Streets for People / Key West Transit’s New On-Demand Service Is Off and Running. Now the City Needs to Put Real Marketing Money Into It
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on December 9, 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.
On November 30 Key West Transit launched its innovative Uber-like on-demand transit service called “Key West Rides.” In just a week over 410 people have downloaded the app and a couple hundred people have taken one, two or five plus rides. This is a promising start. The Transit Director tells us that they are currently focusing their efforts on transitioning existing customers to the new way of riding.
We’re rooting for Key West Rides to succeed because a healthy, green and prosperous island needs a well-functioning transit system as an alternative to the congestion and pollution the increasing number of vehicles brings to our paradise. Our beleaguered workforce needs decent options they can depend on, and we want visitors to bike or ride the bus. So, we’re perplexed that in a $5.7 M transit budget only about $30,000 is dedicated to marketing. The City spends almost $300,000 marketing the Historic Seaport, the TDC spends godawful amounts of money on general advertising and gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations across the city to advertise events and destinations. So, why doesn’t someone provide our little transit system with some real money and real help via some marketing vendors?
There’s no substitute for frequent, easy-to-use service. And Key West Transit is working on doing just that. But studies show that you can get a 10 to 30 percent increase in the investment of putting bus service on the street by reaching out to people and educating them about the service and how to use it. You’d be surprised at the number of people who are intimidated about using a bus. Likewise branding and marketing can enhance existing riders experience and attract new riders to try the system. In a tourist town, where there’s constant turnover, this is even more important.
Market research also indicates that once someone tries a product, they are more likely to come back. But you’ve got to get them to try it first. We’d like to suggest to our friends at the City that they take marketing their bus service way more seriously because it’s good for the system’s bottom line. With this in mind here’s a baker’s dozen things the City should be doing to market the Key West Transit family of services: Key West Rides, the Duval Loop, and the Lower Keys Shuttle.
Current Key West Transit Marketing Efforts
We asked Transit Director Rod Delostrinos what marketing things they were doing for the new service beyond the few social media posts we’d seen. Here is his thoughtful response:
“We are currently running both fixed route and demand response during this soft launch. Our current focus is on transitioning the current ridership (generally transit dependent customers) to the on-demand transit. Beside the marketing items you have seen, all buses are handing out flyers. We are also posting flyers at every bus stop. We are scheduling presentations at the Senior Center, Poinciana Gardens, and in Bahama Village. We also have On Demand Transit information on the Infotransit screens on the Gillig buses. From there we will widen our marketing efforts to radio PSAs, more in-person presentations, and expand to print advertising. As we are still short staffed and learning the ins and outs of the system, this crawl, walk, run approach seems the best strategy to provide the best service possible. I want to improve Customer Experience rather than focus increased ridership numbers. I believe the former will fuel the latter.”
We like the Director’s approach and emphasis on improving the customer experience first rather than focus on getting people on board right away. But in a few months, when all the kinks are worked out and they’ve stopped running the North and South Line fixed routes, the City needs to give Rod’s team the tools to market all three of the services at a higher level than what is currently being imagined. Here’s how:
A Baker’s Dozen Things Key West Transit Can Do to Better Market Themselves
Branding, marketing, outreach, and education isn’t done as a means unto themselves but rather to get butts in seats. Good communications leverage the investment in the service itself and gets you more riders per dollar of investment. The Small Business Administration says that companies should spend between seven and 12 percent of an annual budget on marketing. Our cursory look at Key West Transit’s budget shows that Promotional Expenses are about $30,000 or half of one percent (0.005%). Suffice it to say, a lot more resources need to be allocated here. With even just a five percent marketing budget of about $300,000 one could likely do most of the items here.
1 – Hire Some Help
Key West Transit doesn’t have any marketing or communications staff. The existing team is already stretched thin. We can’t expect them to do the following 12 things well. So why not hire a marketing support team. The Historic Seaport does this. And many for-profit and non-profit and other government agencies do too. Put out the RFP, hire the firm and get the following done.
2 – Brand the Enterprise
Bring in some professionals and brand the entire enterprise. Key West Rides, the Lower Keys Shuttle, and the Duval Loop. Are they all distinct services of the same Key West Transit family? What brings them all together? In 2016/2017 FDOT paid South Florida Commuter Services and an ad agency (the wonderful Diaz Cooper) to come in and brand the Duval Loop from the website to the buses, to the bus stops. It was a job well done. (Here’s the story.) Time to do it for the whole agency.
3 – Develop a Marketing Plan
Once the professionals have gotten the branding straightened out, develop a marketing plan that is tied to the fiscal year and budget. Follow it.
4 – Create a Communications or Public Relations Center
The agency is too big and important to not have its own communications point person. Maybe this person can be part of the vendor team hired to do the marketing (#1 above). Or if this person is in-house perhaps they can oversee the marketing contract. However it is done, PR is a slightly different skill and practice than marketing, but these days, especially with social media, they go hand in hand. Think of this as the system’s own, part-time Alyson Crean, who does such an amazing job for the Key West Police and City. Part of communications means putting out reports on ridership, budgets, what’s been done well, and what can be done better (something that isn’t currently done). Importantly, having a communications arm allows Key West Transit to share how it wants the system to grow in the future and what is needed to get there. It creates advocates! Lack of information/transparency sow’s mistrust.
5 – Ask Existing Customers to Spread the Good Word
To its credit, the Duval Loop has a 4.5 out of 5 rating and is ranked #2 of 11 services in the Key West Transportation (mostly private rental services) category off of 123 reviews on TripAdvisor. This is good news. Make a big deal of this. Ask customers through in-bus advertising to share their experience on TripAdvisor and other rating services and on their own social media. And these positive comments should be shared on kwtransit.com and its social media channels. (Of course, that means redoing the website and starting some social media…)
6 – Rebuild the Key West Transit Web Site
Yes, the mobile version of the website is quick and easy to use, and so is the new Key West Rides app, but for the other 50% of people who often use a traditional desktop instead of a mobile device, the current Key West Transit website doesn’t build confidence in the system. There’s a number of good firms on the island who could rebuild the site in a jiffy. Let’s do it!
7 – Do Social Media
Hard to believe but Key West Transit doesn’t have its own social media presence. It isn’t like they need to be everywhere, all the time, but come on now, at least get a Facebook page. This is low-hanging fruit these days. We don’t even need to elaborate.
8 – Reach Key West Workers Through Their Employers
Employers can influence how their employees get to work – use the connection to get more people riding the bus. In transportation demand management (TDM) research, the number one strategy for influencing commute behavior is working with employers. Key West Transit should develop an easy-to-use portal on their new website for employers to become partners with the agency. Key West Transit can provide each employer with a big map of the transit system/info to display in a break room with bus schedules. They can provide discounted passes for Key West Rides and Lower Keys Shuttle.
9 – Reach Key West Visitors Through Hotels, Inns, B&Bs and Vacation Rental Companies
Without fail one of the first questions front-desk and concierge people get asked is how do I get around? Rather than have these folks send these customers looking for rental cars and noisy, smoke spewing rental scooters wouldn’t it be nice if their first instinct was to share information about the Duval Loop and other buses along with bike rentals? But in order for this to occur Key West Transit needs to make it easy to do so by providing lots of map and schedule information and QR Codes flyers. Perhaps a framed route map on the wall or something that can be laid out on the desk. Simple take-one boxes that are constantly restocked and reminders of the website address so people can type it into their smartphone. Hotel staff have a million other things to do, so make it easy on them. Join the Lodging Association and attend their events.
10 – Develop a Strong Ground Game
Look around town for some great examples of a strong ground game. Start with each of the major water sports companies or Key West Finest and their On and Off Duval Guides and Info boxes. They all have excellent maps and brochures. Their people make sure these are stocked at all the lodging and take-one boxes across the island. Their people regularly visit lodging staff to make sure they have information and are up to date on the latest offering and specials. Copy this approach and do it in-house or hire it out as there are a number of companies that specialize in this. That way Key West Transit can reach the employers, lodging and retail people to carry the system’s information to the potential end users.
11 – Partner with Others
Key West Transit should have their routes, especially the Loop, on as many of the maps and guides around town as possible. Don’t expect companies to simply do this as a public service. Key West Transit must barter, trade, and pay to get there. A partnership is a two-way street and that way everyone wins. Make sure Key West Transit are members of and active participants in the Lodging Association, the Business Guild, the Chamber, Mom n Pop Key West and others.
12 – Put Information at the Bus Stops
The point of purchase – or the bus stop – is one of the best places to sell the product. But you actually have to put map and schedule information at every stop. You have to brand the stop as part of the system, so it looks like the bus, the website and marketing materials. As well as a sign that tells you what route this is and how to use it. While we have some hope because of the Final Mile bus stop project, this needs to become a priority now for the new Key West Rides service.
13 – Promote ALL Alternatives to the Car, Not Just the Bus
Studies show that transportation choice and options are what people want. Those who use one form of alternative transportation, like a bike, are more likely to want to use another mode, like the bus, or a scooter or Uber, Lyft and taxis. So Key West Transit should promote and provide information for all alternative modes. People today often like to make one-way trip decisions, perhaps taking the bus in to work and catching a taxi home. Being a one-stop shop for all the alternatives to driving is a way to lift ridership on the bus. Hmmm… perhaps there’s already a brand that can do that…. say, like Car-Free Key West. So whatever branding Key West Transit comes up with needs to work with and be coordinated with Car-Free Key West. Better yet, the same agency hired to help transit should do the whole thing.
A Small Investment In Marketing Leverages Big Rewards
Nothing would move the needle on increasing transit ridership like more frequent service on the Duval Loop and Lower Keys Shuttle and success on Key West Rides on-demand service. But research also tells us that you get more use out of whatever service you put on the street if you market it well. This is something the City hasn’t learned, and they’ve hamstrung Key West Transit by not providing them enough resources. City leaders need to allocate the money now. Doing otherwise is pennywise and pound foolish.
Getting more people to ride the bus helps our island’s workers, residents, and visitors. It helps us combat congestion and parking issues and cleans up our environment. It makes us healthier and helps our Mom-and-Pop businesses thrive. So, let’s help our transit system help the island by giving them the marketing resources to get the job done.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / Key West Transit’s Uber-Like On-Demand “Key West Rides” Service Begins November 30
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on November 18, 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.
The City announced this week that Key West Transit’s new “Key West Rides” Uber-like, on-demand bus service begins on Wednesday, November 30. On that day the two North and South Lines that snake their way from Stock Island to downtown via different fixed City routes will disappear. In their place customers anywhere in Key West and Stock Island will be able to use an app on their smartphone to request a ride, from 6 am to 8 pm, to be picked up and then taken between any of 160+ bus stops throughout the service area. The matching technology will group riders going in a similar direction for quick and efficient shared trips at the same $2 per trip price as current City routes. Duval Loop and Lower Keys Shuttle routes will remain as they are today.
First proposed during the summer of 2021 budget process as a way to cope with a lack of bus drivers, this innovation is welcome news because a healthy, green, and prosperous island needs a well-functioning transit system as an alternative to the congestion and pollution the increasing number of cars brings to our paradise. And our beleaguered workforce needs decent options like this (and bicycling) to help cope with the spiraling costs of commuting by car on top of already other-worldly housing costs. Our story looks behind the scenes on how this came about, provides some more details, and looks to future iterations and improvements.
Driver Shortage = Lack of Frequent Service = Declining Ridership
In the two years’ before Covid, annual ridership on Key West Transit’s Duval Loop, City Routes and Lower Key’s Shuttle totaled 620,071 and 652,404 and then fell by half in 2020-2021 to just 352,500. Even as the island’s economy rebounded with record numbers of visitors, transit ridership continued to plummet. In the just completed 2021-2022 fiscal year that ended last month on September 30, only 223,863 rides were taken. That’s just about 1/3 the rides taken a few years ago. U.S. Census data shows less than one percent (1%) or almost no one takes the bus to commute to work.
Part of the problem is a lack of qualified bus drivers due to our housing-crunch. Without drivers, service levels haven’t been what they were pre-Covid. With buses running less frequently, people can’t depend on it and ridership drops.
Transit advocates, I included, have lobbied the City to ramp up the dismal frequencies on the different routes to attract more residents, workers, and visitors to ride. The City routes only come by every 80 – 95 minutes, the Lower Keys Shuttle every 90 – 120 minutes and even the Duval Loop only comes by every 30-40 minutes these days. Research shows that if these frequencies were every 15-20 minutes more people would use the service. But the reality is, more frequent service needs more drivers, and this isn’t currently possible given our housing/worker crisis. When I asked Rod Delostrinos, Key West Transit Director about driver pay here’s what he said:
“The City Commission has approved the reclassification of the driver positions resulting in higher pay. The driver vacancies are slowly being filled, but we are still short drivers. The compensation along with other benefits package the City of Key West offers will hopefully persuade current drivers to continue with us and new candidates to apply.”
On-Demand Service To the Rescue
Anticipating the driver shortage is a longer-term issue, and thus the frequency problem wasn’t going to be solved quickly, Mr. Delostrinos and his team came up with the on-demand service as a solution during the budget process in the summer of 2021. Here’s how he put the difference between operating on fixed-routes and on-demand when we chatted this summer:
“On-demand transit allows for the City of Key West to use its transit resources more efficiently. Transit vehicles within the city area will eventually operate only with trip requests thus eliminating empty or near empty vehicles from continuous circling of set routes. Fuel savings, better personnel utilization given a 55% shortage of CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) drivers, and reduction in carbon emissions are a few of the anticipated positive impacts.”
As Key West Transit staff is already stretched thin, in June the City Commission approved a $248,880 competitive bid exemption contract with Via Transportation, Inc. to provide Key West Transit with the hardware, software, training, marketing, and support to operate the program. We give Rod and his team credit for trying something completely different and partnering with a private sector transportation company for support. After more than a year of planning, it is now all coming together. Says Mayor Teri Johnston:
“I am thrilled to get the on-demand service up and running. As new housing units are added in and around Key West, this service can offer a cost effective and reliable way to get to and from work, save some money, reduce our street congestion, noise levels, parking issues and pollution all while lowering our stress levels.”
Key West Rides On-Demand Transit Service Explained
If you scan the QR code in the above promo flyer it takes you here. The easiest way to explain how to use the service is to say it works very similarly to Uber, meaning you use an app on your smartphone to request a ride. The free Key West Rides app will be available on Google Play and iOS App Store on November 23. Here’s how Key West Transit explains it:
“Trips must start and end within the designated service area. After booking a ride, the app will display the pick-up location where the vehicle will meet you. This is a bus stop -to- bus stop service so that you will be picked up and dropped off close as possible to your destination. Since this is a shared ride service, you may board with others in the vehicle or stop to pick up others. Key West Rides On-Demand currently has only one zone in Key West, including Stock Island. Check the zone and bus stops out in this interactive map.”
