small that you only notice them if you’re trying.”

With a bicycle, a small amount of input energy yields a multiplied output. Seeing families biking together within the concrete barriers of the bright green lane, one can’t help but wonder if some paint and concrete could, likewise, really be the catalyst that reverses the perceived decline of this community.

The corner of King Street, Punahou Auto Service with modern buildings behind it.
Malcolm Ho, owner of the Punahou Auto Service, believes modern building regulations are to blame for stagnation along King Street.

“One thing’s for sure,” says Barry Schneider, “the bike lane has allowed us to meet a lot of eccentric characters.”

It’s difficult to talk about King Street and focus on only one aspect. Lines of community, transportation, development and economics weave through the business dynasties of the past, and new business owners who have yet to become moms and pops themselves.

Decades from now, a new generation will come to the owners of King Street, full of questions about life here at the turn of the century and about what they see for the future of transportation and society.

What does the future hold? Will the King Street Protected Bike Lane be the savior or destroyer of its host community?

The verdict is still out, but Malcolm Ho seems to greet it all with a shrug. “I don’t think it’s going to change much,” he says of King Street, as he heads to the gate to close up for the day. Beyond him, Honoluluians pass by in cars, on bicycles and by foot, winding their way through the city. “People are adaptable,” he says, as he locks his door.

Natalie Schack is a fashion- and film-obsessed Oahu girl who spends her time writing, eating, crafting, and scheming her way through the island’s mountains, gardens, and city streets. Taylor Ellis is the Transportation Alternatives Program Manager for the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization whose hobby is navigating difficult and dangerous places.

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