I would wholeheartedly recommend renting a vehicle during your Oahu vacation. You’ll be able to see and experience a lot more than by using public transportation. And if you choose to rent a motor vehicle during your Oahu vacation, you will surely soon discover that the highways and byways here have some puzzling peculiarities. It’s widely known that Honolulu was recently ranked as having the second-worst traffic congestion in the United States, and it’s possible that the design and construction of our roadways and the way people drive are major contributing factors. Here are a few things to keep in mind when driving on Oahu.
What we call freeways are, actually, highways. H-(1,2,3, 201) are part of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Federal Interstate Highway System. Only they are not “interstate” in the literal sense of the word, of course. It’s an island quite a long way from any other state. But those highways feature the familiar red, white and blue badge signage of interstates on the mainland. That can be a little confusing because, for instance, H-201 can be designated as Route 78 or the Moanalua Freeway. And we call them all “the freeway.”
Our onramps and offramps are a little wonky. Everyone who drives the interstates on the mainland is used to an offramp coming before an onramp. It just makes sense. But in many locations on Oahu, it’s just the opposite, with vehicles trying to gain the freeway just a couple of hundred yards ahead of where others are trying to leave it. Be aware that it can get hairy through the urban Honolulu corridor on H-1 during peak traffic hours.
Mysterious traffic jams happen for no apparent reason. It’s not unusual to be driving along “the freeway” at a nice clip and suddenly come upon traffic at a standstill. Oahu drivers are used to thinking “there must be an accident,” only to find twenty minutes later that traffic opens up with no discernible obstruction whatsoever. This happens often along the eastbound Ward Avenue section of H-1. Don’t worry, it opens up again at the Punahou Street offramp (just after the Piikoi Street onramp, of course).
The left lane is not widely regarded as the passing lane. This may be the single most confounding aspect of driving Oahu’s “freeways.” On the mainland, drivers who use the left lane as a cruising lane are widely reviled and openly scorned. This is not the case on Oahu, however. Unfamiliar drivers marvel at the driver putting along at below the speed limit do so as vehicles whiz past on their right. The working theory is that many drivers just pick a lane and speed they’re comfortable with and go. Whatever the reason, it’s a thing and it always has been. Weird.
Lastly, rain makes traffic. You’d think we’d be used to it by now, but it seems we aren’t. Certainly, our sometimes torrential rains make for hazardous conditions, but even a little rain on the roads makes people nervous. Look out for erratic drivers when the skies are crying.
In all fairness, it is important to note that our “freeways” have saving graces and real merits. The drive over H-3, between Kaneohe and Halawa, is stunningly beautiful, lush with a million shades of green. The H-1 urban Honolulu corridor provides interesting perspectives of the Honolulu skyline from downtown to Diamond Head. Just look out for the slow poke in the passing lane.