Streets for People / Stock Island and Lower Keys Workforce Housing Needs Frequent Transit 

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on March 11, 2022 and is reprinted here with permission. Follow us at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown on Facebook, Twitter and check out all our Streets for People stories here. 

Affordable workforce housing is blossoming in the Lower Keys. Over 700 units of workforce housing have recently been occupied, are under construction, or have building permits approved in just the last two years. All this new housing is north of Cow Key Bridge. So, most work, shopping and entertainment trips into Key West will be by car. Key West Transit is ill-prepared to meet the challenge of providing all these people with a real alternative to driving their vehicles to get around. These car-dependent developments force each adult to own a car to get from one place to another – adding to the expense of living in the Keys. And all those car trips harm our environment and degrade our downtown with more traffic and parking congestion. The County and City need to quickly invest in Key West Transit today and provide a viable alternative for people to travel into town before driving habits get set.

Lots of New Workforce Housing and More Transient Units Coming Online Means More Traffic

The 208-unit Quarry Apartments on Big Coppitt were finished at the end of 2021. Building permits have been issued for 88-units at Dockside & the Landings Apartments on Lower Sugarloaf. 36 units received building permits in two separate developments on Cudjoe Key. Another twenty plus units have been requested on Big Coppitt. On Stock Island the quick construction going on at the 280-Unit Wreckers Cay means occupancy should start this summer and the project completed by the end of the year. The Key West Housing Authority’s 104-unit Garden View Apartments on College Road is under construction and should come online in 2023. That’s over 736 units of workforce housing coming online within a very short time frame.

And that doesn’t include the 148-transient condos just approved at the Key West Harbor Yacht Club on Maloney Avenue on Stock Island. THAT’S a lot of additional traffic on top of the trips generated by the still fairly new Oceans Edge resort and marina’s 175 guest rooms and 52 slips and the Perry Hotel’s 100 rooms and 220 Stock Island Marina slips.

The Best Time to Change Commuting Habits is When People Move

Behavior change research over the last few decades shows the best time to start a new commuting habit, like taking transit or riding a bike to work, is when a person moves to a new home or starts a new job. So, the perfect time to nudge people to try the bus is when they move into these new developments. I’ve known transit agencies around the country to give a free month or two of transit to new residents to incentivize them to try the bus for example. Once the habit is set, they can become regular customers.

Says Bloomberg News:

“Whether you drive, bike, walk, or take the train, the way you get to work each day is more of an automatic response than it is a conscious choice. So long as other patterns in your life are constant, there’s no signal telling you to ditch your car in favor of the bus—even if you know it’s the cheaper, more environmentally friendly thing to do. To trigger changes in commute habits, studies have shown, a shift in context is key. Research provides new evidence that changing residences can encourage a change in travel norms.”

So, shouldn’t the County and City be encouraging new residents as they move in, to try doing something different?

But the Bus Service Is Awful. It Should Be Frequent and Free

Yes, the County and City should be encouraging these new residents to use the bus instead of driving. And handing out free bus passes would be a great start. The problem is that the bus service is so awful, no one uses it for commuting. Census data shows 1% of Monroe County residents and less than 1% of Key West residents use the bus to get to work. That’s because on the Lower Keys Shuttle there are just 10 trips all day into Key West and 10 trips a day from Key West to Marathon. It’s 95-120 minutes between buses. On the North and South Lines that serve Stock Island the bus comes along every 80-95 on weekdays and less on the weekends. The frequency of the buses and span of service simply can’t compete with the convenience of driving, no matter the hassles of traffic and parking. And if existing residents don’t use it, why would we expect the new people moving in to use it?

Then there’s the issue of cost. The Lower Keys Shuttle is $4 each way. The North and South Lines are $2. While one can get $75 and $25 monthly passes for each, the incentive to take the bus when the service is so infrequent just isn’t there. It needs to be frequent and free. 