We’ve been told that Key West Transit will be taking calls in-house for those that don’t have smartphones. We don’t have a number yet. When we asked about anticipated wait times Rod told us: “Since wait times are affected on the number of riders, it would be difficult to speculate.”
As with an Uber, you’ll be able to track the progress of your ride on the app. The big difference from Uber is that you’ll still have to pay for your ride the old-fashioned way. With cash or a pass. Rides are $2 per trip, $4 for a One Day Pass, $8 for a 7-Day Pass and $25 for a 31-Day Pass. There are discounts for students, disabled/disadvantaged, military, and seniors. It would be nice in the future if you could pay using a credit card stored on your app. NOTE: Since we published this post Ryan Stachurski, the City’s Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator tells us you CAN pay with your phone using the Token Transit app available for Apple or Android. We looked into it. Not many people have downloaded it, but this would be especially useful if you were going to purchase one of the passes. While not as convenient as paying on Uber, perhaps someday you’ll be able to pay with the Key West Rides app for a more seamless experience.
The other difference from Uber is that this isn’t a door-to-door service. You pinpoint your desired beginning and ending points and the app directs you to the nearest bus stops. So, all those stops are on existing routes. We don’t yet know if they’ll be adding stops in places where no routes currently exist, like in parts of Midtown. Regarding if there will be any information at those stops initially the Transit Director says: “Eventually all stops will have information on “how to use” the On-Demand Transit. The information will available on flyers on the bus, websites, and brochures at various locations.”
It would be nice if you could rate your ride like on Uber too. But then again, look at the savings. Your ride is only $2 instead of $20!
Staffing and Data Can Help Shape Future Service Expansions
When we asked Mr. Delostrinos if there were any plans to go beyond 8 pm yet he told us:
“Not at this time. The service level is based on staffing. If this program is successful, service hours and staffing level increases could be discussed during the next fiscal year’s budget preparation.”
The Transportation Director also notes that analyzing the customer data – where people get picked up, dropped off and when – generated by the on-demand system will enable his team to potentially develop new efficient fixed route, circulator and/or express services in the future. He said:
“The key to determining better service is to analyze the first few months of on-demand transit service, recognize emerging ridership patterns, and possibly develop additional transit service such as limited express bus.”
The tracking from the app should provide a treasure-trove of useful data.
Potential Freebee Micro-Transit Service On Stock Island Tie In
In our story “Freebee On-Demand Ride-Hailing-to-Transit Might Provide Stock Island Residents With Reason to Leave Their Cars at Home,” July 22, 2022 we discussed the County’s $850,000 experimental project to use little Freebee golf cart like vehicles to take people from their homes on Stock Island to a long-haul fixed route shuttle that would then take people from Stock Island to downtown. In order for this to work, Key West Transit would need to provide that long-haul service. Currently the Lower Keys Shuttle only comes by 10 times a day or about every hour and a half to two hours. If the on-demand project is successful at providing more service with less drivers as officials anticipate and if the City is successful at recruiting more drivers, perhaps a long-haul shuttle can be initiated, or Lower Keys Shuttle buses can become much more frequent. Then the Freebee tie in would work much better. So, a lot of potential future service could be riding on the success of Key West Rides.
Bus Stop Upgrades Coming Soon
In our story “City to Begin Work On Making It Easy to Bike to Lower Keys Shuttle and Enhancing Bus Stops from Marathon to Key West,” November 4, 2022 we talked about how the City is beginning construction on a $1.4 million dollar project to install bicycle racks and bike lockers, map and schedule information, hail or flagging devices, trash and recycle bins, lights, and even some fix-it stations at 74 bus stops between Marathon and Key West. While this project is mostly aimed at Lower Keys Shuttle bus stops, the City anticipates following this up and doing something similar at all the remaining Duval Loop and Key West Rides bus stops. Making the bus stops an attractive place to wait and providing information on how to use the service will be a key in an overall better experience for existing riders and for attracting new riders.
Key West Ride’s Success Is a Win for All of Us
The last few years haven’t been kind to our island’s little transit system. Declining ridership (here and here), third-world-like bus stops (here and here) and disappointing follow-through on planning efforts to improve the system (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) have led many to give up on seeing a genuinely useful resident and worker-friendly transit system on our islands. But the bus stop upgrades, potential micro-transit on Stock Island and now most especially the new Key West Rides on-demand transit getting off the ground gives us reason to hope for better times ahead.
Our Mayor has been tenacious about keeping transit improvements on the front burner. As has our City Manager. Including these improvements in the City’s Strategic Plan has ensured it is being addressed (thanks to Elisa Levy). And good people at Key West Transit (we’re looking at you Rod Delostrinos, Rogelio Hernandez, and Carolyn Haia), and City Hall (Ryan Stachurski and Alison Higgins) are working together as a team to improve transportation options despite being short-staffed. Thanks to all of them!
An improving transit system helps our island’s workers, residents, and visitors by providing another viable cost-effective option, in addition to bikes, to being dependent on driving a car everywhere. It helps us combat congestion and parking issues and cleans up our environment. It makes us healthier and helps our Mom-and-Pop business thrive. So, let’s wish this team success in rolling out Key West Rides. We all win if this works.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / Two Fatal Bike Crashes This Week Are Two Too Many. Here’s 10 Things to Make Bicycling Safer
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on November 12, 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. Note I took the featured picture at the top of the article. You may have seen it in other news outlets because I shared it with them.
Two bicycle fatalities in Key West this week is two too many. While we don’t yet have the details of these horrible crashes on the 3700 block of N. Roosevelt or on 3rd Street on Stock Island, we do know that cars hit people on bikes and as a result the bike riders are dead. Whatever the particulars of each crash, that’s a tragedy. This isn’t something new. For decades our locality has been at the top of lists of places unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians. These crashes emphasize the need for our City and County to work harder on addressing safety. It should also remind residents and visitors to be aware that Key West and Stock Island are full of people on bicycles and that we simply can’t drive like we do on the mainland. Here’s some things we can do as a community to make our streets safer.
Key West is Full of Cars AND Bikes – That’s Different Than Most Places
According to the U.S. Census 15% of Key West residents and 7% of Monroe County residents commute to work by bicycle. In top “bike cities” like Boulder, CO it is about 10%, Portland, OR it is 6% or in Washington, D.C. 5%. In the U.S. on the whole, it’s about 1 percent. In the annual People for Bikes City Ratings Key West residents said they used bicycles to get around more than most cities across the North America. This stat is one of the reasons Key West is ranked #15 as a place to bike. Local bike rental companies have told us they’ve been renting bikes to visitors at record rates the last couple of years. There’s a lot of bikes on our streets.
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. Beloved Keys Citizen newspaper and Key West Island News columnist puts it best when she says of 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.”
Key West and Stock Island are different than most mainland places because we don’t just have traffic congestion, but we have it coupled with more bikes and pedestrians than most towns and more recently with e-bikes and e-scooters. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Key West and Monroe County consistently rank among the worst Florida jurisdictions for bicycle crashes. And those same City Ratings said a survey of Key West residents gave us a 46 out of 100 score on Safety – meaning lots of people don’t feel safe biking here. People for Bikes Bicycle Network Analysis Map of Key West shows where those unsafe spots are.
So, if our little island community is different, why do we keep reaching for mainland, car-centric safety solutions? It is time to come up with fixes more attuned to our particular island situation.
Our Mayor, Teri Johnston’s Response
Our Mayor, Teri Johnston told me this week:
“These 2 fatal bicycle crashes elevate the need for dedicated, connected bicycle lanes throughout our community. We are encouraging our residents and visitors to get out of their cars and onto a bicycle for a multitude of good reasons and they are responding positively. Now it is the City’s responsibility to create a safe way to traverse our island on a bicycle. Not one street should be upgraded without adding the dedicated bicycle lane. Our “one-way” study needs to be completed and recommendations made to the City Commission to move this long-delayed action forward.”
Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator, Ryan Stachurski’s Response
Ryan Stachurski, the City’s Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator told me this week:
“The recent collisions are tragic. I don’t think I know anything more than has been reported in the news, and it’ll be some time before the investigation is completed. I have some general comments below relating to safety: We continue to work to make Key West a safer and more comfortable place to walk and bike. As our city has a Vision Zero goal of zero serious roadway injuries by 2035, we have opportunities for improvement. On our website we have a map of scheduled road construction that identifies some of the intersections slated for improvement. There are things we can all do to improve safety for everyone in Key West:
– Pedestrians should cross at crosswalks and obey traffic lights.
– Bicyclists should ride predictably when on roadways and alert passing if using the sidewalk.
– Car drivers should be alert to the numerous bicyclists and scooters frequenting our roads. Avoid distractions like cell phones, observe speed limits, and be particularly vigilant at crosswalks and traffic signals.
Encourage your friends and family to do the same and challenge them when they don’t. We’re one human family after all. If you need a bell or lights for your bike, pick up a free set at the Police Station or City Hall.”
Ten Things to Make Bicycling Safer in Key West and Stock Island
In the broadest sense the solution is about infrastructure and engineering. It is about fixing our streets so that they are rebalanced to favor the safety of pedestrians first, then bikes and then vehicles. Many of the most beloved bike/ped cities in Europe do this with their downtowns. As do the most progressive, bike-friendly North American places. With this in mind, here’s ten things we should do:
1 – Slow Down This Ain’t the Mainland
This old Key West slogan can be taken many ways. But when applied to our streets, we need people in vehicles to take it literally. As we’ve explained, Key West and Stock Island are unlike places on the mainland. We’ve got tons of people on bikes in a small and compact place. So, people in cars can’t simply assume, as they do in car-centric places to the north of us, that everyone else is in a car too. In a town with a preponderance of bikes and pedestrians and e-vehicles the onus of responsibility for safety falls on car drivers because, well, 2-ton vehicles have a higher chance of hurting someone than does a bike. People in cars need to:
- SLOW DOWN! Pay attention. There are lots of pedestrians and bikers out there
- Put down the cell phone. Do not use it while driving
- Pass on the left and must always provide three (3) feet when passing a bike
- Remember, bikes can use the full lane. If behind one, slow down and be patient
- Be attentive at intersections and driveways and check all directions. Bikes and pedestrians can be coming from all directions on sidewalks, even when traffic is going one way
- Do not overtake and pass other vehicles stopped for pedestrians
- STOP when you see flashing lights at the mid-block crosswalks along N. Roosevelt Boulevard. Only proceed once pedestrians and cyclists have exited the crosswalk
- After parking on the street use the “Dutch Reach” (use your right hand furthest from the door) and look for bicycles before opening the door
Slowing down applies to bicycles, especially e-bikes and e-scooters too. Here’s the do’s and don’ts for e-vehicles in Key West. And people on bikes need to be aware of their surroundings, alert and predictable when riding and follow the rules of the road. More safety tips here.
2 – Educate Visitors This Isn’t the Mainland, and They Must Behave Differently On Our Little Island’s Streets
I don’t own a car and I ride my bike all over Key West and Stock Island every day. I generally find that most local residents get it. Locals in cars often ride bikes themselves. Or they have loved ones and friends that do. And they realize there are lots of bikes out there. Often times as I’m riding the Crosstown Greenway on Von Phister, Staples or Duck, cars will cede the right-of-way to bikes at intersections, even if they got there first. I’m not so sure I’d say the same of visitors though because on other streets I’m often flummoxed at the aggressive attitude of fast-moving drivers to the presence of me, a mere bike, on “their” street.
If we can spend millions of dollars annually advertising Key West as a place to vacation, can’t we spend a few hundred thousand dollars educating those visitors that while they are here, they need to behave differently on our small, crowded streets, especially when driving? It is one thing to say, “slow down” and it is another thing entirely to actively, thoughtfully, and innovatively market the concept that we are someplace different and that people in vehicles need to slow down. THAT takes a marketing campaign and THAT takes money. The City has a nice Car-Free Key West website and Facebook page. But there’s no advertising budget to get the safety message out. THAT needs to change. I mean the City even spends $300,000 annually on promoting the Historic Seaport. Why can’t we spend some real dollars on a safety campaign. TDC, are you listening?
3 – Enforce Existing Speed Limits
The City Commission reduced the speed limit on City streets a couple of years ago to 20 miles per hour. This is important because a pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 MPH has a 9 out of 10 chance to survive. At 30 MPH that’s only 5 out of 10. And at 40 MPH only 1 in 10. But the limit must be enforced to do any good.
I’m told by one prominent Key West bicycle advocate that “The City Commission unanimously passed a resolution asking for KWPD to increase speed limit enforcement, but crickets, nothing’s happened.”
The Police do an annual one-week safety campaign, funded by FDOT safety grant monies, to snag vehicles and bikes that don’t follow rules of the road. That’s not enough. We’ve heard time and again from others about the lack of enforcement. We realize our local police are stretched thin, but this should be a year-round priority. We reached out to the Department but didn’t get a response by press time.
4 – Engineer Our Streets for Slower Speeds
Lower speed limits and enforcing them is one thing. But study after study shows that people drive at the speed a road is designed for, not the speed limit. As our friends at Strong Towns are fond of saying “We can’t regulate our way to safety. We must design our streets to be safe.”
It’s all about psychology. Narrower travel lanes, shorter block lengths, a tree canopy, and car parking and/or adjacent bike lanes all contribute to drivers traveling more slowly. Conversely, wide lanes, long block lengths, and open skies communicate to drivers that higher speeds are appropriate – no matter what the sign says the speed limit is. Think N. Roosevelt Boulevard, Flagler, S. Roosevelt, First, Bertha and Palm, and other streets where drivers tend to pick up speeds.
The Crosstown Greenway shows how you can redesign some of our wider, suburban residential streets, with paint, bollards, curb stops, and signs to help slow the cars down.
In a story a few weeks ago, Improving Lazy Way As a Great “Shared Street” Can Set the Stage for More of the Same Around Our Historic Downtown, October 14, 2022 we discussed how you can even apply more traffic calming techniques and slow the car speeds down to 5 mph on some select pedestrian priority streets.
Bottom line is you get the street you engineer for. If we want safer streets for bikes and pedestrians, we have to design them that way.
5 – Invest in New and Upgraded Bicycle Facilities
The Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Masterplan, or Bike Plan, adopted by the City Commission in 2019, specifies new and upgraded bicycle facilities across Key West and Stock Island. We need to:
- Finish the Crosstown Greenway
Identified in the Bike Plan, the Crosstown Greenway is a safe East/West corridor for bicycles that spans the island from S. Roosevelt Boulevard to Reynold Street along Duck, Staples and Von Phister Avenues right through the middle of the City. It is a safe alternative to N. Roosevelt Boulevard to get across the island. After many community meetings and much help from some volunteers, a pilot project on part of the route was initiated in late 2020 using some green paint, bollards, curb stops and signs. A year later surveys revealed that people felt safer and traffic had been slowed. But little work has been done on the project since. In fact, much of the initial project has fallen into disrepair. The City needs to redouble its efforts and finish this very worthy signature project.
