A rendering of a rail canopy at a new HART station, which is scheduled to begin operations in 2017. Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation

But there are doubts about whether it will inspire other U.S. cities to follow suit.

Perfect weather and sandy beaches might spring to mind when a mainlander thinks of Honolulu. But this metro area of nearly 1 million people is far from paradise for those who get stuck in its notorious traffic, which competes with Los Angeles for the title of worst in the United States.

"Anybody who flies into Honolulu and drives into town—heading to Waikiki, for example—you are immediately struck by the H-1 freeway, seven lanes of traffic going in the same direction," says Dan Grabauskas, executive director and CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation ­(HART). "And if you land at rush hour, it's a standstill. It surprises people when they come here, to see how much congestion we face."

HART is working on an alternative to that miserable commute: a 20-mile elevated rail line—a first for the islands—that will whisk passengers between downtown and outlying communities in a fraction of the time it currently takes to crawl through rush hour traffic. With the first trips planned for 2017, the $5.2 billion Honolulu Rail Transit Project is expected to reduce congestion by 18 percent, taking as many as 40,000 automobiles off the road and replacing them with a fleet of four-car trains that can accommodate up to 800 riders, with racks for both bicycles and surfboards.

But surfboard storage will not be the project's only unique feature; this will also be the first fully automated wide-scale urban transit system in the United States. Instead of human drivers, a centrally-located computer system will control stops, departures, and speed, and even open and close doors. Operation will be cheaper than for manually-driven rail, says Grabauskas, and he also expects it to be safer. "There are transit systems where driver error has caused collisions or other incidents," he says. "The driverless operation we have is going to be very safe."

It should also be more reliable. Eliminating the unpredictability of human drivers will help trains stick to their schedules, and consistent acceleration and deceleration means they can safely run closer together. Over the course of a 20-hour daily schedule, system managers will also be able to increase the frequency of service in response to demand, without having to call in additional personnel. "We can make pretty nimble service changes," Grabauskas says, "almost literally with the press of a button. Driverless systems offer tremendous advantages."

HART's new trains (rendered above) will be the first truly driverless ones on a wide-scale U.S. transit system. (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation)

Despite his enthusiasm—and that of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and local business leaders—truly driverless transit has yet to catch on elsewhere in the United States. While many urban systems have some level of automation, including New York's subway and the San Francisco Bay Area's BART, right now only people-movers like the AirTrain at JFK Airport and the monorail along the Las Vegas Strip run without human operators. That's not the case elsewhere in the world. Driverless trains have become fairly common in Asia and in Europe, where Paris automated its oldest and busiest Metro line in 2012, increasing passengers per hour by 25 percent.

Honolulu's system is modeled on the Copenhagen Metro, which has been operating since 2002 and won "best subway" at the international MetroRail conference in 2008. Grabauskas reports "a tremendous amount of interest" in Honolulu's system among his mainland U.S. colleagues. But Louis Sanders, director of technical services at the American Public Transportation Association, says not to expect established systems to go driverless any time soon.

One might expect transit worker unions to be the primary obstacle—after all, a driverless system puts drivers out of work. But while unions have balked at taking drivers off automated trains in London and New York, Sanders says it isn't labor that's holding back automation. Nor is it safety questions, despite the 2009 crash of an automated (though staffed) Metro train in Washington, D.C., which killed nine people and forced the transit agency to run trains manually until the aging automatic system can be updated.

Renderings of the Airport (top) and East Kapolei stations. (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation)

"I think people will be accepting of it," says Sanders, noting that driverless trains are generally equipped with obstacle detection capabilities, closed-circuit cameras, and emergency communication systems. "People get on people-movers at airports." The big issue, he says, is that despite the potential savings down the line, it's expensive to convert existing systems into driverless ones. The technology in place for semi-autonomous transit in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco was put in place years ago and would take loads of money—and political will—to overhaul completely. "To take advantage of driverless, you have to change everything you do," Sanders says.

In Honolulu, which is starting from scratch, automation was perhaps the easiest thing about making the system a reality. The rail line was "decades in the making," says Jennifer Sabas, former chief of staff to Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Inouye, who secured $1.5 billion in federal funding for the rail line before his death in 2012. Sabas now serves as executive director of Move Oahu Forward, a business- and labor-backed non-profit organized to support the line in the face of opposition from residents and politicians who argued that the elevated tracks and stations would loom over the landscape, and that the system, which will be funded by a half-cent surcharge on the state's general excise tax in addition to the federal contribution, simply cost too much. "Since there was such an issue over whether to even build a train, the driverless aspect hasn't gotten much attention," says Sabas.

Getting car-centric Honolulu to embrace rail was a struggle, but now that construction is visibly underway, attitudes appear to be changing—especially since traffic on Oahu is only getting worse. "You have communities where people have to sit in traffic for an hour and a half," says Sabas. "Polling data shows that those who live in the most congested areas and are fighting traffic every day are the most supportive of the rail line."

But it's not just commuters who stand to benefit. Some 8 million people visit Hawaii every year, and for many of them the new driverless rail line will help set their first impression of the islands. That's something many in the local tourism industry are banking on—and it might also help make the case for driverless transit elsewhere in the United States.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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