Freshwater Railway

theme photo

The Honolulu Model

Does Detroit's transit system always have to shrink? What if we set it up to grow?

The Challenge

The City of Detroit is scrambling to exit the transit business. The remedy proposed – privatization – doesn't really solve problems so much as it makes problems slightly less expensive.

Our Solution


To put transit on track – starting with what we have today – we propose The Honolulu Model. In this scenario, transit becomes the responsibility of a purpose-formed non-profit entity. As a local, professional and independent organization, the Transit Non-Profit can satisfy short-term requirements while working toward long-term goals. The City can justly wind down its own transit functions, as transit stakeholders gain stewardship of an exciting new system.

To be sure, arranging our transit system under The Honolulu Model doesn't automatically avoid service reductions. What it does do, however, is change the mindset. As service goes, the goal becomes to use resources wisely rather than to slash routes recklessly.

At the whole-system level, we begin to treat transit as an asset rather than a problem. Instead of turning transit over to the lowest bidder, The Honolulu Model entrusts transit to people who will manage it efficiently and progressively – for the right reasons.

The Honolulu Model represents a sensible middle-ground between direct operation by the City and outsourced operation by a for-profit contractor. It enables us to harness the unique spirit of our city: innovative, entrepreneurial and community-minded.


In Detroit, the City has spun off several services to independent non-profits. This trend has enabled the Eastern Market, the Detroit Zoo and, soon, the Detroit Health Department to function more effectively – without the unrealistic expectation that they will generate a profit.

Among public transit systems, many of the best managed, most responsive operators in the country are configured as we propose:

All of these systems operate with industry-leading efficiency. And, as local non-profits, their full allegiance stands within their communities.

Next Steps

Establishing the Transit Non-Profit requires a variety of skillsets: best-practices in transit management, basic savvy in business, knowledge of corporate and organizational principles, strategies for outreach and marketing.

We at Freshwater Railway are prepared to guide the development of the Transit Non-Profit – we've seen it done elsewhere and we know how it works. This is, however, an extremely complex undertaking – we cannot do it alone.

Helping to create the Transit Non-Profit is the perfect project for community-centric members of the business community.

To prove the feasibility of our concepts, we've produced numerous technical documents. With limited time and no funding, we have not included technical documents on our website at this time. Please contact us – we are happy to share and discuss our findings in greater detail.