Lack of Transit Begets Car-Dependency, Which Drives Up Living Costs

The County and City should be commended for addressing the affordable housing crisis by setting aside ROGOs for all these affordable/workforce homes. But when these units are car-dependent because they lack quality transit, it works against bringing down housing costs because every adult and teenage dependent needs a car to get around. And that’s expensive.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) says the average cost of owning and maintaining an automobile is nearly $10,000 annually. For most people, after housing, transportation is their second biggest expense. Emerging research shows that policy makers should consider the combined housing + transportation costs and look at total affordable living, not just housing when addressing the issue. We go into detail on this subject in our May 14, 2021, article “How Better Transit and Bicycle Facilities Can Help Address Affordable Housing.”

By providing a viable transit alternative maybe every adult doesn’t need to own a car and County and City leaders are then helping address the affordability crisis.

Lower Keys Shuttle Bus Stop Improvements a Start

The little bit of good news is that sometime this summer the City, thanks to Sustainability Coordinator Alison Higgins foresight, will being installing bicycle racks and lockers, map and schedule information, hail lights, bicycle fix-it stations and trash and recycle bins at most of the Lower Keys Shuttle bus stops between Marathon and Key West. The effort is part of a “Final Mile” grant from FDOT to bridge the gap between people’s homes in the Lower Keys by bicycle, to the bus stops along U.S. Route 1. Read the details in this August 20, 2021, story entitled “City to Make It Easier to Bike to the Lower Keys Shuttle Bus.” 

 We could use a lot more good thinking like this. Better, easier to access bus stops is a start. But we really need more frequency to go along with that improved access.

Why Not Require Shuttles or Pay Into Public Transit at these Developments?

The Perry and Oceans Edge hotels on Stock Island each offer free shuttle buses from their properties to the Historic Seaport in downtown Key West. They operate hourly service in each direction from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.  The Perry’s shuttle even stops at Higgs Beach. I’ve sat at Conch Republic and watched people pile into and pile out of these shuttles. The Marriott Beachside’s shuttle operates hourly from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm and has two stops on Duval as well as the airport. They work at keeping guests from using their cars to get downtown. 

To its credit the County did require the developer to install two bus shelters at bus stops next to Wreckers Cay. But why aren’t the developers of larger projects like Wreckers Cay, Garden View, the Quarry, and Dockside & the Landings Apartments required to do shuttles like what the hotels do? Or if not their own shuttle, then some significant annual contribution to Key West Transit that can buy free rides for residents and help increase the frequency? This kind of thing is done all over the country to mitigate the traffic and parking congestion that comes with new development. Seems we’re missing the boat by not requiring a shuttle or contribution to Key West Transit on Stock Island and the Lower Keys.

Bikes As an Alternative from Stock Island 

Using bicycles as an alternative on a small, flat island where we have decent weather 12 months of the year can be an alternative for some people. While we can’t expect people to ride bikes from the Lower Keys to downtown Key West, as we said above, they could ride bikes to the Lower Keys Shuttle bus. But Stock Island is a little closer. I ride my bike to Stock Island from my Historic Seaport neighborhood a few times a week, so know the routes. The new Garden View apartments at just 4.2 miles and 22 minutes to the Historic Seaport are fairly close and one doesn’t have to cross U.S. Route 1 at any point. However, there are no bike lanes on College Road and well, one must navigate N. Roosevelt Boulevard. With all the commercial activity and driveways, North Roosevelt can be scary for some people. 

Wreckers Cay on the County side of Stock Island, behind the CVS and next to Boyd’s Campground is 4.7 miles and 25 minutes to the Seaport via N. Roosevelt Boulevard. Wreckers Cay residents could stay on the south side of Stock Island and cross U.S. 1 at Duck Avenue and use the safer Crosstown Greenway, which cuts across the middle of Key West via Duck Ave., Staples Ave. and Von Phister St. instead of N. Roosevelt, but it is slightly longer at 5.3 miles and 31 minutes.

