Key West Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People Top 10 Stories for 2020 – #9: FREE Fare on Duval Loop for Visitors is Back!

By Chris Hamilton, December 22, 2020

It’s back! The FREE fare for Visitors that is. And that’s a good thing for everyone downtown – visitors, residents and businesses alike. In a little noticed move, the City Commission reinstated the FREE fare by a 7-0 vote at its October 20 meeting. They did this because Item #7 of the 17-Point Covid Recovery Plan, developed between citizens and businesses, recommended returning the Duval Loop to its FREE for everyone status. Why did they even have to do this? Why didn’t the City listen to the residents and businesses the first time around?

No More Free Ride For You!

Well you see, on May 5 during the height of the Pandemic shutdown, the City Manager asked the Commissioners to impose a $1 fare on Visitors to help raise revenue in anticipation of losses to come. (Note, there were no proposals to raise any fees on parking, but that’s a story for another day). He and the Transit Department Director posited they could raise $380,000 annually and he asked for Commission support.

Despite the Mayor and Commissioner Weekley both noting, there had never been so many people that had used the City’s online e-Comment to voice their opinion on an agenda item before, with 28 against the $1 fare and one neutral, the City Commission voted 5-2 to give the Manager what he wanted, no matter what the residents thought. Both Commissioners Kaufman and Weekley were passionate in their defense of leaving it alone. Mr. Weekley cited the Loop’s success in encouraging visitors to drive less and leave coveted parking spots for locals. Mr. Kaufman also citing the Loop’s amazing success, questioned the timing, asking “What’s the urgency of making this decision now instead of during the budget process. I’d rather talk about the whole transit budget at the same time, why tonight?” Alas the deal was done and the $1 fare was instituted by a 5-2 vote. (For ALL the gory details of that night, including copies of the 28 e-comments view: “City Commission: No More Free Ride for You!; May 5, 20020).

We’ll note that the October 20 report accompanying the recommendation to reinstitute the FREE fare said that the new fare was bringing in $59 a day. Generously annualizing that amount comes to about $20,000 a year. Far short of the lofty $380,000 estimate. Let’s make sure this never happens again.

Why the Duval Loop Should Be FREE for All

Launched in August of 2017, the Duval Loop quickly became a favorite of visitors and all the lodging, attractions, restaurant and retail businesses in our downtown. The service is successful because it is FREE, FREQUENT (buses arrive every 15-20 minutes) and has a SIMPLE route that is easy to understand. In 2019 more than 410,000 trips were taken on the Loop. More people rode the Loop than the other four City bus routes (orange, blue, red and green) and the Lower Keys Shuttle all combined. It is only 3 years old but is universally hailed as something the “City did right!” Why mess with success?

Not surprisingly, many in the local Key West community agree. At the time we noted the overwhelming free fare proponents on Facebook’s Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown and Reimagining Key West sites. Even though the May 5 fare change continued FREE fares for residents with an ID, folks seem to understand that this is about getting visitors and workers easily around downtown and discouraging them from driving cars to do so. It works people say, so why mess with that achievement by fundamentally altering its formula?

Here’s some more reasons why charging visitors to use the Duval Loop is a bad idea:

  • FREE and FREQUENT, painted on the sides of the buses, is easy to market. It mostly sells itself.
  • The service is a an economic development tool.
  • The Hop On Hop Off aspect is ruined if it becomes just another bus route where one needs exact change and has to queue up to pay.
  • We ask people who DO drive to park at one of our facilities like the Grinnell Street Garage and then hop on our free downtown shuttle to get around.
  • It’s just a dollar. But who always has exact change these days? Who even wants to deal with cash and all those germs? What’s a family to do if they have to pay $4 on the first trip and $4 back? Any cost will have an elasticity factor and ridership will suffer.
  • Queueing up to pay slows things down. It causes delays and friction. Delays and friction will cause a drop off in ridership.
  • Counting and securing cash has hard costs and personnel costs.
  • We’ve made a commitment to the lodging, attractions, restaurant and retail businesses and all the visitors who have rated the service so highly (4.5 out of 5 on Trip Advisor) and we should keep that commitment.
  • If we make the service harder to use, some people will choose to drive. That means a more congested streets downtown.
  • If we make the service harder to use, some people will simply choose not to go to another part of downtown, thereby hurting some small businesses.

In the end, if more people walk, bike and take the bus it makes our streets more efficient. It is friendly to our environment and helps combat climate change. It makes us healthier. And happier too. Very importantly it helps our local businesses prosper. Charging a fee for using this amazingly successful bus is the wrong way to go. It is a step backwards. So thank you to the City for seeing the error of their ways and getting this right. Again. And THAT’s why this is our #9 story of the year.


#10: Cow Key Bridge Carmageddon That Wasn’t (Dec. 21, 2020)


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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