- Build Wickers Trail
Part of the Crosstown Greenway is the Wickers Trail segment, also called out for in the Bike Plan, that cuts through the Wickers Sports Complex between Kennedy Drive and Glynn R. Archer, Jr. Drive. Construction had initially been slated to begin this summer but complications and cost overruns have delayed the project. The City’s Interim Engineering Director Gary Volenec hopes to have the design complete and funding in place to start construction next summer. Let’s make sure this happens!
- Build the Salt Ponds and Smathers Beach Bike Trails
The Bike Plan calls for the Salt Ponds Trail to provide a safer and shorter commute for residents of Ocean Walk, Las Salinas and Seaside, where many of our workers live. It also calls for the Smathers Beach Trail to provide New Town residents with a short-cut to Smathers Beach without having to go all the way around S. Roosevelt Boulevard. Land is needed behind the airport for these facilities and is caught up in a potential land swap between the County and City. The City’s Parks and Recreation Board has formally asked that getting these two trails built be included in any negotiations. So far, nothing has happened, but we need to keep these two trails on our radar and get them built.
- Build the South Street and United Street Bike Lanes
In an effort to formally connect up the Crosstown Greenway into downtown, the City’s Transportation Coordinator is making sure new bike lanes are put in on rebuilding/repaving projects on South and United Streets. While the South Street portion is in the Bike Plan, the United Street leg is a new innovation. We need to support the completion of both.
- Install More Bike Boxes, Green Paint, and Intersection Treatments
In general our bike lanes need to be better demarcated; we need bike boxes at intersections where we have bike lanes and signals; and we need to start helping bikes all the way through intersections with paint. All of this is called for in the Bike Plan.
There are a lot of other bicycle facilities called out in the Bike Plan, including major upgrades on White Street, Front Street on Stock Island, Whitehead and Simonton, Caroline, Northside Drive, Duck, First and Bertha and more. In our article 10 Things to Make It Safer to Bike from the 667 New Housing Units on Stock Island to Key West, June 17, 2022 we discussed:
- Putting in bike lanes on College Avenue (also in the Bike Plan),
- Widening the five-foot sidewalks on the northbound side of the Triangle, and
- Putting an official crosswalk at Duck Avenue and S. Roosevelt
Amongst other things.
The point is that building these projects would make our streets safer. The City and County need to redouble their efforts and invest in safety by moving these many projects along more quickly.
6 –Connect All of Our Bicycle Facilities In One Seamless Network
Nothing is worse than being in a bike lane that suddenly ends, and you are thrown back into traffic. Or coming to an intersection on a bike lane and there’s seemingly no way to navigate through and no lane on the other side. This happens on Southard, Fleming, White, Eaton and Reynolds Streets. Most of our bike lanes are not connected up. Our “safer” Crosstown Greenway on Duck Avenue simply ends at the 35 MPH S. Roosevelt Boulevard with no safe way to cross to the other side to get to Stock Island. These are but a few examples of pieces of bike infrastructure that aren’t all connected up. To be really useful these bike facilities, including our multi use paths on N. and S. Roosevelt, Bertha and Atlantic, need to be one seamless connected network. And that includes through the intersections.
Despite lots of us biking, there’s a perception, at least by a large group of residents, that it isn’t safe, and that is backed up by local surveys and crash statistics. The fact that many visitors to the island ride their bikes on the sidewalks is another indication. National surveys related to biking say that about 50% of people in general are Interested in bicycling but are concerned and would be willing to bike if “high quality bicycle infrastructure was in place.”
High quality bicycle infrastructure means a connected network of good bike lanes, protected, or separated bike lanes and bike trails.
7 – For a Change, Let’s Choose People on Bikes Over Car Storage and Convenience
The Bike Plan calls for First and Bertha Streets, as they are a critical way to cross the island, to get separated bike lanes or a trail, as a continuation of the multi-use path on Bertha between Atlantic and S. Roosevelt. What happened when the County rebuilt the First and Bertha Street corridor? They decided to ditch the bike facilities and keep underutilized parking spaces instead.
The Bike Plan calls for separated bicycle lanes along S. Roosevelt Boulevard to separate the bicycle traffic from pedestrians along Smathers Beach. What happened when the choice was between four lanes of vehicle traffic or two on that stretch? After first voting against the bicycle lanes the City Commission tried to rectify that vote, but only if it didn’t cost any additional money or take any more time. Result. No bicycle lanes.
The same scenario played out when they rebuilt the Palm Avenue Bridge. Transportation experts tell us the best time to add bicycle facilities to streets are when they are rebuilt or repaved. In the last few years Duval Street, Simonton Street and Whitehead Street have all been rebuilt and repaved. All three streets had bicycle facilities called for in the Bike Plan. All three streets were put back together again, exactly as they were before. With car parking. I recall when a new bicycle lane was put in on Reynolds Street, on the westbound side one neighbor objected and the bike lane ends on their block and picks back up on the next. Time and time again, when faced with a choice between car storage/convenience and bicycles, the City and County have chosen against bicycles. Even when it goes against the Bike Plan.
The Mayor said this week “Not one street should be upgraded without adding the dedicated bicycle lane.” It may be too late for the streets named above, but let’s hold the Mayor and City to this promise for everything going forward.
8 – Do Something About N. Roosevelt Boulevard
According to a Keys Citizen story on Wednesday, “speed was a factor” in the crash that killed a bicyclist at a pedestrian crosswalk in the 3700 block of N. Roosevelt on Saturday, November 5.
Everyone knows the most unsafe street in the City is North Roosevelt Boulevard. Why this homage to the car-dependent, suburban style mainland is allowed to exist in its present form on our little tropical island paradise is perplexing. It doesn’t look like nor function like the rest of our island. It looks like it was moved here from Del Boca Vista. With a speed limit of 35 MPH and cars often doing much more it is frightening to anyone on two feet or two wheels. What’s especially scary are all the curb cuts for the strip retail centers. Bikes can be on either side of the street on the sidewalks and cars forget to look both ways. No one says they like the five HAWK crosswalks but the alternative – “just let them walk a mile to the next traffic light” – isn’t a real option either.
Says local bike rental company owner, Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen:
When I go out at 6am there is already a high volume of traffic on North Roosevelt Boulevard, by 7am it is totally jammed with speeding drivers zig zagging their way down to old town. Adding to the chaos are high speed electric vehicles on the bike path whose riders have little concern for pedestrians or cyclists. In my opinion North Roosevelt is now ruined as a safe place to enjoy a bike ride or take a walk, I only use it when I really have to. Lack of any enforcement on North Roosevelt is the problem, it’s as if the police are hiding out on South Roosevelt because it’s too dangerous to pull people over on North Roosevelt. And I have never seen the police enforcing the bike path laws, nothing, nada, never, zip. The 35 mile an hour speed limit should be reduced to twenty-five on NRB but are the police chief and mayor willing are to fight the FDOT to get it reduced or perhaps they like the higher speeds? When the boulevard was reopened the speed limit was 25 MPH for two months and everything went fine. I will continue to avoid NRB and its businesses for the foreseeable future, it’s not safe.”
Citizen Survey on North Roosevelt Boulevard Happening Now
Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover reminds me that as part of an ongoing effort to improve the N. Roosevelt Boulevard corridor there’s a survey out for citizens to participate in. If you want dedicated bike lanes and better/more crosswalks, wider sidewalks, slower speed limits and such, please PARTICIPATE in the survey. And Commissioner Hoover says, don’t just check the boxes, offer some ideas.
9 – Safety In Numbers: Get More People, Especially Visitors, Out of Their Cars
It may be counterintuitive but studies in Europe and North America show that as the number of people bicycling increases, so does bicycle safety. The increased visibility of bikes on the road makes people in cars more aware of their presence and as a result there are less crashes. Bikeshare advocates have noted that when cities start bikeshare programs, all of a sudden more people are biking on the streets and safety goes up. Check out some reading here, here, here, here, here and here for more.
So, if more bikes on our streets would help make it even safer to bike, we need to get more people, especially visitors, out of their cars and onto bikes. Inspired by a 2019 “Toward Car-Free Key West” study out from the University of South Florida on how to 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, we wrote: Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 1: Marketing, April 8, 2022 and the follow-up article: Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 2: Services, Infrastructure and Policies, April 15, 2022. These two articles, along with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things KW Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership, April 9, 2021 offer a roadmap for getting more people to bike, walk and use public transit.
The key here, like with safety marketing in number 2 is to ACTUALLY spend some money doing this. Again, and not to belabor the point, but if the TDC can spend tens of millions of dollars marketing Key West as a destination, can’t they use a portion of those marketing dollars to market a car-free experience? Getting more cars off the roads is one of the ways to make our streets safer.
10 – Speed and Red Light Cameras, No More Right Turn On Red
When I’ve talked to some bicycle advocates and people at City Hall, they tell me that speed and red-light cameras and no more right turn on red are things that would be cost effective safety measures to put in place.
But as local bicycle advocate Roger McVeigh tells me: “FDOT refuses to allow red light cameras and speed limit cameras, because Florida is the “Freedom State” where drivers can drive as unsafe as they wish without being told what to do.”
The City and County can do these things on the City and County streets, but Roger is right, we’d need the State to act to put these in on U.S. 1 and N. and S. Roosevelt, where they are really needed.
Key West Is Unique. To Make Our Streets Safer We Need Some Uniquely Key West Solutions
Key West is unique in so many different ways, including on our streets. We are one of the few places in the country where so many bikes, pedestrians and e-bikes/scooters share our compact, historic streets with vehicles. Add the fact that many of the folks out there are visitors from the mainland, unfamiliar with our distinctive ways, and that can make for an unsafe mix on our roads.
The tragedy of two bike crash deaths in one week reminds us that we all need to do better. City and County leaders need to redouble efforts to invest in engineering our streets to be safer and to build more bicycle facilities while spending some real money on safety education marketing, especially aimed at visitors. That and all of us on our streets need to take our One Human Family motto to heart and slow down and watch out for one another.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / City to Begin Work On Making It Easy to Bike to Lower Keys Shuttle and Enhancing Bus Stops from Marathon to Key West
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on November 4, 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.
Imagine you live on Big Pine, Summerland, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf or any of the Lower Keys between Marathon and Key West. You’d like to grab the Lower Keys Shuttle into town for work or an event. But you live a mile from the bus stop on U.S. 1. You aren’t up for the walk to the stop and research says most people will only walk a quarter mile or two to three blocks to reach transit. Perhaps you could ride your bike but there’s no place to park it when you get there. There’s no map and schedule information at the stop, no way to hail the bus when it comes by and no other amenities at the stop that indicate customers are valued. So, like most people, you just drive. Well, at its Tuesday meeting, City Commissioners adopted a series of construction and engineering contracts and an additional new funding grant with FDOT to help remedy this problem.
Starting in a few weeks, construction will begin on a $1.4 million “Final Mile” project that will install bicycle racks and bike lockers, map and schedule information, hail or flagging devices, trash and recycle bins, lights, and even some bicycle fix-it-stations at 74 bus stops, including all of the Lower Keys Shuttle stops, and some of the most used Duval Loop and Key West Transit stops. 28 of the bus stops are in Key West and Stock Island and the other 46 are in the Lower Keys up to the end point of the Lower Keys Shuttle route in Marathon. Once started, the entire project should take six months to complete. Wow! All of this is part of an ambitious effort by the Mayor and other leaders, backed up in the Strategic Plan, to make using public transit easier, relieve congestion on our increasingly clogged Overseas Highway and help our beleaguered workforce deal with the high costs of owning and operating a car to get around. Mayor Teri Johnston said this investment in public transit is “progress!”
City Snags Federal and State Monies to Do Good Things
In a story last year, City to Make It Easier to Bike to Lower Keys Shuttle, August 20, 2021, we discussed how Alison Higgins, the Sustainability Coordinator wrote an application where the City received a $510,000 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant via the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for this Final Mile project. The City started the planning process and KCI Technologies completed the designs which were then put out to bid for a construction contract. The lowest “responsible and responsive” bid received was for $992,268 from Coral Construction Company. That’s $400,000 over what was available to construct the project.
Given the City’s distance from the mainland, another BID proffer wasn’t likely to bring in lower cost vendors. So, Transportation Coordinator, Ryan Stachurski wrote a supplemental grant for the difference of $437,268 to FDOT. Mr. Stachurski was quick to credit Kelly M. Crowe, P.E., Engineering Department, Carolyn Sheldon, Senior Grants Manager, and his predecessor Tim Staub for helping him get the grants, planning and construction contracts done. FDOT came through with the money and the City Commission just accepted FDOT’s additional funding Tuesday. At the same meeting they gave a contract for $992,268 to Coral Construction Company to commence work. As part of the agreement with FHWA and FDOT the City needed to hire a firm to do construction engineering and inspection (CEI) and that $198,142 contact was awarded to RS&H, Inc. on Tuesday also. The funds for this part of the work were allocated from the City’s Transportation Alternative Fund – where monies come from a small portion of parking revenues. Altogether the project totals $1,410,951. Of that, two thirds of the money is Federal/State and one third City. We commend City staff for leveraging local money for larger pots of State and Federal dollars and gaining a much more impactful project.
Ryan says of the project:
“This is great news both for people who live and for people who work in Key West. This is a big investment in facilities that help to provide a transportation alternative for commuters who are unable or choose not to pay for the high cost of car ownership.”
The First and Final Mile Problem
The grant and project are named, for what in transportation planning circles is called the First and Last or Final Mile problem. It is about the difficulty of getting to the bus stop in the first place, when one lives beyond the usual quarter mile walking shed. Conversely, it is also about traversing the last or final mile when the bus lets you off at your destination. From Marathon to Big Pine and all the islands in-between, including Stock island, many of our homes are well beyond a two or three block walk. Putting bicycle racks and lockers at all the stops, increases the potential radius each stop can serve.
Bike to and From the Bus: Space for 292 Bicycles in Racks and Lockers
As the Lower Keys Shuttle is popular, the two bicycle racks mounted to the front of the buses are often full early on in the run, leaving people who hop on outside of Marathon with no place to put their bike. Fights have been known to break out for the coveted spots. Installing bicycle racks and lockers at the stops will address this and allow more people to access the shuttle bus. 60 stops are getting 121 Inverted U bicycle racks that can accommodate 242 bikes. A dozen more stops are getting 24 bicycle lockers that can accommodate 56 bicycles. That’s 292 bike parking spaces in total or 292 potential additional customers per day.
