Streets for People / Sustainability Board Wants to Make Free, Frequent and Simple Key West Transit a Reality

By Chris Hamilton; This story was written for and published by KONK Life on February 5, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

Once again, the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) is on the leading edge of creating positive change. At its January 14 meeting, the Board, adopted a Fare Free Resolution calling on the City to raise metered parking rates by $0.50 cents and target the new revenue for making City routes fare free, increasing frequency on the new North and South Routes and increasing driver pay in order to compete with other entities and improve reliability. If there’s any money left over, they stipulated it should go into the Transportation Alternatives Fund for other alternative modes. In recent years past the SAB has championed the creation of the Duval Loop and the City’s Transportation and Bicycle Coordinator positions. This is a good idea that needs to be supported by residents and the business community.

Free, Frequent and Simple – Duval Loop’s Formula for Success

Launched in August of 2017, the Duval Loop quickly became a favorite of visitors and 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 and the Lower Keys Shuttle combined. It is only 3 years old and is universally hailed as something the “City did right!”  Two actions during the last year testify to this success:

  1. At the May City Commission Meeting where a $1 fare on visitors using the Loop had been imposed, a record number of 28 residents and downtown business people used the online e-Comment system to voice opposition to instituting a fare.
  2. After a six-month failure at trying to raise revenues by instituting a fare on visitors using the Duval Loop, the City Commission reinstated the Loop’s FREE fare by a 7-0 vote at its October 20, 2020 meeting because the City’s 17-Point Covid Recovery Plan, developed between citizens and business groups, said free downtown transit was vital to local mom n pop businesses and so identified it as a core measure for downtown business recovery.

With residents and business interests agreeing not to mess with success and with ridership data that says it works, why not duplicate that “Free, Frequent and Simple” success formula on the other routes? Well…

Key West Transit’s 10-Year Plan Foretells Free, Frequent and Simple

The City’s 10-Year Transit Development Plan (TDP), adopted in late 2019, is an ambitious, progressive plan promising a system of “Loops” (Duval, Old Town, Midtown, New Town, Stock Island) to be connected by a few simple “Connector” routes; Airport (along S. Roosevelt), North (along N. Roosevelt), KWIC (Key West Intermodal Connector on Stock Island), and the Lower Keys Shuttle). In addition to the simple Loop and Connector routes, the Plan calls for 15–20-minute frequencies between buses and discusses moving towards free fares. So, the Sustainability Advisory Board isn’t going out on a limb here. Free, Frequent and Simple is actually called for in the City’s adopted 10-Year Transit Plan.

Simple Routes Come to Key West Transit in May

When Key West Transit began operations again on May 16, after having been out of service since the beginning of the shutdown in late March, they quietly reemerged with just two “simple” City routes, North and South Lines, that mainly travel along North and South Roosevelt Boulevards to downtown where they intersect with the Duval Loop. They replaced the four meandering, circuitous, serpentine, snaking, winding, twisty, tortuous, hard to understand Red, Orange, Blue and Green routes. Here they are below.

The Four Old Red, Orange, Blue and Green City Routes
The Two New North and South Lines

So, it looks like Key West Transit got the simple. But then things stalled. Enter the Sustainability Advisory Board.

“I see no reason that a city like Key West, with our favorable geography, should not be able to do as many other cities have done and provide free of charge transportation to our residents and hopefully we can bring bus driver’s wages up to a competitive and living wage.”

Dakin Weekley, Chair, Key West Sustainability Advisory Board

Why Free Fares Makes Sense

Downtown resident and SAB Member Eric Detwiler recognized the need for more action beyond the simplified routes and so gathered data, collaborated with City staff on a plan and pitched a resolution that provides a mechanism, via the additional parking meter revenue, to get this going sooner than later. From Mr. Detwiler’s presentation to the SAB we glean a few main points:

  • Bus fares cover only 10% of the cost of operations
  • Costs associated with collecting fares may be equal to the revenue the fares bring in
  • The time taken to collect the fares contributes to the slowness of the buses
  • The time a bus is stopped on the street while collecting fares contributes to congestion
  • The Key West residents who are riding the buses are likely the least able to pay
  • Other Florida bus systems have gone fare free with significant positive impacts on ridership
  • The Duval Loop example

Why Frequent Service is Needed Now

Research from around the globe identifies frequency as the most important aspect of useful transit. Why? People hate waiting. The longer the wait between buses, the more anxious people grow. The more anxious they are the less likely they are to take the bus. While Key West Transit has simplified their awful, old, rambling and confusing routes, the frequency is still terrible. Here’s the current schedules:

Each line only has 10 trips in per day and 10 trips out. That’s 80 to 90 minutes between each bus at any given point. To top it off, the last trips out from downtown leave at 7:20 pm. And service is even less on the weekend. According to their own customer survey, Key West Transit riders say “more frequent service” is the most needed improvement and “more weekend service” is number two.

And if current riders don’t like the frequency and span of service, how in the world are we going to attract new people out of their cars to use the bus. The level of service is simply not adequate for anyone contemplating this for work or school or any kind of reliable transportation. Trips need to be at least every 15-20 minutes, like on the Duval Loop.

Residents and Business Need to Lobby the Mayor and Commissioners for Needed Action Now to Make Key West Transit Free, Frequent and Simple

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 is more equitable for all our citizens. It makes us healthier. And happier too. Very importantly it helps our local mom and pop businesses prosper. THAT’S why the City must enact the Sustainability Advisory Board’s recommendations and raise metered parking fees by $0.50 cents and put the money towards Free, Frequent and Simple Transit. It will make our little island paradise all the better.



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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