The City can help by making it safer for Stock Island residents coming to work in Key West by installing protected bike lanes on College Road and working with FDOT to reengineer N. Roosevelt Boulevard to have less conflicts. They can also make it safer and easier to cross U.S. Route 1 at Duck Avenue to get to the Crosstown Greenway. The County can help by working with FDOT to make the sidewalks and bike paths on its side of the island, especially along the commercial properties safer and easier too. That and widening the narrow sidewalks adjacent to the Navy/VA Health Clinic around the bend where A1A meets U.S. 1.

What Happened to Multiple Plans to Increase Frequency?

Through many meetings and multiple processes, a consensus has been built that improved public transit is vital for our future prosperity. Key West Transit’s adopted 10-Year Transit Development Plan (TDP), the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) and the first draft of the City’s Key West Forward Strategic Plan all called for increasing investment in our public transit system to pay bus drivers more, increase the abysmal frequency on all routes and move towards free fares. The Mayor and most Commissioners echoed the call during the budget hearings.

During last year’s Strategic Plan process, presentations to the public and Commission in June stated that North and South Lines should go from the current 80 – 95 minutes to 30 minutes and on the Lower Keys Shuttle from 95 – 120 minutes to every 60 minutes. At the time the Mayor and Commissioners noted they hoped the 30-minutes was interim as they eventually wanted to get to 15 minutes between buses. After all this planning and consensus building everyone seemed a little surprised that the Finance Department presented a no-growth Transit budget for the coming year at the July 22nd City Commission Budget Workshop that didn’t include these changes. Later we were told that a decision by the City to raise employee salaries by $2.8 million annually or $5,417 per employee meant there was no money for transit.

So, we’ve lost a year when we could be making improvements. We suppose we have no choice but to give leaders a mulligan and move forward. But when we asked Key West Transit officials, on two different occasions what plans they had to serve these new communities, the totality of their response was “Existing routes already serve these areas.” That’s not acceptable. Not when buses arrive every 80 to 120 minutes. To its credit the County provided a much more thoughtful and thorough response even if they didn’t say more frequency was forthcoming. 

We aren’t surprised at the lack of transparency nor follow through when it comes to KW Transit as the following disappointing stories from the last year attest:

The Key West Forward Strategic Plan for improved frequency presented to the public and Commissioners in June, 2021.

City AND County Need to Work Together to Invest in Transit. NOW!

We’re investing in workforce housing on Stock Island and the Lower Keys. We’re investing in upgrading all the bus stops along the Lower Keys Shuttle route and the most used stops on Stock Island and Key West. But we must do better than just 10 trips a day in each direction on the Lower Keys Shuttle and the North and South lines serving Stock Island. Waiting an hour and twenty minutes to two hours between buses isn’t reliable and frequent enough service to entice anyone to ditch their car and take transit instead. 

In next year’s budget we need to do what the Strategic Plan originally called for and increase the frequency on the Lower Keys Shuttle to every 60 minutes and on the North and South lines to every 30 minutes. And the next year that should go to every 30 minutes and 15 minutes respectively. Seven days a week. Early morning until late at night. And the ride needs to be FREE for residents. 

Currently 55% of the Transit Department’s budget comes from Federal and State sources, and that doesn’t include a recent $1M American Rescue Plan grant. That grant could be used to jump start more frequent service. Most of the balance of the 45% comes from various dedicated parking fees. There’s little if any local tax dollars going into the system. Changing that could be an option. Or if there’s no stomach for using tax dollars, we need to get creative and find sources to cover an investment in the system. Increased parking fees? TDC funds? Sales tax? Bed tax? Toll on Cow Key bridge? 

What’s clear is that both the County and the City need to work together and find ways to invest more. If more people take the bus, it makes our streets less congested and makes it easier to find parking for those that must drive. It is friendly to our environment and helps combat climate change. It will allow more of our beleaguered workforce to get around without the expense of a car. It makes us healthier and happier too. We must get this done.

# # #

You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.

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.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: