TheBus: The Legacy of Uncle Frank

This guest post is from a reader who comments regularly under the name “Engineer Scotty”

Last week, a good friend of mine who hails from Hawaii but now lives in the Portland area, posted a message on her Facebook page stating simply, “RIP Uncle Frank”. At first, I thought it was a eulogy for a deceased relative (and so did at least one other local commenter, who offered my friend condolences), but several Hawaiian friends offered praise for Uncle Frank, thanking him for “da bus”. Which led me off to Google and Wikipedia to find out just who Uncle Frank was.

Francis Fasi, known as Uncle Frank to many in the 50th state, was a Hawaiian politician who served over twenty years as mayor of Honolulu–six years as a Democrat, and twelve as a Republican. He also launched several unsuccessful runs for Governor from both major parties, and a few minor parties as well (minor parties play a bigger role in Hawaii politics than they do in Oregon). An iconoclast politician, Fasi was quite popular with the common folk in Hawaii’s capital city, if not with the political and business establishment. Much as Tom McCall is revered in Oregon, Fasi was well-loved in the islands by many. He died last week at the ripe old age of 89, and had only retired from politics in 2004.

Why, you may ask, am I writing about a Hawaii politician on an Portland, Oregon transit blog? Because of what many consider to be Fasi’s most enduring legacy and his gift to the people of Honolulu–the award-winning public transit system known simply as TheBus.

TheBus (or “da bus” to many), is a bus-based public transit system serving the island of Oahu. Similar in size to TriMet; TheBus operates a fleet of nearly 600 vehicles and serves nearly 72 million riders a year. This level of ridership is slightly larger than TriMet’s bus system (66 million boardings last year); though when you add MAX into the mix, TriMet’s daily boardings last year topped 100 million. The island of Oahu is about the same size as TriMet’s service district–just under 600 square miles. The populations are similar–Oahu’s population is about 1 million, the Tri-County area is about 1.5 million (most of whom live in the TriMet service district). In terms of per-capita transit ridership in US cities, TheBus claims to be sixth; TriMet claims to be seventh.

There are plenty of differences between bus service in Oahu and Portland. For one thing, the weather in Hawaii is better for waiting at bus stops. :) While Portland’s population is spread out through the metro area (with a significant concentration in between the West Hills and I-205), most Oahu residents live in a ring along the coast, rather than in the mountainous interior; with the largest concentration in Honolulu itself. An interesting statistical difference is the number of bus stops; TriMet has almost 7200 stops in its system whereas TheBus has slightly over half that number, at 4200. Driving is much more expensive in Hawaii, and while Oahu has interstates (!), the road system is far less developed in Honolulu. TheBus is the primary means for transporting children to school, as opposed to dedicated fleets of school busses, and the system is frequently used by tourists as well.

TheBus markets itself more aggressively than TriMet, trying to make riding the bus appear “cool”. Rotating color schemes are used on the rolling stock, rather than the staid tan/yellow/blue colorscheme TriMet uses (to say nothing of the ugly orange and brown). By many measures, TheBus’ efforts are successful–many Hawaiians embrace their local transit agency. There are probably few folks in town who “love” TriMet, and many of its most dedicated customers are also its harshest critics–many of whom often allege that our agency is a bit dismissive of its bus service, preferring rail as a means of attracting “choice” riders. That said, Honolulu is considering a metro service along the SE coast; no word if it will be called TheTrain. :) (In a theme familiar to Portland riders, there’s a proposal to divert funds from TheBus to help construct the rail line, which has a $5 billion price tag).

TriMet is a bit of a “faceless” agency, in that no particular public figure is singularly identified with TriMet. As the unquestioned political architect of TheBus, however, Uncle Frank has long been identified with the service, which is commonly known as “Uncle Frank’s Limo Service” among natives. (Our last mayor named Frank, unfortunately, was not a friend of transit). Frank Fasi’s death seems to have gone mostly unnoticed on the mainland, including on transit blogs; which is unfortunate–under his leadership, one of the best small-city transit systems in the nation has been built.

So, a fond aloha to Uncle Frank, as you journey to wherever the bus carries you.

8 responses to “TheBus: The Legacy of Uncle Frank”

  1. Anybody who has spent significant time in Honolulu knows TheBus’ success is more due to amazingly high residential density, fairly low incomes, and high cost of driving.

