Streets for People / Uber-Like Transit Coming to Key West?

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on July 30, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

Proposed Switch to On-Demand Transit Service Relieves City Leaders from Having to Make the Hard Decisions to Invest More in Public Transit. For Now.

At the July 22 City Commission Budget Workshop, Key West Transit proposed doing away with its North and South Lines and evening Duval Loop route and replacing them with a fully “on-demand macroransit” service. The Lower Keys Shuttle and daytime Duval Loop fixed routes would remain the same. They likened the new service to Uber, where one would use a smartphone app to request a trip. Rather than door to door service, the buses would pick up and drop off customers at bus stops. Finance and transit staff said the new system would be more reliable, provide customers with greater frequency and could be done for the same cost, or less, as the existing system. Officials are expected to decide on whether to give a green light to the pilot in the coming months as part of the budget process.

As we gather more information and get a chance to talk to transit staff and City leaders, we plan on bringing you more in-depth information. Today we’ll explore what we do know, try to explain how we got here and show how the new system might work.

80, 80, 95, 80, 90, 80, 80, 80, 95, 80 or How We Got Here

80, 80, 95, 80, 90, 80, 80, 80, 95, 80 Hut, hut. No, these numbers aren’t a quarterback’s cadence. They are the frequency in minutes between the ten trips on Key West Transit’s North and South Lines each day. Yes, customers must wait 80 to 95 minutes between buses. And that’s the crux of the problem. With service so awful no one uses it unless they absolutely must. So few people use the local bus lines that in a community survey in January about city services, no one knew enough to answer the questions about Key West Transit and so the system was left with no rating.

Key West Transit’s 10-Year Transit Development Plan or TDP, adopted in late 2019, recognized the then problem of circuitous routes and infrequent service. The TDP set out a plan to simplify the routes using a series of frequent (every 15-minutes) Duval Loop-like “Loop” services on Key West and Stock Island joined together by frequent (also every 15-minutes) “Connector” lines. Key West Transit started the simplification when it came back from the COVID-19 shutdown in May 2020 by eliminating the Red, Orange, Blue and Green City routes and replacing them with two simpler North and South Lines. While they did indeed simplify things by going from four routes that were hard to understand to two simpler ones, they didn’t address frequency, as waits were still 80-95 minutes between buses.

Citing this abysmal frequency, this past winter, the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board called for Free, Frequent and Simple bus routes and challenged the Commission to spend the money to attract enough bus drivers to provide greater frequency. They proposed an increase in parking fees to make it happen.

Are We Willing to Spend the Money for Improved Transit?

After months of internal planning by transit staff, the Transportation Coordination Team (TCT) – made up of various departments, Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy and some community leaders, a Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness element of the Key West Forward Strategic Plan was released in June. The document cited the January 2021 Community Survey which revealed downtown traffic and parking congestion as a major issue and said the solution to the problem was improving our transit system because we already have good bike and walk numbers. The plan used this as the impetus for saying we need to pay more to attract bus drivers and boldly called for a reduction in the 80-95 minutes North and South Line frequency down to 30 minutes next fiscal year that begins October 1, 2021, with hopes for eventually getting it down to 15 minutes.

At the hearing for the Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness element on June 15 Commissioner Sam Kaufman asked: “How many years have we been talking about adding bus frequency? Do we even have the capacity for this?” Mayor Johnston bravely answered with a call to arms, saying: “The answer is us (referring to herself and the Commissioners on the dais). Are we willing to spend the money that gets us there? The limiting factor is us and what we’re willing to commit to.”

Computer Says No

Apparently, the computer says no. When Finance Director Mark Finigan and Transportation Director Rod Delostrinos presented the On-Demand Macrotransit idea they said they could do the pilot project “without considerable impact to the budget despite staffing issues.” Mr. Finigan added the City has a sufficient level of funding for the Local Routes and Lower Keys Shuttle and Duval Loop as currently configured or the pilot program. But “the way we’re heading in the matter of delivering service, we will have to make significant contributions to transit for local routes and the Loop.” In other words, they presented a budget for the next year that got us either the same exact awful service we have now, or you could try the pilot project, but if you want to get more frequent service on the existing system, we’ll have to start using tax dollars.

