Unlike many cities on the U.S. mainland, Honolulu is not laid out in a strict compass-point grid. Its street system conforms in large part to the shorelines, valleys, and ridges, with lots of twists and turns. It can be confusing for people used to straight grid systems. However, at the same time, it is not that difficult to navigate in, as long as you are familiar with the major arterials and terminology below.
Because it is difficult to differentiate north and south on an island, directions are normally given in terms of local landmarks. The most common terms that you will run into are mauka (Mow-kah) meaning "toward the mountain" and makai (mah-KAI) meaning "toward the sea". In the case of Honolulu, which is on Oahu's south shore, "mauka" is a rough north, and "makai" roughly south. You will also hear Ewa-bound (Eh-vah) and Town-bound used a lot, in relation to downtown Honolulu, the former roughly means "west" (toward the town of Ewa on the southwest shore of Oahu) and the latter roughly means "east" (towards Honolulu; locals refer to Honolulu proper as "town"). Highway signs, however, will use standard compass directions, so if you are asked to go Ewa-bound on the freeway, look for the on-ramp to H-1 west.
It is a very good idea to invest in a good map of Honolulu before doing extensive driving. Members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) can request fold-out maps for free from their local office. Rand McNally paper fold-out maps are available in many stores; for more extensive coverage you can also purchase Bryan's Sectional Maps (a popular choice among locals) at most bookstores for about $9.50. GPS-enabled devices can also be used to navigate around Honolulu, and Oahu.
Streets in Honolulu can be extremely narrow compared to the mainland. Locals are used to this lack of space on roads but if you are coming from the mainland and are used to wide roads, prepare yourself for driving very close to the cars around you. Just take a little extra caution and you should not have any problems. Once outside of Honolulu proper, the roads will be a bit wider.
Please take note that many intersections on busy streets in town do prohibit left turns, especially intersections on Kapiolani Boulevard, due to flow of traffic and other various reasons.
If coming from the mainland, speed limits on roads in Honolulu are generally lower than you may be used to. For example, six-laned King Street is 25–30 miles per hour for its entire length. Most streets are no more than 25 miles per hour. In addition to this, many people disregard the speed limit, instead driving slower, which may be frustrating.
During periods of rain at night, the lane markings on the roads will not be easily visible even to people with excellent vision. Take extreme caution during these times.
There are a few rules to take note of, especially if you come from a foreign country and are not used to driving in the United States:
Most major streets in Honolulu run Ewa–Diamond Head (as described in the preceding section, roughly east-west). There are two main highways in Honolulu: Nimitz Highway (Hawaii 92) which runs from Pearl Harbor past Honolulu Airport to downtown Honolulu and Waikiki; and Interstate H-1 which runs mauka (mountain-ward) of downtown and runs the entire length of the south shore of Oahu.
H-1 is some distance away from Waikiki itself and you need to go onto surface streets to and from Waikiki. If you need to access H-1 west from Waikiki to go someplace outside of the city, there are three main routes:
To get back to Waikiki from H-1 east, take any of these routes:
There are also several routes from H-1 to downtown and back. To get to downtown from H-1 east, use one of these routes:
To get to H-1 west from downtown, use one of these routes:
In central Honolulu, the two main streets are King Street and Beretania Street. The two streets are one-way for most of their route; King Street runs from 'Ewa to Diamond Head, and Beretania Street from Diamond Head to 'Ewa. Both streets run parallel through downtown Honolulu. Despite their rough west to east orientation, addresses on these streets are designated North and South respectively (the streets form an S curve, running north-south through downtown). The dividing line between North and South designations is Nuuanu Avenue in downtown Honolulu, which runs mauka-makai. Ala Moana Boulevard is a key route leading out of Waikiki to Downtown Honolulu. Past Honolulu Harbor, Ala Moana becomes Nimitz Highway and runs all the way to the airport and beyond. Tree-lined Kapiolani Boulevard is another major thoroughfare traversing east-central Honolulu, linking the Waikiki district and points east with downtown Honolulu, becoming Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki. Dillingham Boulevard runs from Middle Street in Kalihi to Aala Park right outside of Chinatown, then continues as Liliha Street into Liliha. McCully Street runs from Waikiki to the H-1 Freeway, an easy route to get to the interstate and out of town, or just to get out of Waikiki. Two major streets from Ala Moana to residential Makiki and the H-1 are Pensacola Street and Piikoi Street, running makai to Ala Moana and mauka to Makiki, respectively. Downtown, Pali Highway from the Windward side of the island becomes Bishop Street, a major one-way thoroughfare through the compact downtown running makai to Aloha Tower, and it's counterpart Alakea Street is one block east, running from Aloha Tower to Vineyard Boulevard, which forms the unofficial northern border for downtown. Through working class Kalihi is Kalihi Street, which becomes Likelike Highway running to Kaneohe on the windward side.