Hail Lights or Flagging Devices at 43 Stops
Many stops along the Lower Keys Shuttle that have enough right-of-way have standard bus shelters. The newer ones, installed in the last couple of years, have solar powered lighting so they can be seen at night by the bus driver and customers. On parts of U.S. Route 1 it can be dark. With this in mind, 43 stops that are in the darkness are slated to receive bright LED “hail lights” or “flagging devices.” A customer presses a button on the pole and a solar powered light on the top, shines to alert the bus driver someone is waiting at the stop.
Map and Schedule Information At All Stops
The bus stop is an opportunity for passersby or people that live nearby to see map and schedule information at the stop and then they may be more included to use the service if they need it. We’ve written in the past (The Sorry State of Key West Bus Stops – We Just Don’t Care, April 2, 2021) about how Key West Transit has failed to provide easy to read map and schedule information about where the bus goes and when it is coming next on all its routes. This project will remedy this oversight.
Trash and Recycle Bins At All Remaining Stops
Many of the bus stops along the Lower Keys Shuttle route already have trash and recycle bins. Those that don’t will be slated to get them.
Bicycle Fix-It Stations Near 17 Stops
Nothing is more frustrating to a bicyclist than a flat tire, loose gears or a basket that is falling off. Or just a tire that needs a little more air. While Key West and Stock Island have a bunch of wonderful bike shops, that isn’t necessarily so for the entire Lower Keys. So having a convenient place to fix one’s bicycle helps keep people going. A fix-it station includes all the tools necessary to perform basic bike repairs and maintenance, from adding more air to the tire, changing a flat to adjusting brakes, bells, and accessories. The tools are securely attached to the stand with stainless steel cables and tamper-proof fasteners. Project leaders explain that the 17 fix-it stations will go in public areas near bus stops but not directly on U.S. Route 1 for safety reasons.
City and County Must Double Down on this Good Project and Invest in Increasing Frequency on the Lower Keys Shuttle
More of us living in the Lower Keys and ever more visitors mean our mostly two-lane Overseas Highway is increasingly clogged. Getting more people to use the Lower Keys Shuttle helps all of us. The Final Mile project is a good investment in getting more people to use public transit. The bicycle racks broaden the reach of the service. The simple amenities of lights, a place to sit, trash and recycle bins and map and schedule information, go a long way towards telling existing and potential customers that they are valued, and increased ridership can be a result. City staff should be commended for foresight and follow through in making this happen. And especially in leveraging City dollars to get Federal and State monies.
But City and County leaders need to double down on this worthy project with an even bigger investment in increasing the frequency of the Lower Keys Shuttle buses. Currently there are only 10 trips inbound and 10 trips outbound daily, averaging between one and a half and two full hours between each trip. The City and County should make the commitment that next year that frequency should be hourly and a year after that every 30 minutes. That kind of reliable frequency coupled with the new bus stop amenities could actually move the needle on more people using the system. That will help fight congestion and more importantly save working people money. If people can depend upon the service maybe some households can get rid of one car and really save some cash. This will help make our islands healthier and happier.
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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / Progress on Five Historic District Projects Means More Life, Locals, Prosperity, and Resiliency for Our Downtown
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on October 21, 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.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the City’s Strategic Plan spurring a lot of stuff getting done this year on affordable housing and sea level rise. But what’s really caught our attention are a series of five long talked about but little advanced downtown projects that Planning Director Katie Halloran, with help from the Mayor, City Manager and Strategic Plan Coordinator, have quietly been pushing forward. Key West citizens have long discussed and tried to grapple with refurbishing Mallory Square, revitalizing Duval Street, renovating the historic Diesel Plant, building housing on the 3.2-acre Bahama Village site, and cleaning up Clinton Square for years, if not a decade or more. The recent history of each is strewn with false promises, hopeful beginnings, and dashed dreams.
And yet now, because of the accountability built into the Strategic Plan, all five of these are finally progressing. These actions, all happening in quick and overlapping succession, with plenty of resident focused community input, are giving us a synergy to bolster our entire historic downtown commercial district. That’s win, win, win. More prosperity for our downtown Mom-and-Pop shops, a more locals focused destination for residents, and enhanced experiences for visitors too. Let’s take a look at where we are on all five of these, hear from some downtown locals and discuss why each of these projects are important for our future.
Residents Put Downtown Projects in Strategic Plan. Strategic Plan Accountability Spurs Action on Projects
In developing the City’s Strategic Plan last year about 4,000 residents were surveyed. Locals said they want the City to address affordable housing and sea level rise as their top two priorities. But they also wanted more pedestrian friendly streets and named Duval Street (#1), Mallory Square (#3), and the Diesel Plant (#7) as top of the list projects they want to get done. These three projects along with the 3.2 Acre Housing Development (The Lofts at Bahama Village) (#8) and Clinton Square (#13) are all top 15 projects in the Plan. Including it in the Strategic Plan is ensuring that there’s been accountability to get these projects started and moving forward after years and years of nothing but talk.
The accountability starts with Mayor Teri Johnston’s earnestness in getting these projects in the Strategic Plan and her tenacity in getting a Plan done. It rests with City Manager Patti McLaughlin’s ability to lead an unwieldy City Hall bureaucracy to action. But it also includes the fact that Teri and Patti hired Elisa Levy to not only write the Plan but to help implement it over the long-term. For more on the specific mechanisms for accountability in the Strategic Plan read: “The Mayors’ Strategic Plan is Helping the City Bureaucracy Get Stuff Done,” September 16, 2022.
Here’s what we know about the five projects:
1 – Clinton Park Square
At the August 16 City Commission meeting, project Albie Balliu presented a history and plans (video of her presentation and PowerPoint slides) for the triangle park in front of the Customs House next to Mallory Square. The obelisk monument at its center was erected in 1866 by the Navy to honor those fallen in the Civil War. The area has long been neglected and had off and on parking and drive through issues as no one seems to know if it is okay to drive onto or not. Park or not. It’s even become a waiting area for Uber pickups. There’s no seating, little lighting, you can barely see the monument through the foliage and well it really isn’t much of park. That’s all going to change very soon as the City will create an historic park area with bench seating for sitting and gathering, poinciana trees for shade, lighting, historic markers, wayfinding and more.
The project has received all of its approvals from the Tree, Parks and Recreation and HARC commissions, engineering drawings are almost complete, as are bids for construction. Building is expected to get underway before the end of 2022.
2 – Mallory Square
Mallory has long been the center of Key West maritime history. From anti-piracy operations in the 1820’s to hub for the wrecking industry soon after and then a long period as a place for storage of goods being transferred via ships at the port. In 1961, the City and the Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) restored and repurposed the little used area as a center for community gatherings. The spot became famous in the 1970’s for the now iconic Sunset Celebration. The current windswept brick pavers and drab landscaping were put in during the late 1980’s. For the last decade plus people have talked about improving the area because it looks run down and neglected and is only really used a few hours every day. At the Mayor’s direction, last year the Planning Department held public workshops with tenants and residents and conducted a survey to get input on how to improve the Square and surrounding area.
What they heard and shared via a compact Vision Plan was:
- Create a program/vision to keep people in the square throughout the day,
- Build connectivity to surround properties,
- Improve lighting and safety, and
- Provide seating, shade, landscaping, and signage.
With this in mind, the City hired the world renown Boston based planning and urban design firm Sasaki – “Better design, together” – in March to develop a Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan for the entire Mallory Square district including Meson De Pepe, Historic Tours of America, the Waterfront Playhouse, the Cultural Preservation Society and the Key West Art Center. Here’s how the City’s Planning Director, Katie Halloran describes the progress:
“The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan is in full swing, and Sasaki is the City’s consultant leading the project, including the public engagement work. The first online survey has just closed but the website will be live throughout the project for the public to check on progress and provide feedback https://mallorysquare.engage.sasaki.com/. Now, Phase 1 public input will guide the consultants as they develop two design concepts for the public to review. On December 9 Sasaki and City staff will be at the Christmas Bazaar at the Customs House and at Sunset Celebration on December 10, to gather input on conceptual master plan features. The second survey (not yet released) will provide a virtual opportunity for the public to provide feedback on the two conceptual master plan concepts.”
The best summary of this process and most thoughtful recommendations on what we’d agree that we’d like to see as a result is Linda Grist Cunningham’s excellent article: “Key West’s Mallory Square | What Happens When History, Nostalgia and Cash Collide?” September, 24, 2022, on her Key West Island News blog. Give it a read.
3 – Keys Diesel Plant
The former Keys Energy Diesel Plant, a complex of five decaying buildings in Bahama Village near the entrance to the Truman Waterfront was built in the 1880’s. Keys Energy owned it and ceased operations in the 1970’s but did nothing with the property, letting the buildings deteriorate. They gave it to the City for free in 2016. In February 2019, after an RFP process, the Key West Art and Historical Society (KWAHS) won a bid from the City to stabilize and redevelop the buildings into a multi-use cultural facility. That fell through during COVID as KWAHS was dealing with just keeping their other properties afloat.
Last summer (2021) the Rams Head group, who manage the Key West Theatre, Coffee Butler Amphitheater and Rams Head Southernmost restaurant, provided an unsolicited proposal to redevelop the property. They proposed a microbrewery, multi-use flex space, walking museum, outdoor courtyard & playground, culinary & brewing programs, and a coffee shop. Their presentation was so well received that Commissioners Lopez and Weekley voted to accept it. But the rest of the Commission said a new RFP should be put out so there would be some competition. However, there were no responses to that RFP that was broadcast in May and due in July. That’s how we got to today.
Gary Volenec, City Engineer/Interim Director who heads this project says it will be the spring before a new RFP hits the street soliciting a potential developer. But in the meantime, the City will endeavor to demolish buildings 3B and 5 and begin some preliminary stabilization as soon as possible in advance of, and to help facilitate, construction of The Lofts at Bahama Village (the 3.2-acre site). The 3.2-acre site is immediately adjacent to the Diesel Plant property. And in redoing the RFP the City hopes to find ways to garner more interest from potential developers. Doing some of this initial work, should help.
4 – The Lofts at Bahama Village
The 3.2 acres of City-owned land in Bahama Village has been talked about since the 1980’s when the U.S. Government gave it and the land that is the Truman Waterfront Park to the City. It’s complicated and sad history that after many fits and starts is finally heading in the right direction. Late last year the non-profit A.H. Monroe won an RFP process to develop a much-needed affordable housing project on the site. On January 18 of this year Key West citizens agreed to lease the land to A.H. Monroe for 99 years, making them eligible for various grants to help offset project costs.
According to the Planning Director “The project has been to the Development Review Committee and the Tree Commission and will be on the Planning Board agenda next on its way through the City of Key West review and approval process.” When I contacted A.H. Monroe’s Executive Director Scott Pridgen this week he said:
“Currently The Lofts are going through the Planning Department process and should be ready for permitting to start construction by April 2023 and opening by October 2024. The project will give Bahama Village residents more housing opportunities downtown.”
Everyone agrees we need more affordable housing for workers. Putting 126 units and 300+ residents smack dab in the middle of downtown is even better. More full-time people living downtown helps create a more local focused vibe that’s good for our historic district. And because it is downtown the new residents will be able to walk, bike and take transit to get around. *
Says Paul J. Menta of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery and head of the Shop Mom and Pop Key West group:
“Keeping locals living locally in Key West has many advantages such as it keeps the local economy going as they buy at Mom-and-Pop type places, they have options to bike or bus to work and they add to the ambiance of Key West by having locals walking around with tourists. Sounds funny but when you travel you want to shop and eat where the locals are!”
*We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that although we’re fans of more downtown housing for local workers, we’re flummoxed by the City allowing a mainland building style and insisting on an overabundance of surface car parking at the expense of landscaping and amenities for the new residents. Especially when there is so much empty parking on adjacent properties. We hope the City fixes this and recommend the article: “Too Much Surface Parking at the Lofts Is a Wasteful Use of Valuable Downtown Land,” February 3, 2022.
5 – Duval Street
Mayor Johnston ran on a platform of revitalizing Duval Street in 2018. She initiated the Mall on Duval pilot project in 2019 and the discussion about the pros and cons of that led to the release of a Duval Street Revitalization Plan RFQ in late 2019. At the time Mayor Johnston said:
“We all love our main street and want to see it prosper and bring our community together. Mall on Duval brought locals downtown who haven’t been there in years, promoting a conversation about what improvements need to be made, including widening sidewalks – they range from 8 to 18 feet – and adding planters and benches, shade, and water fountains.”
After a long selection process a vendor was selected and a contract signed in November of 2020. And then the selected vendor ran into some trouble with their principles quitting. Rather than simply select another firm from the qualified list the Planning Department chose to take additional time to put out a whole new RFP because in the interim they’d learned that if the RFP and subsequent contract followed some State procurement procedures the City would be eligible for Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) funding for the project. And low and behold, staff secured a $500,000 DEO grant to pay for the effort. So, putting off hiring a vendor was worth the wait. Of the new revised RFP, the Planning Director said in late 2021:
“The scope of work for the Duval RFQ includes mobility planning, civil engineering, historic preservation, landscape architecture, and public facilitation. One major goal of the plan is to revitalize the corridor in a way that promises resilience to climate related risks, particularly to sea level rise. This may also include working with local businesses to assist with economic resilience. This revised RFQ ensures we are meeting our DEO grant requirements, and is more directly tied to resilience, in addition to revitalization – making the street even nicer to look at and more comfortable for pedestrians.”
The new Duval Street Economic Corridor Resiliency and Revitalization Plan was broadcast this past March, proposals were due in June and a Duval Steering Committee after review, ranked the firms on October 4, 2022. Katie Halloran says, “The next step will be for the City Commission to review the finalists and approve the City’s partner firm before the end of the year. Once the finalist has been chosen the City works to negotiate the contract with the firm and the project begins.”
I asked local Truman Annex resident and community volunteer Ray Warren what his thoughts were on the Duval Street project:
“Duval Street desperately needs shade, seating, and green space. Other than the somewhat neglected, and highly commercialized, pocket park at the far end, there are no such spaces along the entire length of the street. Even Manhattan has parks, and in many places, park benches.
More locals would venture downtown, and support downtown, if it were seen as a place to gather, people watch, meet friends, or socialize, instead of merely being a utilitarian way to go indoors and be cut off from the street.
I know that property along Duval is extremely expensive. But, in addition to little parklets that might be obtained by reducing on street parking, the City should actively be on the lookout for lots that might be attainable for a fair price. Ideally not by condemnation, but by simple negotiation.
Yes, many of the buildings are historic and protected. But not all of them really contribute to the historic nature of downtown. Imagine something like Duval Square, but instead of being a purely private commercial space, imagine it was a shady oasis open to the main street.
