Streets for People / Helping Islanders Go Car-Free Or Car-Lite Can Help With Our Affordable Housing Crisis

By Chris Hamilton. This story is cross posted in KONK Life  on May 18, 2023Follow 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.

A couple weeks ago the Washington Post reported that as of March, higher interest rates and pricier models put the average cost of a new car nationwide at $48,008. Data from Edmunds says the average monthly payment hit $730 in April and TransUnion says $738. Money Under 30 puts the total cost of car ownership at around $940 a month. AAA’s monthly estimate in 2022 was $894 or $10,000 annually. Potato Patato, however you slice owning and operating a car, its expensive. For those of us who live in Key West, where our agreed upon number one issue is affordable housing, the high cost of getting around by car just makes life’s overall affordability all the worse.

What if each adult in a family didn’t need to own a car to get around and could instead rely on a frequent, and easy-to-use transit system or a safe and easy-to-use network of bicycle facilities to get around for some or all trips? Going from two cars to one car (car-lite) or even car-free could save a family thousands of dollars every year. Money that can take the sting out of our ever-increasing mortgages and rents. So, while the City’s approach on affordable housing, as evidenced in its Strategic Plan, is admirable, shouldn’t our approach also address every family’s second highest expense, transportation?

Vanna, I’ll take a “Y” an “E” and an “S” please. Yes. Investing in our struggling transit system and safer streets isn’t just for our visitors and isn’t just some nice amenity that can be relegated to the side and put on the slow burner. Building a robust transit service and safer streets in a big way now, is an investment in our residents and workers and can be part of the solution on affordability that is chasing much of our working and middle class away. Here’s a quick closer look and a few things to do.

Housing + Transportation = A More Complete Measure of Affordability

For most people, after housing, transportation is their second biggest expense. Studies that have looked at housing and transportation costs have found that lower transportation costs in areas with good access and transit help offset higher housing costs across most income groups. Location affordability measures the share of income spent on housing AND transportation. Households in location efficient places spend significantly less on household transportation, often enough to offset the higher housing costs of these choice neighborhoods. Walkable blocks with good transit service and bike facilities especially contribute to these savings. Check out the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transit Index tool for more.

The Case for Better Transit

Nobody takes the bus for work. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census, less than 1 percent of Key West (0.2%) and County (0.35%) residents use transit to get to work. In a strategic plan survey of residents in January of 2020 no one knew enough about the bus lines to answer questions about Key West Transit and the system was the only one of 20 City services left without a rating. We’ve documented that Duval Loop ridership has plummeted, that the City’s bus stops are lacking, and that there’s awful service from Stock Island to Key West (here, here and here).

And we’ve also documented some recent efforts to turn this all around. Staff took an interim step to fix Duval Loop bus stops, has a long-term plan to upgrade nearly all the stops on the Lower Keys Shuttle and began on-demand service on Key West and Stock Island in December and will start a “Workers Express” shuttle on June 5.

The recent efforts, while an admirable start, may only be stopping the hemorrhaging. Last year Key West Transit scrapped its very good and ambitious 10-Year Plan, developed in 2019, as “outmoded fiscally and by workforce availability.” Recent social media reaction to shifting from the North and South line routes to the “Key West Rides” on-demand service, also on June 5, has been mixed. We’re convinced their original 10-Year Plan with 15–20-minute service on shorter circulators and longer-haul connectors was the way to go.

We’re willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt to try these new concepts. What we really think needs to happen though, regardless of the route structure, or lack of it in the case of on-demand, is a much bigger investment (read money) in people, infrastructure, and marketing to make the system frequent and reliable enough to convince people to ditch their cars.

The Case for Better Bicycle Facilities

According to the U.S. Census, 12.4% of Key West residents get to work by bike. In 2010 it was 16%. Only 1.7% of County residents bike to work. Another 7% and 4% respectively walk. Given our small size, flat terrain, and good weather, it should be more. A lot more.

We’ve talked about the dangers of biking between Stock Island and Key West here and here, about recent crashes that have led to bicycle deaths here and here, about the need for better and more bicycle parking here, and about all the times the City, County or State did a road project, ignored the Bike Plan and didn’t put in bike lanes here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

With the advent of a new Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator there’s been more hope and progress. As a result, recently the City snagged a $400K planning grant that could lead to even more money, has started work on new bike lanes on United and South Streets and is starting to plan for a new bike facility at Wickers field, and maybe a new bike path behind the airport. And we’re aware of more. But just like with transit, there’s a lack of staff, and construction and marketing dollars to make things happen bigger and sooner.

In order to really move the needle and double the number of people biking for transportation, enabling people to save tons of money by ditching their car, we need to create a safe and connected network of bicycle facilities (trails, protected lanes, and lanes) all over Key West and Stock Island. The advent of the e-bike is helping to make it easier. But we have to address making it safer. And that’s where the facilities and marketing come in. Key West has the good bones, compact size, flat surface, and good weather to make it happen. The Mayor says we can be the #1 best small bicycling city in the U.S.A. The City and County just need to double down and spend a lot more money to make it happen sooner.

More Affordable Housing Downtown Please

Everyone agrees we need more affordable housing. But putting it on Stock Island and further up the Keys just makes it more likely people will need a car to get around. Especially beyond Stock Island. The 126 units at The Lofts in Bahama Village is the way to go. All future workforce housing should be put on the island of Key West where people have access to transit or easy biking and walking distances. For example, Searstown and Kmart Plaza can be redeveloped as island-friendly places with housing. And we need to look for large parcels downtown to develop more places like The Lofts.

Getting Around Without a Car Can Lessen the Burden on Working People

Our housing affordability crisis, the lack of workers and our friends moving away because of this is well documented. The City and County need to work their plans and keep at addressing the housing issue. But overall affordability, housing + transportation, is a more holistic way of looking at this issue. Investing in better transit and bike facilities, thus enabling people to go car-free or car-lite brings overall living costs down. That’s good for our residents and workers. When the budget season rolls around this summer, ask your City and County Commissioners what they are doing to radically make our islands easy to get around without the high expense of a car. We’ll all be better off if they do.

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For an in-depth look at this issue please read How Better Transit and Bicycle Facilities Can Help Address Affordable Housing. For more information on bicycling and Transit in Key West visit Getting Around Key West.

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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