Streets for People / Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 1: Marketing

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on April 8, 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. 

In last year’s most popular Streets for People article, Airport Expansion Means Fewer Cars on Our Island, September 24, 2021, we made the case that more people arriving by airplane is a good thing because it reduces the volume of traffic on U.S. Route 1 and congestion and parking problems downtown. Even as additional people arrive by air, data shows a ceaselessly increasing level of vehicle traffic on our only highway, created by ever more visitors, and compounded by residents driving more because they live further outside the city than in decades past. Today we’re following up with the first part, in a two-part series of ten recommendations, inspired by feedback from the Airport article and a 2019 “Toward Car-Free Key West” study on how we get vacationers to either not bring a car to the island at all or if they do drive here to at least park it and never use it again until the day they leave. 

Traffic Continues as a Concern and Data Shows It’s a Growing Problem

Traffic congestion has been a top concern here for decades and it is only getting worse. The data shows that 77% of the more than a million overnight visitors who make it all the way to the island of Key West arrive here by car. That’s a lot of cars on top of resident, worker, and business vehicles, especially when there are only 3,000 identified on-street parking spaces in the historic district and a slightly smaller number of publicly available off-street spaces in municipal and private lots and garages downtown. 

And just last week one of our island’s most beloved and astute columnists, Linda Grist Cunningham, wrote an article for the Citizen newspaper and her Key West Island News blog entitled: “Key West Traffic – Unless we ditch some vehicles the island’s gonna sink” explaining that “We’ve got too many motorized things clogging our streets…After all, our streets were laid out a couple hundred years ago. Tiny streets on a tiny island, when both people and transportation devices were smaller and fewer. The island simply isn’t built to handle our crowds and must-have SUVs.” She’s spot on.

For those inclined to see the numbers that undergird our 10 recommendations, the column on Airport Expansion is knee deep in FDOT traffic analysis, TDC and Airport visitor data and survey and behavior change research from a 2019 study entitled “Toward Car-Free Key West” published by Mary Bishop in the Journal of Transportation Demand Management out of the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR). Start there first and then pick back up the story here. 

Repeat Visitors Give Us Blueprint for Getting To Car-Free 

One of the key takeaways from Mary Bishop’s research is something many of us have come to know, but she gathered the evidence to back it up. The takeaway is that once you are here and on the island of Key West you don’t really need a car to get around. Once visitors experience Key West, the lightbulb seemingly goes off, and they understand this too. This is borne out in the fact that on subsequent visits, people get here by rental cars less and use the airport and ferry more. Here’s how Mary Bishop explains it:

“There is substantial evidence from this survey data to indicate that a vehicle is not needed once visitors arrive on the island. In total, 49% of visitors reported walking as their primary form of transportation while visiting and 32% reported not using a vehicle at all during their stay. The lack of need for a vehicle can also be indicated by the changing trends with repeated visits. While 42% of first-time visitors rented a vehicle for their stay, the percentage dropped to 20% by only the second visit. Meanwhile, arriving via the Key West Airport (67% of airport arrivals did not use a car at all during their stay) became more popular over the number of visits, rising from only 6% for first-time visitors to 34% for visitors who had visited more than five times. These findings suggest the importance of determining what is needed to convey the knowledge of repeat visitors to first-time visitors.”

From Mary Bishop’s Toward Car-Free Key West Report.

10 Ways To Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors: 

Based upon her research and the surveys conducted with visitors, Ms. Bishop concludes her paper with four recommendations (jump to page 26 of her report) summarized as follows:

  • Marketing
  • Increase Ridership of Key West Express Ferry
  • Increase Arrivals via Key West International Airport
  • Give Tourists the Public Transportation They Want on the Island

We’ve taken the liberty of expanding and elaborating on her excellent conclusions. We’ve also incorporated much of the feedback we heard when the first article was published last summer. So, while these may not strike you as exactly new ideas, we hope that by putting them together, in one place, it is easier to see how these would work together to get the job done. 

Today we’re going to bring you four of the ten recommendations that fall into the area of Marketing. Next week we’ll bring you numbers 5 through 10 which deal with services, infrastructure, and policy.

Part 1: Marketing

1 – Educate Visitors That They Don’t Need a Car – Before They Get Here

Once people bring a car to Key West, they tend to use it to get around. So, the crux of Ms. Bishop’s policy recommendations relies on conveying the message that you don’t need a car in Key West to visitors BEFORE they get here. It is especially important for first time visitors.

A unified, organized marketing campaign with this message needs to be spearheaded, perhaps by the city, created, and reinforced across online media outlets, blogs, social media, national websites like Trip Advisor, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline.com and the like and local websites that promote Key West like the Chamber of Commerce, Business Guild, Attractions Association, Lodging Association, keywest.com, floridakeys.com, cityofkeywest-fl.gov, and all the individual hotel websites. Note the TDC’s Fla-Keys.com website does have this message and link – but the info is dated, and they are the only ones linking to Car-Free Key West.