  2. I would like to see a MegaBus service operating throughout the State of Oregon. We shouldn’t be neglecting our smaller communities—-or the recreational areas that are spread between them. A few routes on the longer US highways throughout Oregon would connect the people who are not along the Interstates. I think the summer months would be pretty well used—you could get to your hiking, camping or biking destination without a car.

    Perhaps winter schedules could be tailored to the skiing crowd, taking people to the lodges, or using shuttle buses for that purpose. For example a shuttle bus from Government Camp or Sunriver, connecting to a Hwy 26 and 97 route could get a number of riders, even in winter.

  3. Well, Look what I found. I think we had better get on the “wagon” for double decker service.
    Kenoi touts double decker bus on order
    DateWednesday, June 10, 2009 at 4:13PM

    “Hawaii County’s Mass Transit Agency has ordered a double decker bus that will be the first in Hawaii when it arrives as expected early next year.

    Kenoi said the double decker bus experience gives riders a unique new look at the island from its elevated seats. “It will be very popular when it gets here,” Kenoi said.

    A demonstration model of the double-decker was on the island earlier this year for a successful test run.

    Mass transit was one of several topics Mayor Kenoi discussed today on KPUA’s Community Forum program with host Ken Hupp (see related story on Gov. Linda Lingle’s furlough plan for state workers).

    Kenoi said he’s pleased that ridership is steadily increasing island wide and that more than 70,000 passengers a month now take the county’s Mass Transit Agency buses. The County of Hawaii operates the only free island-wide public transportation system in the state.

    Additional impovements coming soon include the addition of nine new conventional buses, a GPS system on all buses that allows their locations to be tracked, and 50 new bus shelters to be built around the island. For more information, call Hawaii County’s Mass Transit Agency, 961-8343.”

  4. Ron–

    What’s your apparent love affair with double-deckers? I don’t mean this rudely–I’ve ridden them before in Hong Kong (including some rather twisty windy roads in the hills where, from the top level, it often looked like the bus was going over the side) and I don’t mind them–but the seating capacity of the Euro style isn’t much bigger than a standard 40′ bus. (72 typically, vs 60–many places where these models are used have narrow streets but fewer vertical obstructions).

    The ones in the picture are probably capable of 100 or more (being wider, but with two levels). Whether such a thing would fit on Portland streets, I have no idea. But if TriMet had a big ball of cash to spend, I’d rather it spend it on operations, or upgrading its existing bus fleet, or upgrading its ticketing infrastructure. (Or light-rail, if there are routes where capacity is a problem).

  5. 1. For intrastate travel, it seems that they would provide more room for people to haul their gear, although I suppose this would result in reduced passenger capacity. With bicycling becoming generally more popular I would think that related activities like bicycle camping would be increasing, too. But most of the most amenable areas are some distance from the major population areas. E.g. If I wanted to go to the Century Drive area near Bend, and plan to tour and camp for several days, how much gear could I take on a standard Greyhound—and I don’t know if they even go there. So the alternative would be to drive.

    I had read that some of the DD buses in Asia were equipped for sleeping. So this is another niche—overnight travel—that could appeal to medium distance travelers.

    2. Capacity. I think 100 is probably typical. Of course, that also means that in an accident, there are a lot more people at risk, and I suppose the chances of a serious accident are much higher at highway speeds, which is where I have suggested their use. So I would want to examine their safety record. The only time I have noticed capacity to be a factor in preferring a rail vehicle is during commuting hours; 2/3 of the rest of the day there is plenty of empty room on any rail vehicle.

    3. Popularity. I think we will have to watch the MegaBus operations in other areas of the US. They seem to be doing pretty well in the Northeast and upper Midwest areas. The main reason I think they would be feasible in the Portland area is because I don’t believe freeway congestion will only be alterable through the TOD scheme or vision. I don’t think that the I-5 route to Vancouver was intolerably congested until the Silicon Forest industrial expansion contributed a major new component of commuting traffic. So that is why I have advocated for the Third Interstate Bridge option—–which would also keep the tax revenue from Washingtonian commuters flowing into this state.

    Sorry, I haven’t looked at traffic congestion on the southern section of I-5 to make a very informed comment. But, by analogy, if there were no Hwy 217 or I-205, it would be far worse.

    4. Regional development contribution of a DD bus? Nada…and I don’t care, anyway.

    BTW, is there a “love affair” with “Smart Growth?” (Emphasizing the second word.) And, apart from money, how much time will this region’s citizens invest in ironing out the planning implications?

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