Streets for People / Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 2: Services, Infrastructure and Policies

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on April 15, 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 second 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 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. 

Two weeks ago 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. 

Last week we brought you four of the ten recommendations that fall into a broad category of marketing. Today, we’re going to bring you the remaining six recommendations that deal with services, infrastructure, and policies. As a refresher here’s a summary of the 4 in the marketing group. 

Part 1: Marketing – Summarized 

1 – Educate Visitors That They Don’t Need a Car – Before They Get Here (Link to full description)

A unified marketing campaign, backed up with ad dollars with the message you don’t need a car to get around Key West, spread via online national media outlets like Trip Advisor, local sites like the Chamber and all the individual hotel websites. Targeting people before they make a reservation. Perhaps the City contracts with a marketing vendor like they do with the Historic Seaport.

2 – Educate Visitors About Transportation Options – Once They’ve Arrived (Link to full description)

Make it easy for visitors to find information about transportation options once they arrive in Key West. Think signs in the airport. Maps, brochures, cards, apps and web-enabled tools with info about transit and biking distributed through the campaign’s partners, hotels, B&Bs, inns, vacation rental companies, attractions, bars, restaurants, and retailers to all easily participate in the campaign.

3 – Direct Visitors to Existing Long Term Lots With Better Wayfinding (Link to full description)

Wayfinding signage along U.S. 1, N. and S. Roosevelt Boulevards and throughout downtown. Transportation options maps should include public and private parking lots. One place on the internet where all lots are located, and all the lodging folks link to it. Signage and web should include real-time capacity.

4 – Enlist the Help of and Work With Recreational Vehicle Rental Companies (Link to full description)

Oblige 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.

Part 2: Services, Infrastructure and Policies

5 – End Free On-Street Parking for Visitors

There are approximately 3,000 on-street parking spaces in Old Town. About 1/3 are metered, 1/3 are for Resident Permit holders only and another third are unmarked and available to anyone for up to 72 hours (3 days) for free. Why in the world is there any free parking for visitors downtown anyway? We need to put a time limit of 4 hours before midnight on these spaces and exempt Resident Permit and worker permit holders, so only visitors have to move their cars. This will ensure that longer stay visitors park in long-term lots and garages. 

I worked at a downtown hotel that didn’t have a parking lot – most small inns don’t – and we told people we can give you a permit to park in a nearby garage for $24 or you can find a free space for 3-days. 90% of the people said they’d take their chances on the street. 

For hotels in New Town and Stock Island, that do have parking lots, visitors may be more tempted to drive downtown, if they know they can snag one of those 1,000 free parking places close to the action. By putting a time limit on these or converting more of them to metered and Resident Only spaces, it is more likely these folks will leave their car in the lot and hop on a bus or bike to get downtown. 

It is important to eliminate the free on-street parking because it acts as a pull for people to cruise for the spaces.  A good percentage of downtown traffic congestion is people hunting for parking

6 – Make the Duval Loop Every 15 Minutes, Again

Originally the Duval Loop ran every 15 minutes. Now it’s every 40.

For the first couple of years the Duval Loop would come by every 15 minutes. Perhaps that’s why in 2019 over 410,000 trips were taken on the Loop, more than the City’s other 4 routes (at the time) and the Lower Keys Shuttle combined. These days the Loop comes along about every 40 minutes. You can check this out for yourself by using their real-time app at https://www.kwtransit.com. No wonder ridership has drastically declined. If someone must wait up to 40 minutes for the bus to take them from one side of the island to the other, they are way less likely to use transit and more likely, if they have it, to jump in their car. 

When the Duval Loop was initiated, there was a commitment with the downtown business community that the service would be frequent (15 minutes). If we want visitors to not use cars, we must provide great alternatives. That also means committing to increasing the frequency on the North and South Line routes and Lower Keys Shuttle.

7 – Install More Green Paint and Bike Racks

According to PeopleforBikes, a national advocacy organization that produces an annual City Ratings of over 700 cities, Key West ranked #39 in North America as a place to bike. The analysis and interviews revealed the high rank is a product of the fact that a lot of people bike here because we’re compact, flat, and have good weather. Not because of any particularly good bicycle facilities. In fact, even more people would bike if they felt safe doing so.

