The numbers are impressive. Since Maui Bus service expanded last
August to seven days a week, and started running with longer service
hours, ridership has increased 31 percent, county officials say. In
fact, a whopping 79,100 people rode in January. Curious about what
these numbers meant in more human terms, I spent a week riding the Maui
Bus to find out for myself.
It’s 8:30 a.m. at the Queen Ka`ahumanu Shopping Center in Kahului.
This is one of the major hubs where riders can catch five different
routes: the Kihei Islander route, the Lahaina Islander route, the
Kahului Loop (and its reverse route), the Wailuku Loop (and its
reverse) and the Upcountry Islander route. Just a handful of people are
quietly waiting for their bus. One woman is trying to catch up on sleep
while listening to music with headphones, but I decide to bother her
Justine Defranco says she doesn’t own a car and says the bus is the
most convenient form of transportation. Today she’s headed for work
near the state building in Wailuku. She’s happy with the bus system in
general. But wrinkling her nose, she says that, “at the end of the day
it gets kind of gross.” She would like it if they wiped down the
fingerprinted-smudged windows and cleaned out the trash people leave on
the busses during the day.
Her comments make me wary. This is my first time stepping onto the
Maui Bus and I don’t know what to expect. When it arrives I find a seat
and I’m pleasantly surprised by its comfort. The bus is fairly clean,
in good shape and nicely air-conditioned. There are only six people
riding, so I don’t have to sit next to anyone. I like my personal
space. As people sleep, daydream, read and write, one woman files her
Cyd Castro and her five-year-old daughter Daiza are on their way to
Maui Memorial Hospital. They started riding the bus last December after
their car broke down. Castro says before she knew about Maui County’s
public transportation, she took a taxi ride from Kahului to Wailuku
that cost her $17. Despite the occasional “smelly” rider she thinks
it’s convenient and she’s happy that it’s free (Wailuku and Kahului
routes only, all others cost $1). She says the Wailuku and Kahului
busses used to be packed full before the county added reverse lines in
“There was standing room only,” Castro says. Even though busses run
on the hour, she and her daughter only have to wait a half hour if they
take the reverse route. Bus driver Robert Purdy says adding the reverse
busses made a big difference.
“People tend to be in a better mood if they can sit down,” he says.
“The busiest time is after lunch, 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.” People are
shopping, tourists are sightseeing and students are off from school.
Purdy used to be a tour bus driver and began driving for the county
three years ago. “Locals are easier to deal with [than tourists],” he
says. “I get to know them better, get closer to them. I met a woman on
the bus when I started out and I’m going with her. She used to ride the
bus everyday to Wal-Mart.”
At the next stop, a woman cheerfully gets on the bus. “Hi, Robert,”
she says as she hands him a donut. “How are you doing?”
“People bring me gifts, they talk about good times, bad times,”
Robert tells me after he pulls away from the curb. “I see them
pregnant; I see their children grow up.”
A tall, humble looking man sits in the seat opposite from me. He
says his name is Steve Crain and he takes the bus at least four times a
week to and from the homeless shelter. He’s working on completing a job
skills course and the bus helps to get him to his classes. Then he
leans in closer, proudly telling me that he’s close to completing the
That afternoon, at 4:30, I’m at the Kaiser Wailuku Clinic waiting
for the bus with a 14-year-old student from Baldwin High. I’ll call him
“Bobby.” He says he takes the Maui Bus instead of the school bus to get
away from the kids who call him “haole” and throw things at him. He
likes the bus’ convenience and the fact that he can ride for free.
“I thought they’d be graffitied after a while, but they keep it
clean,” he says. Then he gives me the lowdown on some after-school
hangout spots that he discovered by taking the bus. Some days he’ll
take the bus down to the Queen Ka`ahumanu Center with friends for
“unlimited soda refills at Ruby’s” or he might hang out at the small
cafe at Kaiser’s Maui Lani Clinic. “[There’s] snacks and drinks and I
can get on the bus and go home,” he says.
Rich Toliver has only been riding for a month since his car broke
down, but he’s already considered “one of the regulars.” “They know me
by name,” he boasts. “You talk to people you might not have met, make
Toliver works at Cafe Marc Aurel in Wailuku and also as a freelance photographer. He tells me he gets around town all by bus.
“Did you know you can go all the way to Lahaina for a dollar!” he
tells me. In fact, Toliver says that he and at least a dozen “new
friends” take the 4:30 p.m. Lahaina bus just to see the sunset, have
dinner and then ride back.
Sounds nice, I think to myself and decide to save that for another day.
Today I feel like taking a swim and getting some sun in Kihei. With
my backpack beach-chair stuffed with everything I need for the day, I
get on the 7:30 a.m. bus into South Maui.
