Key West, Let’s Radically Speed Up the Implementation of Our Bike/Ped Plan

By Chris Hamilton, May 20, 2020

More People Are Bicycling at the Moment

If you’ve been on a bike during the last two months you know how easy and safe it is to get around our beautiful little island without all those cars clogging things up. Bike shops report upticks in new bike purchases and people coming in for repairs. To get some exercise whole families are doing loops around the island, especially along the South Roosevelt Bike/Ped Promenade. Stories abound in our little town and cities across the country about people rediscovering the joys of bicycling for exercise AND for just getting around. One June 1 as everything starts to open up again, will we simply go back to our old car-centric ways? Will people be afraid to keep using their bikes as the cars come back?

It’s About the 50% Who Are “Interested But Concerned”

There’s an axiom in bike planning circles that categorizes people into four generalized typologies in regards to bicycling as follows:

1) “Strong and Fearless:” People willing to bicycle with limited or no bicycle-specific infrastructure
2) “Enthused and Confident:” People willing to bicycle if some bicycle-specific infrastructure is in place
3) “Interested but Concerned:” People willing to bicycle if high-quality bicycle infrastructure is in place
4) “No Way, No How:” People unwilling to bicycle even if high-quality bicycle infrastructure is in place

The numbers vary by city but generally there’s consensus that about half the population would be willing to bike if they perceived it were safer and easier to do so. These are the people that have likely been coming out and biking lately. So how do we address their concerns and get more people to use a bike and bike more often once all the cars return?

Picture a Better Future

Picture it. Clearly marked separated and protected bike lanes, greenways or bike boulevards, and off-street paths connect throughout the city, forming a seamless, uninterrupted network of bicycle facilities allowing safe travel through and around the island for everyone of all ages and abilities. Signs show bikers and walkers where they are and how to get to their destination. Bike boxes at busy intersections create space for bicycles ahead of the cars. Ample bike parking is found within a block of all work, shop and play destinations. Wider sidewalks in busy downtown areas, intersections with bump outs and mid-block crosswalks, traffic calming to slow the cars, and places for people to sit, watch, chat and eat in more places. This is the vision the Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Transportation Plan paints for our future.

Key West is Bike-Friendly Because It’s Warm, Flat and Small

As one of Key West’s preeminent bike advocates consistently says, the island is warm, flat and small, so our focus should be on getting more people to bike, because that’s cheaper than accommodating cars and ramping up transit. We agree. Key West is already a bike-friendly city for some of us. According to the U.S. Census Bureaus’ American Community Survey, an average of 15 percent of Key West residents bike to work, making the City the 3rd in the nation for bike commuting in 2013. An additional 7.5 percent of the population walks to work. But the comparatively good statistics are mostly because we’re compact, flat and have good weather, not particularly because of any amazing bicycle facilities on the ground. Imagine how many more people would bike – residents, workers and visitors – If we had some world class facilities here? What would it look like if we could get more of those 50% in the middle, who don’t find it easy and safe to bike around, to do so.

We Have a World Class Bike/Ped Plan Already Done

We could start by implementing more of the measures in the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Transportation Plan and spending some real money on this stuff. We spend a tens of millions of dollars on cars and transit and virtually nothing on biking in the City and County budgets. Which is kinda nuts when you think of all the upside that bicycle facilities bring. And they can be quicker, easier and less expensive than building for cars and transit.

The Plan adopted by City Commission in March of 2019 is an amazingly straightforward blueprint to make Key West the bicycling paradise it should be. The Plan’s consultant, is one of the foremost planning firms of its kind in North America, Toole Design Group, There’s a field assessment of what’s out there on the streets about what works and what doesn’t work. There are reams of data on what people think and want and what would motivate them to bike more.

To the plan’s credit it includes a Multimodal Connectivity chapter that looks at larger policies and community goals and puts the bike and walk actions in context of traffic, parking, transit and other modes. It addresses the need for safety education and marketing. It presents a vision of the future and breaks down bicycle and pedestrian network recommendations into short, medium- and long-term actions. It includes a section on Complete Streets, best practices, evaluation, funding and maintenance. In short, all City staff have to do is pick up the document and go through it step by step.

The Plan’s Had Tons of Public Input, Been Vetted and Is Commission Approved

The City’s consultant undertook painstaking field assessments and data collection to undergird its recommendations. You’ll find maps of crash data and maps of barriers to biking and walking. They then vetted the data and ideas with multiple online, email and in-person surveys, public meetings, outreach at community events, public bike rides, boards set up around the island at shopping centers, intercepts along the trails and streets and further meetings with city officials, commissioners and stakeholders – including a citizen Project Advisory Team and the City Commission’s Parking and Alternative Transportation Group. They even had an interactive online map so citizens could pinpoint trouble spots and sketch out solutions. And then for good measure more public meetings. This plan has been thoroughly vetted and is ready to go. 

With Tactical Urbanism, We’ve Shown Progress

The City has already shown progress by dipping directly into the Plan and bringing forward the Crosstown Greenway Project (Staples/Von Phister bikeway) that got underway this past fall and winter. Kudos go to the City’s Transportation Coordinator for securing grant monies from and working with the legendary Miami firm Street Plans (they wrote the book Tactical Urbanism) on the project to test out selected design strategies using low-cost, temporary materials for new crosswalks, traffic circles, pavement art, and wayfinding to elevate bicycle and pedestrian priority along the corridor and slow the cars and prevent cut through traffic. This project, which should be on the ground in the coming months, helps demonstrate that there are tactics for getting things done sooner than later.

We Can and Need To Move Even Faster

So why aren’t we speeding up more elements of the Plan from bicycle parking to bike boxes to signs? Why aren’t we using the break in traffic the Coronavirus brought to sweep in and get going today on the low hanging fruit? Why can’t we use more temporary or “tactical urbanism” measures to make it even safer and easier this summer and fall before things get back to full swing?

If implemented, could we in one year double the number of work trips within the City made by bike to 30%? The Census is only measuring Key West residents (half of Key West workers live outside the City in Monroe County and those living beyond Stock Island likely drive – another story) so no one lives more than four miles from work. 30% on a small, flat and warm island seems achievable and worthy in going after.

Bike advocates gather at City Hall before presentation of the draft Plan

This shouldn’t just be the City’s Transportation Coordinator’s job. It is too big and too important. Department heads and teams of people should be responsible for implementing. Especially since the City doesn’t have a formal transportation department but rather siloed transit, engineering, parking, planning and community services/public works groups. The Mayor, Commission and City Manager should make it everyone’s job to build out the Plan and make the City more bike-friendly and we need to hold them accountable for doing so.

An island that is safer and easier for more people to bike and walk would be healthier, more equitable, cleaner for our environment, combat climate change, increase prosperity for local business, and would make us happier too. Lots of people already bike and walk by default in Key West because our island is flat, small and warm. But if we are going to get more people to bik,e that is going to be because we make it safe and easy by intention and design. There are many low-cost action items included in the plan and those items should be prioritized to be completed now. And where there is a cost associated with substantial infrastructure changes, we must think of these costs as an investment in our future. All we need is the will to take this excellent document and get going. Now!

Let’s go Key West!

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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