It had to happen. The American fascination with the automobile is waning. That's according to an Associated Press story that appeared on the front page of The Maui News on Monday. The island's love affair with personal transportation is still intense but traffic and high costs may be nibbling away at the passion.
The AP story said American driving has decreased 10 percent since 2004 and the average U.S household now has fewer than two cars, returning to the level of the 1990s. Fewer than 70 percent of 19-year-olds have a driver's license, down from 87 percent two decades ago.
On Maui, hitting the road without a horse or feet began in 1904. H.P. Baldwin imported a Wood Electric from the Mainland. Apparently, the car required a lot of repair work and the accounts don't mention how he recharged the batteries.
The island was off and running on electricity, steam and gasoline. Von Hamm-Young Co. was the first dealer on the island, beginning in 1912 with used cars. Valley Isle Ford began peddling Model T cars and trucks in 1924. General Motors vehicles went on sale at Haleakala Motors in 1927.
The number of registered vehicles went from four in 1906 to 694 in 1917 and to 6,164 in 1931. Today, Mauians have licensed more than 100,000 motorcycles, trucks and cars.
Personal cars and trucks didn't really take off until after World War II. Individuals had a number of alternatives to owning and driving a car. Many of the plantation camps were within walking distance of the fields. When Kahului replaced the camps, the plantation would send trucks around to pick up workers. As late as the 1970s, it was possible to see black-on-red signs that read "labor station" on Kahului streets. Before WWII and into the 1960s, passenger trains ran between Hamakuapoko and Wailuku. Kahului Railroad also operated a bus system serving the Paia area.
Licensing was a bit easier in the early days. One Maui girl remembers taking a test in Wailuku in the 1940s. The examiner told the Maui girl's father, "I'll give her a license but don't let her drive where there's traffic." In 1973, one motorcycle "skills test" consisted of riding from the police station down to the jail parking lot. Once there, the examiner shrugged and said, "Eh, you can ride." End of test.
Today, the driving and riding tests are more rigorous by a factor of 10. If you need to take one of those tests, do yourself a favor and first enroll in a driving school. Kids who take driving lessons usually pass on the first try. A motorcycle license can be obtained by enrolling in one of the monthly, four-day classes offered through UH-Maui College. The DMV's motorcycle test seems designed to fail the rider while the instructors in the class want riders to succeed.
A major complaint these days is the traffic. Actually, by Honolulu or Mainland standards, traffic isn't that bad on Maui even in the worst of times. Everyone gets there at about the same time. There's a suspicion the complaints come from drivers who want an empty road, rather than a line of bumpers ahead of them.
Advocates of public transportation often hear motorists grumbling about subsidizing bus systems and vehemently opposing a light-rail people mover on the same grounds. They seem to forget how the public subsidizes the construction and maintenance of roadways. It costs something more than $1 million a mile to build one lane of highway. "No one will give up their cars," pronounce the naysayers. Well, yes and no. It depends on what the individual is used to.
A good friend, who grew up in Pittsburgh, got his first driver's license as a soldier in Vietnam. He needed one to operate a truck. At home, he had managed nicely with a bicycle and bus fare. He was used to getting around that way.
The rising tide of bus passengers indicates there are more and more Mauians and tourists who'd rather have someone else do the driving. Heck, The Maui Bus now makes regular runs through Kula and Makawao. Given a little time, and more attention paid to the traffic mess on Oahu, a light-rail system fed by the Maui Bus probably would be running at capacity in short order. Naysayers or not.
Mainlanders are turning to public transportation, bicycles and walking. Maui may be behind the times, but better ways of moving people need only a glance at the island's history.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.