History of Transportation in Hawaii

Roadways are actually a relatively recent addition to the Hawaiian Islands, with some of the most heavily used roads not appearing until the 18th century. Even then, the mostly native population converted areas into simple footpaths. Roads and the addition of public transportation have shaped the development of Hawaii’s infrastructure, and each has an interesting history behind it.

Before the addition of roads and ports, transportation on Hawaii was primarily by water, especially through the use of Hawaiian canoes. Canoes helped travelers to clear the coral reefs that dominated the shores of most of the islands, and became an integral part of the Hawaiian culture.

Hawaii Belt Road

The Hawaii Belt Road (also called Māmalahoa Highway) developed over a long period of time, especially in rebuilding efforts following the 1946 tsunami that transformed the landscape. What was once a simple footpath leading around the Island of Hawai’i became a paved road open to the public.

The name Māmalahoa Highway comes from an incident in 1783 when King Kamehameha I and a raiding party failed to capture a pair of Puna men. In fact, one raider was killed

while King Kamehameha was injured. Rather than seek vengeance, Kamehameha I instated the law of the “Splintered Paddle” and vowed to provide his people with safe passage throughout the island, and construction on the Māmalahoa Highway began.


The Honolulu Rapid Transit and Land Company was formed in 1898, the same time that the island was annexed by the U.S. HPT’s first endeavor was to add streetcars that would continue to run from 1901 to 1941. Motorized buses were added to public roads in 1925, while trolley buses joined the fleet in 1937.

But HRT was affected by operation and management issues from the very beginning. Strikes were frequent, and often resulted in severe delays in bus service, which left passengers stranded. One such strike in 1967 resulted in a 67-day period where no bus service was offered on the island. A government-run entity known as Mass Transit Lines acquired HRT in 1971 and launched their new system, simply labeled TheBus.

Since launching, TheBus has been awarded twice by the American Public Transportation Association, despite often-crowded routes that make many passengers consider shipping vehicles to Hawaii for personal use. The low cost and wide coverage area (along with absence of school buses) makes public transportation a good option for many high school students, although it does not help alleviate pressure on the system.


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