Hunting for Parking: Making the Case to End Free Parking for Visitors In Downtown Key West

By Chris Hamilton. Story is cross posted at KONK Life on July 21, 2023Support ($) our local journalism here. Follow us at  Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown on Facebook and Twitter.

Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet. I’m hunting for a parking space. But for the first time in a few years, lo and behold there seem to be a lot of these wascawwy spots available downtown. So, maybe our seasons are indeed back. Enjoy the abundance while you can, because once the fall comes, so do the complaints by historic district residents of not being able to find parking in front of their home or by locals not being able to shop, dine or play downtown. I was reminded that hunting for parking isn’t a uniquely Key West problem, but plagues popular downtowns the world over, when reading a recent article by business and economics columnist Peter Coy.

With extensive research Mr. Coy makes The Case for Ending Free Parking ($) saying the origin of the “parking problem is that on-street parking is free or underpriced and the solution therefore is to charge or charge more.” Sounds simple enough. How does this apply to Key West? In the heart of downtown there are about 3,000 on-street parking spaces. 1/3 of these are metered. 1/3 are marked for use by Resident Permit only. They aren’t the problem. But the final third are unmarked and FREE. Open to anyone, including visitors, for up to 72 hours or 3 days. And like a moth to a flame, everyone is attracted to these precious few free spaces. Why feed a meter or pay to park in a lot or garage if you can find a free one. The lure of these free spaces are causing the problems.  

When visitors in an effort to save a few bucks on an already expensive trip, grab one of these for a few days instead of parking in a long-term lot, it means less available space for nearby residents and Key West locals to park and enjoy downtown. The solution as Peter Coy and parking experts point out is simple. Eliminate free on-street parking. Or in our case, free on-street parking for visitors. Let’s look at how this can be done and how it helps create a more locals-friendly and Shop Mom and Pop downtown.

The Allure of Free Parking Undercuts Efforts to Have Visitors Park In Long-Term Lots

We’ve all been there. Peter Coy writes, that his wife insists on cruising for a free spot on the street while he prefers to give up and park in a garage. In one of the most popular Seinfeld episodes of all time, The Parking Space, Elaine tells George to just put the car in a garage because he’s never going to find a free on-street parking space. But George, like most Americans, is loath to pay for parking and keeps hunting saying, “Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”  

Visitors to Key West are like George. If they think there’s a possibility of a free space, even if it is difficult to find at certain times of the year, they are going to resist efforts to park the car in a paid lot and they’ll hunt for that elusive free spot.

Small Inns and AirBnB’s Contribute to the Problem

The TDC says that 77% of our million plus visitors arrive by car. While many downtown hotels have parking lots, most smaller inns and B&Bs do not. You know who else doesn’t provide parking? All those historic district homes converted to daily, weekly, and monthly rentals. Guess where most of these people park? You got it, those free unmarked spaces.

I worked at a small inn (less than 30 rooms) by the Seaport a few years ago. It doesn’t have a parking lot. And while it was only a couple blocks away from a bunch of public and private lots and garages, most of the guests who arrived by car chose to hunt for a free parking spot on the street for 72 hours rather than pay for the garage. In fact, we had a little chart at the front desk showing them this unmarked spot is what you want to look for and to avoid the Resident Permit spaces. If we eliminated the free spaces, these visitors would have no choice but to park their car in a long-term lot.  

Across the street on Fleming is a Resident Permit space, while in front/below is an unmarked FREE for up to 72 hours or 3 days space that visitors hunt for because it is free.

The Allure of Free Parking Causes Cruising that Congests Downtown

Research indicates in some congested downtowns up to 1/3 of vehicles are cruising for underpriced curb parking. This cruising or hunting causes congestion and pollution. “A surprising amount of traffic isn’t caused by people who are on their way somewhere. Rather it is caused by people who have already arrived but are cruising around looking for a place to park.” Says Parking Guru and UCLA Professor Donald Shoup in this article: Cruising for Parking.

Free Parking Discourages Turnover for Retail

If close-in unmarked free spaces are taken by visitors to store their vehicles for up to 72 hours, this discourages their use by short-term users for frequenting local Mom and Pop shops, restaurants, and attractions. Yes, these out-of-town visitors may also be shopping, eating, and playing, but by storing their vehicle on the street, instead of a long-term lot, they are potentially preventing a local from using a close-in space. And we’ve all heard long-time locals complain they don’t go downtown. Congestion and lack of parking being one of the reasons. If the chances of finding parking were increased that would attract more locals downtown.

Free Parking Competes With Residents Ability to Park in Front of Their Homes

Over 10,000 Resident Permits are issued annually. There’s about 1,000 Resident Permit parking spaces downtown. So historic district residents often lament they can’t find parking in front of their home or even on their own block. So, the backup is to park in one of those unmarked spaces. However, if those spaces are filled with out-of-towners storing their vehicle…

Three Simple Things We Can Do to Fix This

1 – Convert Some Free Spaces to Meters and Resident Permit Spaces

Take a portion of the 1,000 unmarked free spaces downtown and simply make them into either metered parking or Resident Permit parking spaces.

2 – Put Hourly Limits on the Remaining Unmarked Free Spaces and Exempt Resident Permit Holders

The case can be made that some amount of limited and short-term “free” parking is needed. Most cities provide this kind of parking by putting hourly limits, maybe four to six hours between the hours of 8 am and midnight for example on these spaces and then exempting Resident Permit holders. The hourly limits allows downtown residents to have guests or allows locals to attend functions and such. What it really does is discourage visitors from storing their vehicles for up to 3 days on the street and instead encourages them to park in a long-term lot – otherwise they’ll get a ticket. And locals, whether they live downtown or in New Town who have Resident Permits now have twice as many places to park!

3 – Direct Overnight and Day Visitors to Long-Term Lots, Park It and Forget It

Marketing by the TDC and the lodging industry needs to make visitors aware there is no free parking in Key West well before they get here and to share with them where there is available long-term parking. Set the expectation before they arrive so as to reduce complaints.  

As people reach Stock Island, go through the Triangle and scatter along the few routes into the City, wayfinding should direct people to available garages. Better yet this should be real-time information that’s also available online and by your phone. Messaging should educate people to Park It and Forget It – and once their car is in a long-term lot to walk, bike and use the Duval Loop and other transit to get around.

Everybody Wins When We End the Hunt for Free Parking

We need to end the incentive to hunt for free parking in downtown Key West by doing what the experts and common sense tell us to do. Simply eliminate free on-street parking for visitors. If we do these three simple things:  

  1. convert some of the 1,000 unmarked free spaces to meters and Resident Permits
  2. put hourly limits on the remaining spaces and exempt Resident Permit holders, and
  3. direct visitors to long-term lots

we’ll get more meter and parking lot revenue. We’ll have more spaces for historic district residents to park near their home. And we’ll provide more spaces for all local residents to park downtown and enjoy the wonderful Mom and Pop shops, restaurants, and attractions – thus making our commercial districts more Locals’ Friendly. And we’ll have less congestion as visitors aren’t hunting for parking. Win, Win, Win, Win!

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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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