One burned out business has remained in ruins for basically 5 years or so. An opportunity like that should be grabbed for green space. I don’t think it’s going to be built back and its original form.”
The upcoming community process on Duval Street will give voice to Mr. Warren’s thoughtful ideas and provide all residents and the business community an opportunity to share ideas and contribute.
Past articles on this project include:
- Duval Street Revitalization Moves Forward, June 10, 2020
- Duval Street Revitalization Help Sought Via RFQ, December 10, 2020
- Duval Street Revitalization Project Brings Hope to Downtown, December 28, 2020
- The Week Donkey, Whataboutism, Bathwater and Duval Street’s Future, February 19, 2021
- Eight Things We Can Do to Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Cars, March 6, 2021
- With Duval Street Revitalization Plan Way Behind Schedule, Here’s 3 Quick Wins for Pedestrianizing Duval Street Now, July 16, 2021
- Duval Street Revitalization Back on Track, October 1, 2021
Why Proactive Planning Is Needed
We mentioned the survey and Strategic Plan above because every time we start to talk about these projects, the leave-it-aloners, naysayers, whatabouters and stop-trying-to-change-Key-Westers whine that nothing needs to be done. On the contrary, time and time again, the majority of residents have said otherwise. Change happens whether you plan for it or not. Proactive planning means the people, not just moneyed land interests and big corporations get a say in that future. So, we encourage everyone to keep participating in these planning processes.
Why the Convergence of These 5 Projects Is Good for Downtown
Clinton Square Park starts construction this year. The planning process for the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan is well underway and will be complete in May of 2023. Then building out that vision will begin to take place. Interim work on demolishing structures that can’t be used and shoring up structures that will be used for future redevelopment of the Diesel Plant will start in the coming months and then a solicitation for a developer will take place next spring. The Lofts at Bahama Village are expected to start construction in the spring of 2023 and be open for residents 18 months later. After a decade+ of talk, THAT’S a lot of progress that City Hall should be proud of because it will strengthen our downtown.
Here’s what our Mayor, Teri Johnston said a while back about these projects:
“I’m anxious to get the Duval Street revitalization project moving and want it to address sea level rise. Our City Planning Director Katie Halloran has such an incredible long-term vision for our community including the connectivity between Mallory Square, Clinton Square and our three unique environments of Duval Street, Petronia Street, and our Diesel Plant. Our plans will address the needs of generations to come.”
I asked downtown small business advocate Paul J. Menta what all these projects mean for downtown. Here’s his response:
What does it mean and why is this important for downtown/the City that all of these projects are finally starting to gel?
“It means we have a Mayor and commission who are working with departments to see all these things through. It’s good to see all on the same page preserving history but also making use of areas for our visitors and locals. It’s adjusting to the future.
We have areas like Duval Street and downtown that could be better used for all. Keeping it more green and more accessible is better for visitors and keeps a look and feel of downtown. I wish they would bring the electric trolly back! Looking at our history, Duval has changed serval times in the last 150 years, this is one of those times. Clinton square needs to be cleaned up so people can use it and see the history. The future is to keep our historic island look and if HARC’s rules are followed on improvements, that’s what it will be…improvement.”
Anything you are particularly excited about?
“I am excited to see more space available for small mom and pop future entrepreneurs. 1 or 2 people being able to start up a small business in order to be able to afford to live here is really important. Example, using Mallory during the day for “lunch at Mallory Square” would enable people to use the space for lunch (not getting in the way of sunset celebration ever!) and this could be a new business area for locals to have carts and all have different foods and some gifts to sell. You could do this 10 am – 2 pm with limited carts and local business vendors and they could still work and evening job if desired to have the income needed to afford to live here.
We need to make places as well for future businesspeople to offer services we send out to the mainland or buy online in city spaces that people can do a startup business with and make money. The future is our residents to work and make an income to be able to live here, no answer on housing being so expensive, but making enough money to afford it doesn’t hurt!”
These five projects are important for our future. They’ll make downtown nicer to look at, more comfortable for people and resilient in the face of climate change. As Paul’s pointed out it is an opportunity to bring more locals downtown, emphasize our history and help our local Mom-and-Pop businesses. But we’ll let the Mayor have the final word as she sums it up best:
“We are enhancing our public spaces for our residents and guests alike so that we can continue to be a quality community and a world class destination.”
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / Improving Lazy Way As a Great “Shared Street” Can Set the Stage for More of the Same Around Our Historic Downtown
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on October 14, 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.
On Tuesday night I walked in one minute late for a 5:30 public workshop about improving Lazy Way expecting to find a few people outnumbered by City staff and instead couldn’t find a chair in a standing room only meeting that had maybe 60+ people crammed around tables of appetizers and water (I was really hoping for beer) and sitting in plastic chairs surrounding a makeshift rostrum set atop a pool table on the second floor of Schooner Wharf. Despite the absence of beer, this was not your average City Hall meeting venue.
A who’s who of top-level City staff attended including the City Manager and Police Chief, along with Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, and representatives of most of the Key West Historic Seaport businesses and a few nearby residents too. Why were all these people here to talk about Lazy Way – that iconic little one-way street that runs between William and Elizabeth Streets and parallel to the Harbor Walk? Well, because someone had made the daring suggestion, although no one will admit it anymore, that Lazy Way might be a good candidate to be a car-free or mostly car-free street. And we know if there’s one thing in Key West that will draw an audience, it’s talk of change. Especially if it involves our God-given right to drive our cars anywhere, we want.
But any notion that Lazy Way would become car-free was quickly put to bed by Commissioner Weekley, City Manager Patti McLaughlin, Transportation Coordinator Ryan Stachurski and Strategic Plan consultant Elisa Levy. Each echoed the other saying Lazy Way is a “shared street” that includes vehicles today and that was NOT going to change in the future. Rather, the meeting was about hearing ideas on how to make Lazy Way safer, especially for pedestrians, function better and maybe even more beautiful, not about banning cars. This seemed to take the air out of most of the audience, who came prepared with arguments against any sort of car-free nonsense – although that didn’t stop them from taking up lots of time saying so anyway.
Mr. Stachurski gave a very informative presentation on what exactly shared streets are and provided a bunch of examples on what it takes to make a good, shared street. Ms. Levy then commanded the people in the room, who really just wanted to talk about how much they needed vehicle access along Lazy Way, and actually wrangled a least a dozen good ideas from a wide variety of participants on how to make this little street even better. The audience seemed to nod their head in agreement in liking many of them. The Fire Department representative and Police Chief said they saw no problems with the ideas. And lo and behold, it seemed as if mostly everyone was on the same page and was talking about how we make Lazy Way more pedestrian friendly, while allowing cars. This is important because getting it right here can set the stage for making more pedestrian friendly shared streets or shared street blocks or segments throughout our historic downtown. We’ll spend a little time below discussing what shared streets are, some of the ideas that came out of this workshop and tell you about next steps.
What’s a Shared Street?
A shared street is a street that is shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars as equals. Although cars are allowed, they are restricted to walking speeds, say 5 mph, with the onus of responsibility for safety on the car driver. Calming features let vehicles know they are guests. People on bicycles cede the right of way to people that are walking. Instead of dividing a street with barriers like curbs, sidewalks, and bike lanes – where each user has their own space, everyone uses the street simultaneously and cars are forced to drive slowly.
There are examples of this all over the world, especially in Europe. One of the best examples many of us know about is Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Mr. Stachurski suggested in his presentation that some of the calming features or furniture could include art, bike racks, benches, planters, tables, and chairs and treating the road with pavers or bricks or even painting it the with fun colors or art. All these things signify to cars that they are someplace different and although welcome that they are the guest and need to cede the right of way.
Why a Shared Street Rather Than a Car-Free Street Is Okay
Many citizens have said they want some car-free streets around downtown. A survey of residents for the City’s Strategic Plan backs this up. But we’ve been talking about car-free streets in Key West for decades and nothing gets done because of the all or nothing approach. Let’s think about how we accommodate:
- Access for delivery vehicles
- Access for vehicles for seniors, people with mobility or ADA issues that need to be dropped off at the door
- Taxis, Ubers and Lyfts
- Hotels, inns, and business with access off the street
- Police, fire, and emergency vehicles
The majority of those who attended the meeting were from the business community and most of them said their customers needed vehicle access to the street for all of the reasons above. And they were adamant that they’d vigorously oppose any regular closing of the street. A shared street allows vehicles for these uses. You might say these are “authorized vehicles.” But because on a shared street the speed limit is 5 mph and because pedestrians and bicycles are in the middle of the street, it discourages through traffic that doesn’t have a purpose to be there and it helps pedestrianize the street.
On the other hand, Sue Huffaker, a resident who lives nearby told me after the meeting:
“My main theme is: NO CARS! It’s such a narrow little lane, no room for sidewalks, with a pleasing, restful, old-fashioned atmosphere to it. Make it even more beautiful and playful and fun—which means, no vehicles! I love the idea of prettying it up with strings of lights, planters, artworks, etc. and even benches. “
So, shared streets are a great compromise between these positions.
And here’s an article we did on the subject a while ago: Eight Things We Can Do to Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Cars; March 5, 2021.
Some Ideas from the Lazy Way Workshop
Lazy Way is already a good shared street. Not a lot of vehicles use it and those that do seem to sense they are guests and need to be extra cautious. But the question put to the audience of mostly adjacent business owners is can we make it better and safer. Ideas included:
- Wayfinding signage showing how to get to the Harbor Walk
- “Authorized Vehicles Only” signs
- Better signage/paint in street indicating it is a one-way street
- Signs saying slow down or indicating the speed limit is 3 mph
- More and better organized bicycle and scooter parking
- Pavers or imprinted asphalt that looks like brick rather than black road
- String lights over the street as it is dark at night
- Painting the street in a design or with art
- More benches, tables, and chairs
All of these are good ideas that would make Lazy Way safer, function better and more beautiful. Win, win, win.
Next Steps On Lazy Way
At the meeting Elisa asked participants to take their sticky dots and put them next to the ideas they really liked. Everyone got up to 3 dots. Blue dots in the pictures are from people representing businesses and all the other colors are residents. It looks like signage, string lights, organized bike/scooter parking and painting the street were the most favored ideas. City staff is going to take these and follow-up with the Director of Engineering, Ryan, Patti, likely Police and Fire and possibly Commissioner Weekley to verify the initiatives to put forward for Lazy Way. They’ll create a timeline for an action plan to get these things accomplished in the coming months.
Here’s what Ryan Stachurski the City’s Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator said after the meeting:
“A lot of people are very passionate about Lazy Way and really want the best for their community! Many tenants voiced their concerns about regular street closings, but did like some ideas such as improved signage, improved bike and scooter parking, and cafe / string lights to brighten the area at nighttime. I hope we can deploy some of these shared-street ideas and bring them to other areas of Key West as well.”
Key West Residents Want More Pedestrian Friendly Streets
In the 2021 survey of Key West residents that led the City’s Strategic Plan, “traffic and pedestrian friendliness” ranked 16 out of 18 City services. It was the third most complained about topic after housing and road repair and in 3 focus groups of teachers, parents, and workers, the #1 request was more pedestrian friendly streets. Addressing Lazy Way is just the first step in giving the residents what they want.
Getting Lazy Way Right Can Lead to More Shared Streets Around Downtown
Pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets bring more customers to our small Mom and Pop shops. They are better for our environment and our health. They are more equitable in using our community’s resource – the street itself – for everyone, not just private car owners’ convenience. Residents want more of them. They are one of the reasons tourists come to love the places they visit because they can get car-dependent places on the mainland. Shared streets or blocks may be the best way to compromise between the all or nothing approach of car-free streets. By getting Lazy Way right, by making it more pedestrian friendly, safer, functional and beautiful we can set an example for other places downtown, like parts of Petronia Street, Duval Street and perhaps Fleming or Southard to name a few.
What the meeting on Tuesday night at Schooner Wharf showed us is that we here in Key West CAN come together and reasonably agree to move forward on a project if we agree to listen, learn, and not talk past each other. Here’s looking to a more walkable and bikeable downtown – that would benefit all of us.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
By Chris Hamilton. Featured picture by Ryan Stachurski. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on October 7, 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.
Last week Hurricane Ian seemed to surprise some of us. Especially those who weren’t here 17 years ago during Hurricane Wilma when 60 percent of Key West homes took on water. As evidenced by my Facebook feed, many folks were startled as heavy rains, King tides and a 3–5-foot storm surge combined to bring rising water into their yards and homes from Bahama Village, Casa Marina, Midtown to New Town. But the shock was quickly shrugged off as Key Westers realized people were in need and responded promptly by helping their neighbors with water, food, and shelter and just a day after with clean-up, demolition, and rebuilding.
The generous and resilient spirit of our Key West community is unrivaled and unlikely to ever fail us. It’s in our DNA. It’s embodied by One Human Family. But we need to double down on making our infrastructure and homes just as resilient. Fortunately, the City’s Strategic Plan addresses Sea Level Rise front and center. And the County is even further ahead addressing Climate Change and sea level rise in a big and comprehensive way with multiple plans to achieve resiliency. Rhonda Haag, the County’s Chief Resilience Officer tells people, “We can extend our stay on this island chain. But only if we act!” But to act, we all need to be willing to chip in a little more money to leverage State, Federal and private dollars and get stuff done. Now that most of us have dodged another bullet, it is not the time to deny the problem, push it down the road or selfishly leave it to another day and future generation to fix.
We’re fortunate that we’ve got an able team of people at the County and City who have already started the hard work of collecting the data, doing the engineering work, and putting plans in place to save our home on these islands. We’re further ahead than most other communities in Florida. But we need to trust the science, pony up some money and political will and get to work. Let’s explore what’s happened, what the plans are and why it’s important we act now. Ian just reminded us we can’t wait.
Facebook Explodes With Surprise
We rented a car and decamped Key West the Monday morning before the storm to head to Port Charlotte on Florida’s SW coast to be with my in-laws during the hurricane. The eye of Hurricane Ian passed directly over their house on Wednesday. Although the winds were downright scary pounding against the shutters, luckily, they live far enough inland, so we didn’t have to deal with storm surge or rising waters. They had no damage other than downed trees and no electricity for almost 10 days. Everyone is safe. Many of the neighbors in their community didn’t fare so well. I only bring this up to tell you that I didn’t get to witness any of what went down in Key West firsthand as we didn’t get home till Saturday night. I learned it all via Facebook. At least when we could get cell service on our phones. Just a small sample of what I saw online:
Tue Sept 27 8:07 pm JD “Welp, there we go. Just lost power in Midtown.
Tue Sept 27 9:45 pm ED “Oh boy.” (referencing picture below)
Tues Sept 27 10:03 pm RW “Key West was sort of blindsided by the ferocity of the storm. Near hurricane winds for six hours.”