Research show that to get people who aren’t comfortable bicycling on our streets to do so, you need to have a good network of connected bicycle facilities like green paint, protected bikeways, and multi-use paths. The City has an excellent blueprint for creating this safer network in its adopted Bike/Ped Plan. All we need to do is speed up its implementation.

Another missing ingredient is bicycle parking. Everyone knows we don’t have enough of it because bikes are tied up to trees, streetlights, signposts, fences and building posts all over our downtown commercial district. It’s time to install more bicycle parking downtown and go beyond the hodgepodge placement to a system that places bike corrals in the street – not on our overcrowded sidewalks – in the same place on every block so people know where to expect the racks. And it wouldn’t hurt the City’s image to upgrade the quality of bicycle racks while we’re at it.

8 – Lift the Moratorium on Recreational Vehicles – and Make Em Electric

For two years the City has had a moratorium on additional rental recreational vehicles or bicycles, e-bicycles, e-scooters, mopeds, and golf carts. The City says it is awaiting a “Recreational Rental Vehicle Impact Analysis” before lifting the moratorium. They just put out the RFQ and it isn’t due until May 18. So, we’re likely looking at next summer, 2023 for some results. That will be more than three years and counting. Meanwhile there is no such moratorium on rental cars. 

We’re all for gathering more data. But limiting the number of options available for people to get around, instead of using cars, is just playing into the mainland, car-centric culture of being afraid of all the new-fangled electric devices. The poor folks at Lama Mobility had to get a hard-fought special exemption for their 48-scooters. We should be encouraging more of this kind of thinking not less.

While we’re at it we shouldn’t allow any new recreational vehicles on the island that aren’t people or electric powered. Given that the Keys are on the front lines of climate change and rising seas, we should not be allowing any more gas-powered recreational scooters and golf carts. And we should mandate that the existing fleets of the loud, whinny, smoke spewing things all be electric within five years. 

9 – Build the Parking Lot on Stock Island

The 10-Year Key West Transit Plan calls for building a garage, like we have on Grinnell at the Seaport, on Stock Island and then busing people into town. The City could use federal funds, like they did with this garage, on Stock Island.

It is time to finally build free public parking garages on Stock Island and/or New Town and offer free and frequent shuttle buses into town. The idea has been bandied about for decades. The adopted 10-Year Key West Transit Plan calls for building a Key West Intermodal Center (KWIC) or parking facility where the current bus shop is next to Mount Trashmore and proved 15-minute frequent service from there into downtown seven days a week, 15 hours a day. It is time to get this done!

10 – Increase the Ferries, Add “Buses-As-Flights” and Open a Public Airport on Boca Chica

One of the most important recommendations in Mary Bishop’s study was to increase the number of ferries and planes coming into Key West. Well, the airport has been adding flights and is busier than ever. Even with the new terminal, with just six bays, the airport’s capacity is limited. To say nothing of the flight path over the residential portion of the island. Perhaps it is time to rethink some sort of sharing of the Navy’s huge airport on Boca Chica so that as many airlines as want to come to Key West can? There are joint-force or shared-use airports in Destin-Fort Walton and Charleston for example. More flights are a good thing.

The surveys showed that passengers wanted more options on ferry schedules. In cities like Seattle, Portland, ME and throughout the Maritime Provinces in Canada, ferries are operated by the government to ensure a span of service that works for the public. Perhaps the State of Florida and Monroe County could pitch in and help subsidize additional trips from existing ports and add more locations too. 

Last week American Airlines announced it would replace short-leg flights with “on-the-ground” buses and shuttles between nearby cities. Perhaps we can expand upon this idea and offer more coach service to Key West from cities in South Florida. Greyhound has two trips a day into Key West, but we need more. And we need to somehow help remove the stigma of bus riding in the American consciousness too. We spend a lot of money on our airport. Maybe we need to partner with private operators and invest more in this kind of group ground transportation that would take cars off the road.  Take a look at this nice article “Can ‘Buses-As-Flights” Get Americans Out of Their Cars?” for some good ideas.

Our Island’s Future is Better if We Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors

The mix of marketing/education, transit and bicycle/e-vehicle infrastructure improvements, parking management and access to Key West via ferries and planes are within our ability to make happen. Given our island’s prosperity, it’s also within our ability to figure out how to finance, what save for the transit and parking garages, are relatively low-cost improvements. 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. We all win if we can figure out how to make these 10 recommendations a reality.

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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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