A cool solution to a hot topic: Community hubs can address climate change, mobility, and resilience in Hawai’i.

By Anu Hittle, Department of Land and Natural Resources

Think about how a place that now stores single occupancy vehicles (aka a parking lot) can be transformed into hub of activity that brings options and amenities to all people—not just those who own cars. Imagine how this valuable land could be used for transit, bikes, bikeshare, carshare, e-bike and e-freight parking, electric vehicle charging, drones, AVs, and yes, even kayaks. You’re imagining a multi-modal mobility hub. Now take that further, and make it a place where people can access not just mobility, but amenities—like daycare, laundry, groceries. And in times of disaster events, these could even serve as resilience hubs. This was one of the main points made in HEPF’s first virtual peer exchange organized in coordination with the state’s Climate Change Commission staff to highlight priorities of reducing ground transportation emissions in Hawai’i.

On August 13th, 2020 over thirty peers from various state and city agencies (Department of Transportation Services, Department of Planning and Permitting, Hawai’i Department of Transportation, Office of Planning, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Oahu and Maui Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Hawai’i State Energy Office), U.S. EPA and Ulupono Initiative, collaborated to discuss what are multi-modal mobility hubs, and how they can help Hawai’i achieve its climate change goals, in keeping with the Commission’s focus on “clean, equitable and resilient” strategies for climate action.

Five experts from various design and mobility firms presented a “Multi-modal Mobility Hubs 101” and led the group through some of the innovative designs they have been creating for the past several years in cities all over the country—everything from huge transit hubs, to first and last mile tree-lined walks for urban cooling. The group’s goal was to figure out how these forward-looking concepts could be applied to Hawai’i to transform state parking lots into something that serves all of Hawai’i’s communities and people.

Along with facilitator Asia Yeary (EPA), co-leads Pradip Pant (DOT) and Lauren Armstrong (Maui MPO) guided the group via three randomly assigned breakout rooms. In these “zoom rooms”, each group discussed three main questions:

  1. What questions do you have and what do you see as the challenges?
  2. What would you like to see in Hawai’i?
  3. What are the next steps to making this happen?

Here are the main points of the fast-paced morning discussion:

  • Barriers: coordination, inter-jurisdictional and funding. As you’d expect, it’s pretty much what plagues every cross-pollination project. But more importantly, the groups wondered if multi-modal mobility is the “orphan child” that has no parent agency to look after it? And if so, where’s the best home within state and county governments? How to get this topic on the radar of elected officials, and developers? COVID-related challenges were on everyone’s minds, but the group agreed that there exists a ‘seize the pandemic’ opportunity, one that could actually be used to make some headway on the transit-bike-pedestrian nexus with climate change, resilience and affordability.
  • Questions: specifics of different types of hubs. Peers were intrigued by the different possibilities that the five design experts discussed. For instance, what about rural hubs, and ones where the function changed throughout the day? Could there be hubs for visitors too, not just residents? This led to thinking about developing typologies for the Hawaiian islands, incorporating different needs. And, instead of calling these multi-modal mobility hubs, perhaps we can call them community hubs? They could include a menu of options, such as active transportation, food access, open-air markets, freight, wifi, etc. and be co-located strategically near libraries, transit, and so on.
  • A vision for Hawai’i, and how to get there. What can we do in Hawai’i, and would our next steps be? Generally, peers agreed that we need to develop a few typologies, and consider expanding the use of such hubs to amenities for daily use, as well as in the event of disasters. For such hubs to be truly useful, the discussion needs to originate with community partners, where it is a preferred local solution addressing community needs. That said, one may be left wondering how to involve a community that doesn’t necessarily want to bike, walk or take the bus, especially post-COVID. But what would be the challenge if the answers to such things were already apparent? So, that’s where a community needs assessment comes in. Using the results of such an assessment, a pilot project could be developed to show how this is a cool solution to a hot topic.

Whether random or designed by fate (Pradip calculated the probability of all three DOT participants being randomly assigned to the same “zoom room” at 0.0000539!), peers arrived at some interesting and exciting possibilities for not only addressing the state’s climate goals, but also unclogging a transportation dilemma, while making life better in the Hawaiian islands. How’s that for optimism in the time of COVID?

Note: The State’s Climate Change Commission sought and was awarded grant funds from Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization and other sources to develop a plan for assessment of state parking facilities statewide that will allow for multi-modal use. The HEPF peer exchange will help determine a general focus for the project.