Tue Sept 27 11:01 pm JSP “We are evacuating Riviera Dr as the water is up to our door. Be safe everyone.”
Wed Sept 28 12:17 am CM on Laird St. “Our house is flooding. F You iAN. But we are all ok”
Wed Sept 28 12:26 am JL on Staples Ave. “Well. I’m fucked. Could use a hand.”
- LB “As are we. Flooded.”
- EW “Flooded”
- CLM “We’re flooded on Riviera. Bailing has become futile”
- WT “Flooded on Riviera”
- MG “Flooded here in Smurf Village
Wed Sept 28 12:44 am KL “Flooding over here at Virginia and Amelia. It’s almost up to the houses. There are at least seven cars that have water all the way up to the windows. Not looking good for some people.”
Facebook and Local Media Explode With Locals Helping Locals
What struck me as soon as the shock wore off that we got more than we bargained for with Hurricane Ian was how quickly Facebook exploded with locals helping locals. Key West is a generous and resilient bunch! Here’s a tiny sampling:
Wed Sept 28 9:55 am CM “Eric, Harper and I are safe. We got some water in the house, but we went to a friend’s house who have power and are higher up. I learned a lot from this storm.”
Wed Sept 28 3:40 pm RM “Please if anyone needs help with anything please let me know. I am ready and able to help.”
- FS “That is the Key West Way!!”
Thu Sept 29 8:35 am Jack Norris “Recovering from the storm? Walk in clinic for community tomorrow, September 30, 2022. If you cannot pay me, don’t. Details in video. We are a community. We stand as One Human Family.”
Thu Sept 29 10:04 am CM “Big should out to the City workers out here getting the streets cleaned up get back to business.”
Thu Sept 29 1:45 pm JR “This is an open post for anyone to post what they NEED and what you HAVE. Let’s band together and to what this island does best and help each other. Clothes? Sheets? Furniture? How can we help?”
- KKB “I’d love to volunteer to help anyway I can. I’ll have 2 kids in town but can help deliver food, organize, etc.
- LNA “A few sets of queen size sheets. Pillow shams. Dog bed.
- JS “Can I have the queen sheet? Thank you, JS,”
- LNA “Yes, I’m in Midtown. I’ll pm my address.
- …198 comments total
Thu Sept 29 6:36 pm JL “Lord. You people deliver when asked for a hand. Beyond grateful for the myriad of help today. I’m humbled. I couldn’t find everyone to tag, but know I love the hell out of you.”
Sat Oct 1 12:52 pm PJM “A lot of people are looking for a way to help out with the people who were flooded, especially in the Bahamas Village area that was really put underwater and other areas of the island, here’s a way you can help out. FEMA and the state might have forgotten about us but we’re going to take care of each other. Links to Bahama Village & Key West Family Flood Relief GoFundMe page.
Sun Oct 2 7:53 pm JDA “They’ve already started gathering supplies over at Off the Hook in advance of their big collection event on Tuesday to help those displaced by the Flagler fire. They are looking for clothes, towels, etc.”
Mon Oct 3 5:33 JW “If you need a free meal today, tomorrow and Wednesday stop by the Fredrick Douglas Community Center gym 3-6.”
And the Keys Citizen on September 30 highlighted locals helping locals: saying “…Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who represents Dist. VI wasn’t waiting for help. Thanks to assistance from the SOS Callahan Community Kitchen, the MLK Scholarship TrustGlad Tidings, Key West Housing Authority and Pual Menta of Key West Legal Rum Distillery, Commissioner Clayton Lopez started assisting his constituents with hot food and water at the Douglas Gym. First meal 7 am Thursday where the team prepared enough food for 400 people.” The story goes on to discuss Paul J. Menta’s efforts to help via the GoFundMe pagehe set up.
Our One Human Family Is As Resilient As Ever
Here’s how Mayor Teri Johnston put it:
“Key West weather events bring out the best and the worst in our Community. I am going to focus on the majority of our community who put their needs aside to rush to the aide of those less fortunate. The outpouring of assistance to our Bahama Village Community was heartwarming. 93 homes managed by our Key West Housing Authority suffered significant storm surge impacting many of our most vulnerable residents. Paul Menta, United Way of the Florida Keys and Collier County, the Tom Callahan SOS kitchen and City staff were on site providing resources needed to sustain and recover. Key West Housing Authority Executive Director Randy Sterling and team worked tirelessly coordinating new appliances, mattresses, and repairs to get his residents back into a livable home.
Homes In New Town, Midtown and Old Town took on first floor storm surge flooding of their homes. Sigsbee and JIATF have reported storm damage. The City deployed our emergency debris removal trucks and damage assessment teams, both on the ground and via drones, while our firefighters battled 5 local fires that gutted another 17 housing units. An emergency damage assessment hotline was set up to gather data for recovery.
My phone rang constantly from generous residents asking where and how they could help. Federal and State elected officials reached out to help.
Yes, One Human Family lives on in Key West.”
So, we know the Key West spirit is strong, but what about our infrastructure?
Resilient Infrastructure: We’ve Got a Plan for That – City of Key West Strategic Plan
Just a few weeks ago we discussed how the City is making great progress on implementing its Strategic Plan (The Mayor’s Strategic Plan is Helping the City Bureaucracy Get Stuff Done, September 16, 2022). Number 2, just after Workforce Housing is addressing Sea Level Rise because residents told the City this was a top priority. I asked Elisa Levy, who led the effort to write and is also tasked with implementing the City’s Strategic Plan, what’s happening regarding Sea Level Rise and here’s what she said:
“Major initiatives ongoing and planned for resiliency in Key West:
1 – Long Term Climate Change Plan and Vulnerability Assessment: This is the most impactful measure we could do long term both on nuisance flooding and Sea Level Rise. We have received a grant from Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and have prepared the RFP for the Vulnerability Assessment. We’re just waiting for FDEP to complete their side of the paperwork/approval, and we are ready to go.
The Vulnerability Assessment will take about 6 months, and that will lead us to a long-term Climate Change Plan. The plan provides us with major CIP (Capital Improvement Program), road elevation, structural elevation, and hardening efforts in order of importance and urgency. It involves much more than that in terms of “green” (natural) and “gray” (industrial) measures we can use to live with the water (move the water through the island more quickly and where we can harden).
2 – Hardening & Utilities: We are making significant improvements in flood zones throughout the islands. If you look back at the video (and memos) from the Utilities Director at the last Commission meeting, you’ll see several specific projects mentioned along with the number of homes that will be helped through these efforts.
3 – Roads: We are beginning a Preventative Maintenance program on our roads this fiscal year. I believe the damage from the salt water/flooding plays a significant role in road degradation.”
Resilient Homes: We’ve Got a Plan for That – City of Key West Comprehensive Adaptation and Resilience Implementation Plan
The City’s Sustainability Coordinator Alison Higgins gave an “Adaptation Update: Resources for Residents: Wind, Flood, Energy” presentation to the City Commission on Thursday, October 6. The presentation is chock full of good information for homeowners. Take a look. Better yet, go to the City’s website and check out the video of her presentation by clicking Agenda and Minutes and clicking on the video for Item 3 in Presentations of October 6.
Resilient Infrastructure and Homes: We’ve Got a Plan for That – Monroe County Addresses Climate Change and Sea Level Rise
We did a story this winter (We Can Adapt and Save the Florida Keys from Rising Seas, March 5, 2022) on the absolutely amazing efforts that Monroe County has been embarked on for almost a decade regarding making the Florida Keys more resilient in the face of Climate Change and sea level rise. I say amazing because Monroe County is further along in addressing these issues than any place in Florida and most places in the U.S.A. I asked Rhonda Haag, the County’s Chief Resilience Officer some questions this week and here’s her generous and thoughtful response:
1 – How has the Plan progressed since we last chatted in February?
“The County’s Roads Adaptation Plan was finalized and presented to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners in June 2022. Half of the County’s roads are vulnerable by sea level rise by the year 2045. The estimated price tag to adapt and elevate those roads to mitigate the effects of rising waters to the year 2045 is $1.8 Billion. That does not include road adaptation efforts required in the City of any of the Keys other municipalities, they are now completing their own road adaptation planning efforts. In August 2022 the County submitted 15 grant applications for road elevations to the State under its Resilient Florida program with a price tag of $380 Million. The top 3 of those projects totaled $87 Million and included a 50% match of $43 Million. The County is soon to break ground on its two pilot road elevation programs in Twin Lakes in Key Largo and the Sands neighborhood in Big Pine Key.”
2 – What lessons should our local leaders at the City and County take away from this past week’s experience with Ian?
“As catastrophic and tragic as the effects were from Ian in Florida, imagine how even more catastrophic and tragic it could be when future storms hit when the levels of the sea are even higher. The projections from the SE Florida Climate Compact call for up to an additional foot of sea level rise by the year 2045. That means there could be higher levels of storm surge and even stronger wave impacts from storms. That’s why it’s so important for the City and County to move forward with implementation of their various resilience plans and not wait. Not only can the effects of storms be mitigated, but the daily lives of residents will be enhanced as they will be able to go to and from their homes and businesses without suffering the effects of the rising seas, they are already experiencing on many area roads during the King Tide season.”
3 – What can we as individuals do with our homes to be more resilient in the future?
“If someone is looking to buy a home, a home located on a higher ground elevation area will be more resilient than one in a low-lying area. Second, if a resident owns a ground level home, it can be elevated to protect against flooding. The County and cities throughout Monroe County are participating in multiple mitigation grant programs to assist homeowners with elevating or reconstructing their homes, including the FEMA flood mitigation grant program. Also, the Florida Keys Coastal Storm Risk Project is a partnership between the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the County and municipalities and contains plans for potential elevation of more than 4600 ground level homes throughout the Keys at a cost of $2.3 Billion. If funded, this project would provide 65% federal funding of those home elevations, with 35% coming from the homeowners themselves and other local sources. Third, follow the regulations, they exist for a reason. If a resident owns an elevated home, and the ground floor is required to have breakaway walls, don’t fortify those walls. If a storm surge comes through those walls they are meant to break away, allowing the support columns to continue supporting the home above. If the lower walls don’t break away, the surge and wave action puts stress on the walls and those support columns, potentially causing partial or full collapse of the columns.”
4 – Anything else you’d like to add?
“The County and City are well ahead of the rest of the State in planning for sea level rise, and all of the other Keys’ municipalities are undergoing similar resilience planning work. County and Municipal officials have generously helped lay the pathway for this work, supporting it and authorizing staff to complete plans for long term resilience. What’s needed now is implementation of those plans, recognizing the fact that sea levels continue to rise. Implementation is expensive and there aren’t enough grants to fund all of the work. Everyone will need to contribute, including residents and business owners and even our visitors. Also, County and City leaders and officials working together hand in hand with state and federal officials to maximize assistance and resources will be key. Private resilience efforts are just as important. Only then will the Keys be better protected from the effects of climate change, including future hurricanes.”
We Can Adapt Our Infrastructure and Homes to Be As Resilient as the Key West Spirit and Extend Our Stay on This Island Chain. But Only If We Act. Now!
Hurricane Ian has brought home an important lesson that we’re likely to be dealing with similar weather events more frequently from here on out. We are a generous and resilient people, where locals help locals. But we can’t rely on that alone in the face of Climate Change and rising sea levels. We need to make our infrastructure and homes as resilient as our One Human Family spirit.
We have amazing teams of people at the County and City who are diving into data and best engineering practices and putting in place plans that can extend our time living on these islands. But it is up to us residents, our Key West business community and our City and County Commissioners to find the will to figure out how we raise billions of dollars over the next 25 years to make these plans a reality and thereby extend our stay in Paradise.
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Links to Resources
- Monroe County Green Keys! Website
- Monroe County Sustainability Action Plan – 5-Year Work Plan (2016)
- Monroe County 2013 Climate Action Plan
- Keys Roads Plan – Monroe County Roads Vulnerability Analysis website
- Monroe County Sustainability Office, Rhonda Haag, Chief Resilience Officer
- Rhonda’s consultant team: HDR as the prime; Wood Engineering; Erin L. Deady
- Monroe County Roadway Vulnerability Analysis and Capital Plan PowerPoint presentation
- Roadway Vulnerability Study and Capital Plan February 23, 2022, Public Workshop video (all County videos here)
- https://www.keysenergy.com/energy-surveys (Energy Audit Request)
- City of Key West Notify Me and subscribe to “Strategic Plan – Key West Forward, Sea Level Rise, Adaption
- U.N. IPCC Climate Change Report
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on September 16, 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.
Key West has a reputation for muddling along and well, let’s face it, not addressing the big things. Decades later we wonder how our problems got so bad. Think our lack of affordable workforce housing, our crumbling roads and sidewalks, traffic and parking congestion, our moribund transit system, and withering on the vine projects such as Duval Street, Mallory Square, and the Diesel Plant. Not to mention major vulnerabilities such as sea level rise and our degrading environment just to name a few items. When she first ran for Mayor, Teri Johnston called that out and said we can do better. So, she set out to develop a strategic plan to tackle our problems head on.
In 2020, just as the pieces were put in place to get a plan going, COVID happened. Her team pivoted and instead began with the Key West Recovers COVID Recovery Plan – a 17-point business and humanitarian plan for 2020-2021. This got the ball rolling and jump-started the help our local businesses and community needed to come out of the shutdown running. And boy did we. Next, after a huge resident survey, many stakeholder and community meetings and impressive participation from the City Commission and staff, on September 17, 2021, Key West Forward – The Strategic Plan for the City of Key West 2021-2024 was officially adopted. It was quite an achievement. For the Mayor especially. And then a very unlike Key West thing happened.
We actually started implementing the plan. No really! I see you snickering. It wasn’t put on a shelf in the finest Key West tradition as most plans seem to have been. Rather, this Strategic Plan includes mechanisms for ongoing accountability and implementation. It’s become a regular, couple times a week check in point between Mayor Johnston, City Manager Patti McLaughlin, and Strategic Plan consultant Elisa Levy, and lo and behold one year later, the City Hall bureaucracy has been roused and focused and lots of stuff has gotten done. All those problems mentioned at the top are being addressed – and that’s a formidable list. With the resulting momentum, the next couple of years look even more fruitful. That results in a better Key West and hopeful future for all of us. Let’s look at why this is important, what’s been accomplished and why the plan is succeeding where past plans have failed. And let’s celebrate some good government happening here because of three key leaders.
Elisa Levy – The Linchpin in Ensuring the Plan’s Implementation
In the summer of 2020, after a six-month RFP process, Elisa Levy Consulting was hired to guide the City with the development of a comprehensive strategic plan. She and her firm brought with her two decades of international conflict resolution and private business development with Fortune 500 companies, small hotel chains and restaurants. Ms. Levy’s selection was a stroke of good fortune that we should all be thankful for.