Hotels especially need to join in and promote how easily accessible everything is (walking, bicycles, e-bikes, Lama scooters, hotel transportation, Duval Loop, bus, etc.). A car is unnecessary should be front and center on their websites and as part of their sales engagement efforts on the phone with customers. As an example, local sales agents should be trained to say something like the following upon taking a phone reservation:

“We are centrally located in Old Town, with almost everything within walking distance, so there is no need for a car. If walking is not your thing or you are looking for a fun way to get around and see the sights, we can offer bicycles and electric scooters. We can get you an electric moped. The Duval Loop comes close to our property. We have plenty of taxis too.”

Of course, the message changes slightly with the lodging’s exact location. Many hotels further up in New Town and Stock Island have their own shuttles. And while walking might not be an option, bicycling or e-bike and e-scootering certainly is. The same message can pop up when making a reservation. The idea is that everyone, all over Key West, is saying the same thing. 

We mention the City spearheading the campaign as they already have an online presence at www.carfreekeywest.com and on Facebook – although there’s no money, advertising, or campaign behind it. The TDC obviously has deep pockets and marketing knowhow but the TDC’s job is to market the entire Keys, not just Key West and as such they routinely advertise “driving” the historic Overseas Highway. Maybe a contractor to the City, like the way the Historic Seaport is marketed? Bet you didn’t know the City’s Seaport has a $350,000 marketing contract – so why not money for this? Maybe another organization like the Lodging Association could take the lead? Someone needs to step up. 

2 – Educate Visitors About Transportation Options – Once They’ve Arrived

From the Car-Free Key West website.

It is just as important to make it easy for visitors to find information about transportation options once they arrive in Key West. It is great that there’s information on the http://www.carfreekeywest.com website but it needs to be everywhere. Think signs in the airport, ferry terminal and even on U.S. Route 1. The same entity spearheading the marketing before people arrive, must develop tools for the campaign’s partners, hotels, B&Bs, inns, vacation rental companies, attractions, bars, restaurants, and retailers to all easily and seamlessly participate in the campaign.

Maps, brochures, cards, apps, and web-enabled tools need to be developed with coordinated, seamless information about the Duval Loop and other transit options. Bike routes should be included on maps. Safety rules too. Places to rent bikes and e-scooters should all be included. No options available to the public should be left out, regardless of whether it is a private or municipal entity. 

Hotels should be able to easily customize these materials to include their own shuttles, bike rentals and more. The best examples are the watersports companies who produce maps and folks like Key West Finest On Duval and Off Duval Guides. Copy their approach AND pay to be in their materials too.

  • Use the bus stops to promote the bus options. Put information and maps at all the stops
  • Use bike racks to promote bike options by installing information signs with maps and where to rent bikes. Better yet, let’s brand our City’s bike racks with better, higher quality racks and put them in consistent places.
  • Put the Duval Loop map and other car-free messaging on bar coasters, napkins, koozies and tote bags and get this stuff out there.
  • Put real-time information signs near stops along the Duval Loop and other transit and put them in bars too. “Oh hey, we better get going the next bus leaves in 5 minutes.”

Hotels have a key role, so make sure all these materials are provided to them on a regular basis. But let’s not forget that bars, restaurants, attractions, and retail businesses can and should participate too. The campaign should be fun! By making it easy for businesses to participate, we’ll ensure the message gets to the visitor. You can’t just build the Car-Free Key West website and hope people will find the information. If we can spend $350,000 on marketing for the Historic Seaport, we can spend a similar amount on promoting transportation options once people get to our island. Right?

3 – Direct Visitors to Existing Long Term Lots With Better Wayfinding

Direct people to long-term garages and parking lots with better wayfinding signage and marketing before they get to downtown, like along the highway, along N. and S. Roosevelt Boulevards and throughout downtown – all the way to the destination. Those maps we mentioned above, should have public and private parking lots on them too. There should be one place on the internet where all the lots are located, and all the lodging folks should link to it. Let’s go a step further and have the website and some of the signage include real-time capacity information so people can be directed to lots with more space. If people know where to go, they’ll be more confident in just getting to the lot and storing their car.

Example of real-time parking way finding signage along a road.

4 – Enlist the Help of and Work With Recreational Vehicle Rental Companies

While this item, could have been included in item #2, Educating Visitors About Transportation Options, we call it out separately because of the unique role these bicycle, e-bike, e-scooter, moped and golf cart companies have with their customers. Especially regarding safety. While we think it is overdone, we’re used to hearing complaints from drivers and pedestrians about recreational vehicles of all types not following the rules of the road. One only needs to read the Citizen Voice, or any Facebook group posting about traffic and out come the complaints about e-vehicles on the sidewalks, and bicycles going the wrong way on on-way streets and not stopping at stop signs and signals.

So, in exchange for everyone promoting these services, we’d oblige these companies to educate their customers on the rules of the road. Our experience with most of these companies, leads us to believe that they already do this, however, perhaps there can be some uniformity, in the message and coordinate it with the overall transportation options campaign so that everything is seamless and coordinated.

Making Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors

Next week on Friday, April 15 we’ll follow up with the second part of our two-part story. We’ll discuss a mix of six policy, service and infrastructure improvements that work with the four marketing recommendations to get closer to making car-free Key West a reality for visitors. Getting more people to not bring cars to our island or to keep them parked, if they do bring them, will make our overcrowded little historic streets function better. It will also make for a greener, quieter, more peaceful and prosperous place. 

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You can find a year’s plus 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.

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