Shirley, a former school bus driver, knows how to keep her
passengers in line, but in a friendly, caring way. She sees herself as
sort of a public counselor. “I told him, brudah you gotta go. You gotta
change your life,” she tells me, recounting the story of a rider she
had to kick off her bus because his body odor was offending other
riders. She believes that treating people with respect gets the best
results. After her “counseling,” the offensive smelling rider showed up
clean from then on.
Shirley’s humor is high. The mood on the bus seems light and fun. I
realize that the quality of the ride has a lot to do with the bus
driver’s style and personality.
Caroline Yoshida laughs at Shirley’s jokes and says she tries to
ride Shirley’s bus if she can. Unlike most riders, Yoshida owns a car,
but prefers to take the bus to the Grand Wailea, where she works. “[I
have to] leave 45 minutes earlier to find parking at Wailea,” she says.
But if she rides the bus, she leaves just 15 minutes early and has time
to talk story and relax.
After a couple hours at the beach, I head back up to the Longs
Drugstore parking lot where I hear there’s going to be a Chinese New
Year martial arts demonstration. But just minutes after I step off the
bus, I find out the celebration is over. That means an hour wait in the
hot sun until the next bus arrives. My backpack chair is starting to
hurt my shoulders.
I walk over to Star Market for a cold drink and some relief in the
cool air conditioning. I wish I had a car, I think to myself, so I
could dump my stuff in the back and drive home. Instead I find a nice
breezy spot at a nearby beach until the next bus comes.
Today my husband and I decide to catch the Lahaina bus to watch the
sunset. We pack a picnic, grab our beach chairs and hop on the 4:40
p.m. bus near the state building in Wailuku. As we ride along the Pali,
we see whole families of whales breaching and spouting. It occurs to us
that when we’re driving, we don’t have the luxury of enjoying the view.
This is the first time Hannah Tolentino, 16, and Kim Breceros, 15,
are taking the bus. They’re coming back from shopping at the Queen
Ka`ahumanu Center. I ask them if they would take the bus again. “Next
Sunday, Queen Ka`ahumanu!” they sing out in unison, then high-five each
other and giggle.
We get off at the Wharf Cinema Center where other riders catch the
Ka`anapali route to the Napili route. For us, it’s a quick walk to the
beach where we enjoy a romantic picnic dinner watching boats and
surfers as the sun sinks into the ocean.
The bus back is on time and packed with kids, families and Westside
workers headed home. We’re lucky to get a seat. Lots of riders get off
at Ma`alaea, where they can catch routes to Kihei, Kahului and Wailuku.
The ride home seems longer when it’s dark.
I take the first bus of the day on the Kahului loop. Bus driver
Kelly has the Monday morning blues. I overhear her say her kid is sick
and she worked an extra shift late last night. We’re running about
seven minutes late. The riders that get on sense her mood. They say hi
and then keep quiet.
A guy I’ve seen before with matted hair sits in front of me. I move
back one row to avoid the strange smell wafting off of him. Other
riders glance at my actions and silently look the other away. We arrive
at Queen Ka`ahumanu back on schedule just in time for the some 45
riders waiting to board.
It’s 7:30 a.m. and Leon Custodio and I are waiting at the Queen
Ka`ahumanu Center for the Upcountry bus. He’s got an interview near the
Kahului Airport for a job as a taxicab driver. He lives in Kihei and
says he wouldn’t be able to get to this interview if it weren’t for the
“That’s why I like the system,” he says. “It’s very convenient.”
Custodio adds that he doesn’t need a car. With the $45 monthly pass, he
hooks his bike to the front of the bus and gets wherever he needs to
go. Later, Custodio tells me a story that reveals the social support a
rider feels after riding the bus every day.
“When I moved to Kihei, I stopped riding the Lahaina bus,” he says.
Then a woman who used to ride the same Lahaina route ran into him one
day on the Kihei bus. “She said, ‘I was worried. Suddenly you were not
with us everyday.’” I could tell he was happy to be missed.
Kelly, the same bus driver I had yesterday, is driving the Upcountry
bus today, filling in for a sick coworker. She’s in a much better mood,
so I decide to talk to her.
“You have to love people,” she says about her job. “A good portion
of the riders are homeless. If they’re drinking or on drugs, I say no
[meaning they’re not allowed to ride]. There’s lots of handicapped and
She tells me about a time she helped a mentally ill man get to the
emergency room. It’s clear she feels the bus system and her job are a
After contemplating my whole experience riding the bus for a week, I
realize how the Maui County bus system is crucial in helping people in
their daily lives. It is a bridge of survival to food and jobs. It is
an escape from harsh weather and for some, the harshness of the outside
world. It is an opportunity to find love or at least connect with other
It provides hope for a better future for those striving for it, for
those who need it most. Or as one woman put it a little more bluntly,
“We pay for it with our hard-earned tax dollars, so it better be
#$*!-ing serving the public.” MTW