In watching Ms. Levy conduct meetings with the community and business interests, give presentations to the City Commission and other organizations or observing the caring and patient nature she takes in encouraging City staff, one is taken with her charming and grounded presence and power to command a room. She has an ability to include and consider all voices at the table, and skill at keeping the ball moving forward. No small task when our Key West table is often a buffet full of naysayers, whatabouters, leave-it-aloners, and NIMBYS. Most of all one notices her passion for our little island and enthusiasm for its people and our future. THAT is why she is the linchpin that holds this entire project together.
That, and the fact that the Mayor and Manager were smart enough to hire Ms. Levy not just to put the plan together, but to continue the journey as the project’s ongoing coordinator to help ensure it gets implemented.
Why Is a Strategic Plan Important? “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You Might Not Get There.”
A strategic plan is important because when it is done consistently and held to, year after year with the folks that matter up and down the line, it helps hold an organization accountable to get the right things done. I admit, I’m a fan of these and used them for 20+ years with great results. So, I admire the work done by Elisa Levy with the City of Key West. I asked her why this is important, here’s how she responded:
“Cities need a strategic plan in order to make sure they tackle their biggest priorities. Without one, we tend to get lost in the daily minutia without taking into account the greatest concerns like sea level rise, and housing. I often go back to the Yogi Berra quote “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” I once heard a lecturer say, “many people know how to make a living, but they don’t know how to make a life.” I think that statement applies to a community as well as an individual. As a city, we to tend to put out fires daily and make “a living” but we mustn’t lose site of the big picture and the needs we have for the future. That’s what a strategic plan does. It looks beyond the daily “living” and addresses the “life.”
Says Mayor Teri Johnston in answer to the same question:
“Our Strategic Plan gives us all direction to most effectively utilize our resources both financial and human. Our plan requires that our Commission agree upon the entire community’s most important goals. This is sometimes challenging because each of our 6 Commissioners represent the competing interests of their individual districts. Our Strategic Plan encourages us to collectively support the most important projects for the greater good of our greater community.
Our 3-year Strategic Plan also provides a road map for our City Manager to most effectively utilize our 525 city employees who are also challenged to meet the competing needs of our community.”
What’s In the Plan?
The Key West Forward Strategic Plan is built on the back of a lot of listening to the community. A survey of almost 4,000 residents identified major issues of concern, prioritized capital improvement projects and showed which City services and amenities needed improvement. From this data six priorities emerged:
- Workforce Housing
- Sea Level Rise
- Roads and Sidewalks
- Environmental Protection
- Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness
Focus groups were then conducted on each priority to seek solutions to the problems identified for each in the survey. Each priority is then broken down into goals and then a series of actions to meet each goal that includes a time frame for accomplishing the action, persons responsible for overseeing the action and funding and/or personnel needs for each action. As one scrolls through the document one comes away impressed at how simple, concise, and easy to follow the document is.
In addition to the goals and actions for each of the six priorities there’s a Major Projects section identifying 14 capital projects including Duval Street Revitalization, the Crosstown Greenway, Mallory Square, Bayview Park, KOTS, the Diesel Plant and more. There’s a Communications Plan to ensure ongoing updates are being shared with the community and an Internal Plan for the City Employees.
The Engine of the Strategic Plan is the Master Calendar
The engine that makes the Strategic Plan work is the Master Calendar for Operational Plans. It is a year-long document that is broken down by month beginning with the first month of the fiscal year. Each major action or project from the Strategic Plan is broken down by month into bite size pieces that identifies the action to be taken, the date for the action, the person overseeing the action and a status that is updated as things happen. The overseer of the plan (Elisa Levy) meets with those identified as responsible regularly (weekly, monthly) to make sure things move forward according to the timeline. This is updated almost every month and is distributed to the Commission and staff.
A Lot Has Been Accomplished In Just One Year
I witnessed Elisa provide an update on the Strategic Plan at the Key West Business Guild’s luncheon on September 7. Her presentation was warmly received and showed much progress. Everyone came away impressed. For example, in the past year the City has accomplished:
Priority 1: Workforce Housing
- Started 304 units of REAL workforce housing (Garden View Apartments on College Road, The Lofts of Bahama Village, Poinciana Village)
- Started addressing vacation rentals and zoning
- Hired Demetria Simpson as the first ever Director of Housing & Community
- Conducted Bahama Village Home Ownership Course
- Held special election on referendum for use of 3.2 acres of City land for workforce housing
- Selected developer for 3.2 acres in Bahama Village (The Lofts of Bahama Village)
Priority 2: Sea Level Rise
- Road Elevation (LiDAR Data) contract approved to begin September 28 (explanation)
- A grant has been forwarded to Florida Department of Environmental Service (FDEP) and then an RFP can be let in October for a Climate Action Plan or vulnerability assessment
Priority 3: Roads and Sidewalks
- Designed a GIS interactive map of roads/streets for the City website
- Road Elevation (LiDAR Data) contract approved
- Allocated 10% of $3.5M for roads to go to preventative maintenance for the coming year
Priority 4: Environment:
- Completed a successful compost pilot
- Completed checklist for DRC on solar energy options
- Prepared a package via Waste Management to all residents on proper waste removal
- Updated Stormwater and Sewer Master Plan
- 3 City employees certified in LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design
Priority 5: Cleanliness
- Identified a leader, Marge Holtz for Keep Key West Beautiful Adopt a Spot and 30 organizations/people adopted spots (so far) to keep clean
- Mayor’s Beautification Committee started and meeting monthly
- Publicized City’s “Key West Connect” app and went from receiving 20 notifications from residents a day to 175 on trouble spots
- Hired 2 new Code Enforcement Officers to oversee proper disposal of waste
Priority 6: Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness
- On-Demand Key West Transit Pilot vendor (Via Transportation, Inc.) selected
- RFQ for Recreational E-Vehicles Study broadcast on 3/30/22. Proposals due 5/18/22 and now under evaluation
- 100 new or revitalized bike parking spaces have been created
- Wickers Trail segment of Crosstown Greenway plans have moved forward to the point where the project should happen in the next 12 months
- Interim Duval Loop signs installed with QR codes
- Final Mile Bike Parking Facilities RFP broadcast on 6/3/22. Proposals due 7/6/22 and now under review.
- On 5/25/22 broadcast RFP for Keys Diesel Plant Stabilization & Redevelopment. Proposals dues 7/13/22 and now under evaluation
- On 3/22/22 broadcast RFP for Duval Street Economic Corridor Resiliency and Revitalization Plan. Proposals due 6/8/22 and now under evaluation
- Awarded Sunset Celebration/Mallory Square Master Plan to Sasaki Associates, Inc. and process now underway
- Selected developer for 3.2 acres in Bahama Village (The Lofts of Bahama Village0
If you follow us, you know that we’re particularly excited about the progress on the Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness actions as well as on four projects that we wrote about at the beginning of the year: Mallory Square, Diesel Plan, Duval Street Revitalization and Bahama Village Housing Projects Create Synergy to Bolster Downtown; January 14 2022. As we said at the time:
“We’ve been grappling in fits and starts with Mallory Square, the Diesel Plant, Duval Street and Bahama Village housing projects for years. The recent history of each is strewn with false promises, hopeful beginnings, and dashed dreams.” And now, finally all four projects have vendors tasked with bringing them about. THAT’s great progress!
Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 1. A Trio of Leaders Who Get Stuff Done
The easy, short answer to the question of why the Strategic Plan is succeeding is because of Teri Johnston, Elisa Levy and Patti McLaughlin.
The Mayor deserves credit because she pushed back on the skepticism that embarking upon doing a strategic plan was a waste of time because past plans had never been implemented. She challenged that by saying this time there would be accountability and oversight. And she enlisted her fellow commissioners and a broad swath of residents and the business community so that it was a genuine team effort. So, it all starts with the Mayor’s groundbreaking vision and passion for the project that we’ve written about here and here.
When I asked Elisa why she thought the plan was succeeding she basically answered Teri and Patti, saying:
“a. Listening to the community… b. A person in charge of accountability and oversight and c. Leadership’s support. The first two points would be irrelevant without the support of key people in leadership. I work very closely with Patti on a weekly, even daily basis. She is apprised of everything we do. When I need to push something forward, or we get stuck on an issue, she is willing to go to bat for it. The same goes for the Mayor. She believes wholeheartedly in the plan and comes back to it time and again on and off the dais.”
She went on to add:
“I am in touch with Patti probably more than she would like! We communicate many times per week depending on what we are working on according to the strategic plan’s calendar. She is so busy, but finds the time, even if it’s late in the evening or on the weekends (which is often the case!) As per our city’s form of government and the Sunshine Laws, I try to be diligent about communicating with the entire Commission when need be (and not the Mayor alone.) I present to them quarterly and we have two workshops per year on the strategic plan. I send email updates when I feel there is something they might want to know. That said, the Mayor is such a big proponent of the plan, that she will sometimes reach out to me to ask questions about specific initiatives and offer help. She pays very close attention to the calendar and the budget. She and the City Manager are the plan’s greatest “Champions.”
When I asked the Mayor, she essentially said the answer was Elisa and Patti, expanding:
“I have worked closely from the inception of our Strategic Plan, and I can tell you that our success to date is attributed to our Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy who has been relentless (in a positive way) requiring that we are all accountable for the commitments that we all made towards achieving our plan. Elisa and our City Manager have worked tirelessly to fold in all our 525 employees to make sure that each of them understood the plan and how they individually contributed to the success of the plan.”
We talked about why Elisa Levy is a linchpin to the project above. But none of this happens without the ability to mobilize the City department heads and rouse the staff to action and that’s the doing of City Manager Patti McLaughlin.
In a story we did last year on her promotion, civic leader and Parks and Rec Board Member Roger McVeigh said this:
“Having closely watched Patti in action in her most recent role as Acting City Manager for the last 90 days, it is difficult to ignore the new direction and substantial progress the City has made in seeking and planning solutions to many unfinished legacy City problems. Legacy problems such as workforce housing, sea level rise and climate change, homelessness and reconstituting KOTS, overall city cleanliness, completing Truman Waterfront Park, rethinking Mallory Square, Duval Revitalization, Key West Connect, Bayview Park revitalization and public transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure are all in various stages of being addressed in a meaningful way.”
A look at the above accomplishments’ in the last 12 months underscores Roger’s words. Patti gets stuff done.
All three credit each other – that says a lot.
Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 2. Accountability
When I’ve discussed various projects with staff over the last year in writing stories for this column, they all mention that this or that project is in the Strategic Plan and that their boss is holding them accountable for moving the ball forward. It demonstrates that all staff are accountable for helping achieve the Strategic Plan goals and actions.
Here’s how Elisa Levy answers the question of why it is working:
“Having a person in charge of accountability and oversight. Our city staff members are overloaded, and we too are suffering from a labor crisis. Strategic plans require a person not already mired in the daily work of their jobs to create a master calendar with a budget attached to EVERY item. The plan must be monitored on a weekly and even daily basis. That’s not because people in City Hall aren’t doing their jobs. It’s because they are! They are so busy with the day-to-day, that someone outside of their departments needs to manage the process. It’s true for us all in life. We tend to focus on what’s urgent, and we don’t always get to what’s important.
My role is to be the city’s “accountability coach” (or pest?) and make sure that we stick to the calendar, line by line. It’s a daily job. I meet with each department head on the plan every other month to review what they need to do according to the calendar. I then communicate with them weekly and daily if we are working on an item on a deadline. Because we are short-staffed, I often take on some of the more logistical work that needs to get done. The staff is the “brains” of the plan, and Patti is in charge, but I can and help with the non-technical parts to push things along. I told them when we launched the plan that if I push them too hard, they should tell me, and I’ll try to back off a bit. So far, so good, I think. They are spinning many plates, but I think we have managed to stay on track with some of the most important priorities in the plan.”
After the trio of leaders, this I think is the crux and what makes the experience of this Strategic Plan different from the past. Everyone was smart enough to realize that they needed to keep Ms. Levy on the payroll and help implement the plan. And it’s working.
Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 3. It’s the People’s Plan
Mayor Johnston told me one of the reasons for the Plan’s success is because “This is the people’s plan – developed directly from community input.” I like that. Elisa said something similar in citing the success saying it lies in “listening to the community.” She went on: “Many strategic plans are written by a small group of well-meaning people. The key to a good plan is community engagement. The survey we did in January 2020 to launch the plan had almost 4,000 responses. That effort was paramount but even that wasn’t enough. We followed up with focus groups on each priority to seek solutions to the problems identified in the survey. The plan, I hope, belongs to our community and therefore it matters to them.”
The Strategic Plan Is Making Our City Government Work Better
Elisa told me: “In times of status quo, a strategic plan is a good idea; in times of crisis, a strategic plan is essential. We are in crisis. We are on our knees with a new level of housing/labor shortages and increasing threats of sea level rise. We simply can’t afford to live without a plan.”
To her point about housing/labor, one of the items that stood out in reviewing the latest version of the Master Calendar was how often the status had a note that said, “We don’t have the staff to follow through right now.” The elephant in the room is that every department is short staffed. Which makes the Strategic Plan’s first year success, more noteworthy. And with fewer personnel, it helps to have them focused and on mission all the more.
There’s no question the Plan is concentrating the Manager, department heads, and staff on what’s essential – the six priorities that the people really want, and not just responding daily to the loudest complainers in a game of whack a mole as bureaucracies tend to do when they aren’t pointed in the right direction. As citizens, we should all acquaint ourselves with the Plan and hold our leaders to account for getting these things done. They’ve given you permission to say, it’s in our Plan, so we expect you to do it. That’s the beauty of the Plan and Master Calendar. It is a tool to make our little island government work better and keep us all on the same page. Here’s how the Mayor puts it:
“Our plan provides measurable goals and timelines for our 6 strategic objectives which shine a light on our most effective, productive employees who are eager to take on more responsibilities. This is the peoples plan having been developed directly from community input. During our 2nd year of implementation, I look forward to checking off accomplishments and keeping this plan a living, breathing document that reflects the needs of our community.”
Hear, hear! And because of all this the next year does look bright indeed. When you see our Mayor, City Manager or Elisa Levy, thank them for doing such a great job for all of us.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
Streets for People / Wreckers Cay and County Need to Do Better By New Residents Who Want to Ride Bikes Between Stock Island and Key West
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on September 2, 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.
With the first of 280 units at Wreckers Cay on Stock Island set to receive their initial residents on September 15, Monroe County, and management at Wreckers Cay, despite some good intentions, have let us down. The result? Expect more car traffic through the Triangle. The saying goes that we get the transportation behavior we build for. So, if we construct a housing development with ample and covered car parking that treats bicycles as little more than a cheap afterthought, how can we expect people to invest in decent bikes that can make the 5-mile trek to downtown and back every day?