In Waikiki, the three main streets, from makai to mauka, are Kalakaua Avenue (one way Ewa to Diamond Head, along Waikiki Beach), Kuhio Avenue (two-way), and Ala Wai Boulevard (one way Diamond Head to Ewa, along the Ala Wai Canal).
Traffic in Honolulu, and on Oahu in general (in particular the southern shore), is a persistent problem. In fact, Honolulu's rush hour has been ranked among the worst in the nation. There are almost one million people living in a relatively small space, and only a few main routes connecting the major populated areas on the island to each other and to downtown Honolulu. As a result, a single traffic incident has the potential to induce gridlock across the entire island. You are unlikely to encounter a traffic jam of that magnitude, but someone visiting Oahu and traveling during a weekday should be aware of traffic problems.
Normal weekday rush hour in Honolulu is 5AM to 8AM going inbound and 3PM to 6:30PM going outbound. Expect heavy traffic on Interstates H-1 and H-2, Nimitz Highway/Ala Moana Boulevard, and the surface streets in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. However, traffic congestion is the norm for most of the daylight hours, often crawling along at less than ten miles per hour on the freeway, and often congested near onramps and offramps on the surface streets. There is almost always a slow down during the day on the H-1 between the Likelike and Punahou exits, often in both directions. On the H-1 eastbound (toward downtown Honolulu), the interchange at Middle Street (H-1 & H-201), the Vineyard Boulevard and Ward Avenue onramps, and the H-1/H-2 Merge are some of the worst bottlenecks, especially during rush hour. The merge at Middle Street has been named the single most congested section of freeway in the United States. Traffic is less heavy during the summer and over the holidays when the University of Hawaii at Manoa and public and private schools are not in session. Maybe a unique thing about Honolulu is that while traffic congestion is high, drivers are generally courteous and will let you in front of them if you signal beforehand and wave after.
All in all, though, driving on Oahu is pleasurable once you get off of the Interstates. Having a car on Oahu gives a visitor a chance to visit the whole island in just a few days. Once you get a little ways inland, the traffic is not too bad, and in the agricultural areas there is little traffic. Unless you are familiar with this climate, convertible tops should be up when the sun is intense.
The local bus service in Honolulu is called, with remarkable succinctness, TheBus. Fares are $2.50 for adults, $1.25 for children and seniors (no change given). TheBus runs intercity services to other parts of Oahu as well. Ask for a free transfer ticket, good for two hours, if you are continuing on another bus or returning on the same route. Monthly bus passes are available at 7-Elevens and supermarkets. Monthly bus passes begin on the first of each month and cost $60 (all-you-can-ride) regardless of which day of the month you purchase the pass. A $25 4-day Discovery Pass, can be purchased at an ABC Store. You scratch off the Month and day of your first use and each subsequent day (up to four total days) and enjoy unlimited rides. You can use the pass to take any bus including the Circle Island route and see the entire island. Yearly bus passes are also available for $660. All buses in the fleet are equipped with bike racks that can hold two or three bikes. Buses are also wheelchair accessible. Larger groups may want to tour the city via charter bus; there are several chartering companies available on the island.
A taxi ride from Honolulu International Airport to Waikiki will cost around $30 to $40 plus tip. Taxis are locally regulated, so fares will be the same regardless of the company. Some taxi companies also offer tours around the island of O'ahu.
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