The Transit budget is made up of three main revenue sources. FDOT and Federal transit dollars make up 54%, Parking Garage Revenue (the garage was built with Federal and State Transit grants, so the revenue goes back to the transit system) funds 29% and the Transportation Alternatives Fund, established in 2016 with a portion of a surcharge on parking meter rates, makes up 16%, with 1% miscellaneous other funds. No City General Funds are used. THAT’S what the Finance Director was telling folks. If you want more frequency you’re going to need to dip into other sources like the General Fund. We happen to like the SAB’s idea for using increased parking fees to add frequency but that’s fodder for another story. The proposed budget presented is $4.8 million. The last year for which they have actual expenditures is the 2019/20 fiscal year in which Transit spent $4.6 million. 

The Finance and Transportation Directors didn’t even put together for the Commission’s consideration a strawman budget that would have gotten those promised 30-minute frequencies in the Strategic Plan. To use another football analogy, they simply punted. Now no one has to make any hard spending decisions.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

Faced with years of recalcitrance from management and leaders who don’t want to spend money on transit and from a personnel system that won’t let him pay enough to attract adequate numbers of bus drivers needed for more frequent service, it seems Key West Transit Director of Transportation Rod Delestrinos has come up with an out-of-the box idea that tries to make lemonade out of lemons. Good for him.

Said Mr. Delestrinos, if we can’t reach our target goal (greater frequency via more drivers) than he recommends we change the manner in which we deliver service. He went on to explain the On-Demand Macrotransit Pilot Project saying they could deliver the service with the buses and drivers they already have. 

Uber Transit

As we said at the beginning, the On-Demand Transit Pilot Project would eliminate the North and South lines and the evening Duval Loop service. The same buses (thus the term macrotransit as opposed to microtransit – vans) taken off those services would then be available to take trips within Key West and presumably Stock Island as people booked them on a smartphone app or their computer or in limited cases via a regular phone line. Persons could also schedule trips in advance and book regularly recurring trips, like ones to and from work. One would select the nearest bus stop to their present location and the nearest bus stop to their destination. And viola’ the software behind the scenes figures it all out and tells you when the bus will arrive at your selected stop. You can even track its progress in getting to you. The fare would be the same as for the North and South Lines or $2.00 per ride. 

Mr. Delostrinos believes the efficiencies inherent in the system, responding to demand rather than the need to put a bus out on a schedule, means they may be able to use less buses and thus expand the span of service until 3:00 am, allowing for late shift workers to use the service. He added that this service is more responsive to workers and the community. 

Technology over the last decade has certainly revolutionized how we get around our cities. Uber and Lyft couldn’t exist without high-tech software that enables drivers and users to connect. There are stand-alone on-demand microtransit services like Bridj and Chariot and many fixed route transit systems use microtransit to supplement services using Uber like routing systems with small vans. Paratransit, like Monroe County Transit (MCT) uses tech to schedule door-to-door service, with trips scheduled 24-hours in advance for people whose physical limitations prevent them from getting to a bus stop or using a regular bus. And many cities have bike and scooter share services that use technology to get people around.

Given the Situation, Let’s Give Key West Transit Room to Experiment 

Many transit systems across North America use on-demand service like taxis, Ubers, Lyfts and microtransit as supplements to the fixed route service with first and last mile connections or are designed to fill in the gaps or extend the service area into less dense suburbs. Many rural communities use on-demand micro and macro transit because they just don’t have the densities for fixed-route service. So, this isn’t that new of a concept. However, for a denser urban area like Key West to experiment with going to a mostly on-demand system using existing buses, that is quite different. 

The Pilot Project’s plan is to keep the Duval Loop fixed-route service downtown during the day. And to keep the successful Lower Keys Shuttle service too. Those are good ideas. Our preference is that our leaders would commit to the already adopted 10-Year Plan that calls for fixed Loop and Connector routes with 15-minute frequency. That’s real transit. 

But since no one wants to spend the money creating Duval Loop like service for the rest of the island, we really have no choice but to give this pilot project a try. Otherwise, we’ve only been offered the same stinky service on the streets today that no one rides. And who knows, so many people may use the new on-demand service, that we’ll need to get more vehicles and drivers to keep up with demand. And our leaders, who thought they were kicking the can down the road by doing this pilot, will instead need to face the fact that we really must spend more money on public transit if we want to move more people around without cars. So, here’s wishing Rod and his team success.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

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 downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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