Research shows an optimal time to get people to try alternatives to driving are when they move into a new home. Planning officials and the developer should be laying out the red carpet for bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters to show residents that bicycling is a favored method of getting around. Instead, they’ve installed outdated and hard-to-use bicycle parking outside and exposed to the elements. Proper industry standard, resident bicycle parking should be placed under the building, protected from the weather. It should include security cages surrounding the bikes, especially for higher end bicycles. And ideally there should be electric outlets at the bike parking for recharging e-bikes and e-scooters. Rather, the entirety of the space under the first to be occupied buildings are striped for and include curb stops for only car parking. It’s so mainland, car-centric Florida values that don’t belong on our little islands.
If we hope that at least some of these new 600 or so residents will use a bike instead of driving a car across the Cheryl H. Cates Memorial Bridge to Key West for work, shopping and play we must treat bicycles as a priority and that starts with good parking at the home end. The developer and County still have some time to get this right.
More Housing Means More Traffic Unless We Make the Options Better
The 280 homes at Wreckers Cay start occupancy in less than two weeks. That’s just the start of what will eventually be 667 new units coming online on Stock Island. There’s a lot of concern about traffic, especially along U.S. 1 because visitor traffic is increasing too. Public transit between the islands is awful and we don’t know when Key West Transit’s new on-demand transit will start or when it does if it will prove adequate to the task of being frequent and reliable enough for people to count on it as a commuting option. And while the County is discussing their own on-demand transit service with a private vendor, it is only in a conceptual phase. So, with the County and City behind the eight-ball on providing transit options in time, we really need some people to use their bikes.
To the Historic Seaport or the middle of Duval Street it is a 4.7-mile, 25-minute bike trip via the Promenade along N. Roosevelt Boulevard or a 5.3 mile, 30-minute bike ride via the safer Crosstown Greenway route through the middle of town. That’s doable for many. It could be done a little quicker and easier by electric bike, likely matching the 13 – 19 minutes Google Maps says it takes a car to go to the same places. And with e-bikes and e-scooters perhaps even more people would consider doing so.
A couple months ago we examined 10 Things to Make It Safer to Bike from Stock Island to Key West. While we discussed multiple needed infrastructure fixes along the routes, educating drivers to slow down, discounting e-bikes for new residents and putting more regular bike parking downtown, #1 on the list was convenient, covered and secure bicycle parking at the new Stock Island housing developments. That’s because people want a dependable ride. Leaving a bike outside and exposing it to the elements makes it more likely to break down or even get stolen. A well taken care of bike is more likely to get ridden.
The Wreckers Cay Bicycle Parking Is Woefully Inadequate
According to the site plan for the 280 units there are 400 car parking spaces (252 in garages under the units and 148 in surface lots) and 102 surface scooter spaces. As bicycle parking isn’t shown on this version of the plan, Emily Schemper, Senior Director of Planning & Environmental Services for Monroe County told us there will be space for parking 328 bicycles on the property. On its face that seems like a lot of bicycle parking. And the project’s manager is said to be enthusiastic about what they are doing for bicycles. But these pictures show the bicycle parking recently installed in front of building #2, which is slated to have 35 units and 34 car parking spaces under the garage will have wave style bike racks out front. Ms. Schemper tells us this particular wave rack is supposed to accommodate 24 bikes. We’re doubtful.
Bicycle planners in places that are rated high for bicycle friendliness have for a couple decades now advised against installing these kind of wave racks. Experts don’t like comb or schoolyard racks either. The industry standard is the Inverted U rack which is a simple, sturdy design with each loop compactly providing parking for two bikes. The style is preferred because it can support a bike at two points to prevent it from falling over. They are easy to lock a bike to since the rack is at the center of the bike. When used side by side in a corral a single car parking space can easily hold 10 to 12 bicycles. The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) Essentials of Bike Parking: Selecting and Installing Bicycle Parking That Works guide says “Racks to Avoid” include the Wave – also called undulating or serpentine and Schoolyard – also called comb or grid racks and recommends the Inverted U – also called staple or loop rack.
Skeptical of what people in other cities or professional associations say? Then here’s what Key West’s own Ryan Stachurski, the City’s Transportation Coordinator said:
“It’s unfortunate that even with new construction, some make the mistake to install wave racks or comb racks. I think people must feel they save money or save space on a project, but they really do neither.”
We asked Ms. Schemper about the use of Wave racks, how many bikes the wave in front of building #2 could hold and about placement outside instead of in the garage. Here’s what she told us:
“Per the site plan approved by the Planning Commission, that location was to accommodate 24 bicycles. Some buildings will have multiple banks of racks, and additional racks will be located in the pool area. Our current code does not require specifications for bicycle racks to the level of detail you have provided.”
Note: We reached out to management at Wreckers Cay. While their front office confirmed the September 15 move in date and told us the property manager would give us a call to discuss bikes because “they were very excited about all they were doing for bikes,” in the end we never received that call.
Examples of Good Multi-Family Residential Building Bicycle Parking
Progressive bicycle-friendly cities and smart developers across the country have realized the importance of convenient, secure, and dry bicycle parking in attracting more people to use bicycles for transportation. Many cities routinely provide guides and ongoing assistance throughout the building process to ensure bicycle parking is done correctly. And developers, knowing customers expect these amenities, are more than willing to go above and beyond what’s required and do the right thing because it helps their bottom line. None of this seems to be happening here at Wreckers Cay and it shows.
Arlington County Virginia, where I use to work before moving to Key West in 2015, has for decades now both required great bicycle parking AND provided handholding to developers to get it correct. Here’s their guide. Here’s some more from Toronto, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles and little ol Provincetown. Yes, mostly big cities, but it isn’t hard to find some simple common denominators about bicycle parking for multifamily residential buildings doing a simple Google search. Even bike rack manufacturers, such as Madrax, have wonderful resources on bike storage. So, couldn’t the people at the County and Wreckers Cay do a little research?
Most places categorize parking by the amount of time the parking space is used. Short Term vs Long Term parking is one way to say it. Class 1 vs. Class 2 Parking is another. Long Term or Class 1 parking is designed for residents or employees who need overnight or all-day storage. Long term parking users are typically willing to trade a little convenience for weather protection and security.
Short Term or Class 2 parking is usually for people going to a business or institution for a few hours. It should be easy to use and very close to the destination. It usually isn’t weather protected but is in a visible location nearby.
Examples In Key West – New Garden View Apartments; Beachside Marriott
If you’d like a decent example of what to do, let’s look at the Key West Housing Authority’s under construction 104-unit Garden View Apartments on College Road. They are putting parking for 77 bikes and 40 scooters in the garage under the units along with 61 car parking spaces. And another 58 car parking spaces outside. While it doesn’t look like the bike parking at Garden View will have bicycle cages or electric, putting them under cover and using proper Inverted U racks is a great improvement over the norm.
Also take a look at this picture of the bicycle parking Beachside Marriott has in its garage. Under cover. Check. Inverted U rack. Check.
What Wreckers Cay Should Be Doing
Wreckers Cay, as a residential complex should have Long Term, Class 1 parking that is protected from the weather AND is secure. So proper, easy-to-use Inverted U bike racks should be installed in the garage under cover AND security provided via a locked room or cage. The room/cage could be as simple as erecting a chain link fence around the bike racks and only providing keys to those using the cage. With plenty of construction workers still on site, it should be easier to install the racks, cage, and even electric outlets for recharging now, rather than retrofitting them in later.
They should be able to fit 40 bike parking spaces if they take out 4 car parking spaces. The County should let them do this by waiving those presumably “required” car parking spaces in lieu of additional bike parking spaces.
Fix This and You Get a Better Project and Less Congestion and Parking Problems
City and County leaders have an interest in not making our traffic congestion and downtown parking problems worse by failing to provide good options and incentives for people to use public transit and bicycles with these new developments. Developers of the large-scale properties have a monetary incentive to build less space hogging car parking that also allows more room to put in residential amenities such as shade trees and landscaping, picnic tables, fire pits and grills, a playground, a bocce or pickle ball court and/or art. None of which fit now because of well, parking. The developer and County still have some time to get this right, especially as construction is still happening. But do any of the people involved, from County planning officials to Wreckers Cay management view bicycle transportation as real enough to fix it? Or will everyone default to car-centric, mainland Florida values that don’t belong on our little islands. The balls in their court and the citizens are watching.
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on August 20, 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.
Color us impressed. The City has just about completed a simple, inexpensive, and almost elegant revamp of the signage at the 18 Duval Loop bus stops downtown. Most of the bus stops now include a pink “topper” that says Duval Loop, new identifying signs that indicate the stop number, the slogan “Ride Free and Frequent” and a QR code that when scanned takes people directly to the Key West Transit live map so one can see where the bus goes and when the next bus is coming.
Research says good information at bus stops encourages ridership, improves the experience, and even makes the wait feel shorter. The new signage also communicates to thousands of daily visitors, residents, and workers downtown that the City cares, which wasn’t always the case, given the recent embarrassing condition of the signs. All because some City staff took the proverbial bull by the horns and said, enough.
From Bad to Good In Just a Couple Months
It was just a few months ago on May 6, 2022 when we wrote this:
“Last April 2, 2021, we began our story: “Experts say, the bus stop is one of the biggest signals, to everyone in the city, about a community’s attitude toward buses and their customers. What do Key West Transit’s bus stops say to residents, workers, and visitors? Judging by their quality and lack of information, one would have to answer: “We just done care!” Sadly, as we revisit these bus stops more than one year later, we find that absolutely nothing has changed on the ground.”
We followed that up a month later with a June 6 article about the Duval Loop in particular sharing pictures of each disheveled stop. The mish mash of missing information and absent signage exhibited a total lack of care on the City’s part. There was no consistency. Seven of 15 stops were missing Duval Loop identification. Half the stops had orange tape over the word FREE from a time two years ago when the service tried charging a $1. Zero stops had any information about frequencies, maps or where the bus went. It was a disaster and an embarrassment. Some people inside City Hall noticed the mess and took it upon themselves to do something, now, rather than wait for a future fix.
With Big Fix Maybe Another Year or More Away, These Are Interim Signs
Last August 2021, we brought you the story of the City’s Sustainability Coordinator Alison Higgins crafting and receiving a $510,000 grant to upgrade the 62 Lower Keys Shuttle bus stops and 20 of the most used Key West stops with bike racks, map and schedule information, lights and trash and recycle cans. As part of the grant project the City is matching it with $465,500 for a total project of $975,500. This will enable them to redo all the Duval Loop and all other Key West stops not covered in the original application. As the grant uses Federal and State funds a rigorous planning process for the stops must be adhered to. So, it took until June 3 of this year to get an RFP out for a contractor to do the work. We’ve heard all the BIDS that came in by the July 6 due date were over the budget set aside to do the project so staff will have to figure out how to proceed next. Even if the BIDS had come in within the funding available, officials tell us the project is slated to begin in Marathon and work its way down the Keys, so it could be a year, once construction and installation starts, until they get to Key West.
Knowing this Final Mile project has been coming for more than a year now, Key West Transit officials have been reluctant to spend any money on temporary signs. But as we’ve reported here and here, Key West bus stops have been dismal for a long time, and it is especially disconcerting, as reported here, on the City’s flagship route, the Duval Loop. So, Ryan Stachurski, the City’s Transportation Coordinator, got an idea to print some temporary signs when the City recently got a new sign printing machine. Here’s how Ryan explained it:
“With help from Community Services and working with Transit Operations Manager, Rogelio Hernandez, we were able to deploy a stop-gap Duval Loop sign refresh to help communicate the FREE service and get a virtual map into people’s hands. By scanning the QR code at the Duval Loop stops, riders see a live route map and can tell how long until the bus arrives. We already see 40 to 50 people a day using this feature.”
An Inexpensive, Simple, Even Elegant Interim Solution
We saw the signs coming off the printer in a late June Facebook post. Since then, the staff team from three departments has quickly installed new pink Duval Loop toppers (they had been ordered long ago), taken down the existing higgledy-piggledy (perhaps we’ve been watching too much The Great British Baking Show) signage and installed the newly printed simple signs with the QR code. Three of the eighteen stops aren’t being used right now because of construction downtown that should be complete in September. Of the remaining 15 stops, all have received the QR code sign and 13 of 15 have the pink topper. Here’s a link to the City’s spreadsheet tracking the progress of the refresh. Yay!
Here’s how Rogelio Hernandez, Transit Operations Manager put the project:
“The Duval Loop sign refresh was much needed, and it is just the beginning. Key West Transit believes bus schedule information should be at the palm of the riders’ hands, that’s where the QR code, which are placed on the Duval Loop stops come in to play. For those that aren’t tech savvy, Transit plans to place schedule information to include arrival times, hours of service and much more at each bus stops in the future. Special thanks to Ryan Stachurski, Multimodal Transportation Coordinator and Public work for their ongoing help with this project and future ones.”
This is what you’ll see when you scan the QR code with your phone. It is obviously working if about 50 people a day are already scanning it.
Final Mile Bus Stop or The Big Fix
When the Final Mile grant funded bus stop “big fix” does finally happen, officials hope to rebrand the stops so you know it is a Lower Keys Shuttle, Key West Transit or Duval Loop bus stop. Bike racks, trash and recycle cans, lights and even bicycle fix it stations in a few locations will be included. Each stop will also feature map, schedule, and user information on a sign(s), right on the pole, so users won’t have to use their phone. That’s the way it should be! And better yet, include the QR code for live tracking of the bus’s whereabouts.
Will New On-Demand Service Get Similar Temporary Signage?
Sometime later this calendar year Key West Transit North and South Line routes are scheduled to be replaced with a new on-demand, bus-stop-to-bus-stop service. The North and South Line stops currently have zero information or branding. Just a sign that says, “Bus Stop” and has a no parking symbol. With the big fix from the Final Mile grant more than a year off in the future, perhaps this team can crank up the new sign printing machine again, so people can get information on how to use the new service, right at the bus stop. Stay tuned.
More Ingenuity Like This Please
We applaud the staff for coming up with a nice interim solution now. Waiting another year or more for a big fix simply risked further deterioration of an already bad situation. Good for the staff on coming up with an inexpensive and innovative idea that didn’t need to be run up the flagpole so far that it got squashed by management or budget bean counters. Rather, it seems like a team of caring staff took some initiative and ran with it. We’d like to see more ingenuity and initiative to get something done like this on all kinds of little bike, walk, transit and streets for people issues around town. The drip, drip, drip of small wins will add up over time. So, let’s celebrate the little win on the Duval Loop signs. Nicely done City team!
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.