Streets for People / Limiting Large Cruise Ships Gives Us an Opportunity to Make Duval Street & Historic Downtown More Local Focused, Again

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on July 9, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

On July 12 the City Commission will explore the best way to move forward in the aftermath of the Florida Legislature and Governor’s decision to nullify the citizens of Key West cruise ship referenda. Limiting the number of large cruise ships coming into town gives us an opportunity to turn Duval Street and the historic district back into a real downtown, where mom and pop shops thrive and serve the needs of locals, snowbirds, and long-stay visitors. It sets the stage for an upcoming Duval Street Revitalization Study process where the citizens and local business can set the course of downtown’s future instead of catering to the agenda of the corporate mass tourism industry. 

Our Island’s Health and Water is Better Without Big Cruise Ships

It didn’t take very long into last year’s shutdown for people that work the water to report seeing cleaner water and nature coming back with more fish and animals. As the good folks at Safer, Cleaner, Ships put it, “Big Ships, Big Problems.” The large cruise ships are a public health hazard. All around the world cruise ships fostered Covid outbreaks. They foul our environment and kill marine life. Large cruise ships in Key West’s shallow channel stir up silt plumes that drift onto coral and seagrass beds. Excessive silt kills juvenile conch, lobster, stone crab, fish, and coral. They routinely dump pollutants into the ocean, including bilge water containing oil and grease, raw sewage, food waste, and household garbage. Public health is essential to our economy. Our economy, especially our fishing and maritime sports, relies on a healthy marine ecosystem. Limiting large cruise ship will mean our waters, land and air will all be the better for it.

Our Overall Economy Will Be Better Off Too

With 50 percent of our visitors coming from cruise ships, our downtown economy catered to this group, often led by large corporate interests. Higher rents near the port leading to either chains or trinket shops, with inexpensive items made elsewhere, crowded out opportunities for venues that cater to locals and long-stay visitors. Cruise ship kick-back schemes drive profits down for local business owners. When cruise ship visitors spend an average of $32 per person and other travelers spend an average of $550, having the day trippers crowd out overnight stays and locals doesn’t make good economic sense. 

The economy goes back to the environment though. People come here for the crystal-clear waters, good fishing, and clean air. If we allow that to be ruined, no one is coming here period. 

“For many travelers, the current lack of cruise ships already makes the idyllic southernmost point of the United States all the more worth visiting.

Gilbert Ott; Key West Shuns Cruise Ships in Bold New Tourism Move

Duval Street & Historic Downtown Suffered from Mass Tourism

Travel research around the globe points to mass tourism or day travelers scaring away higher value overnight tourists and locals too. The old Yogi Berra truism of “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” is apt here. Anecdotally we’ve all heard locals and snowbirds say they avoid Duval Street and parts of downtown because of the crowds. People in lodging have heard the same from their guests. So, the T-shirt, trinket and quick alcoholic places have crowded out other businesses and exacerbated the cycle because then the local people say there’s no place worth going to on main street. It’s a viscous downward cycle catering to the bottom. 

“The home-grown economy & culture are why we moved to Key West from the mainland. The stronger they are, the more appealing Key West itself is—and the more interesting it is to the world. Mass tourism only drags us down in the eyes of the very visitors we want to attract.” 

Local Business Owner Louis Raymond
This quick story says that Mass Tourism causes overcrowding, pollution, ricing prices and bad behavior.

People Fondly Recall an Earlier, Simpler More Resident Centered Time on Duval Street

As the pandemic unfolded last year and the wonderfully thoughtful Reimagining Key West Facebook group sprang to life, helping to cheer on Safer, Cleaner Ships, we heard countless stories about a bygone Key West that was simpler, less crowded and more about our residents. And how that attracted amazing long-term visitors who appreciated being among the locals. Here’s how longtime local artist John Martini describes a time many recall fondly:

Towards the middle and later part of the 70’s local entrepreneurs started to open small boutiques, bookstores, theaters, guest houses, galleries, restaurants, café, and bars. There was a wide selection of stores, many offering a personal and unique approach to marketing. Alongside the already existing business’s things began to brighten for Duval Street.

We moved Lucky Street Gallery from Margaret St. to the 900 block of Duval around 1983. On one side of the gallery there was a swimming suit designer/retailer and on the other a fine Italian restaurant. Next to that was Savannah, an iconic Key West restaurant. Down the block one way was Fast Buck Freddie’s and Environmental Circus and up the street Lawrence Formica’s La te da and lots in between. The visitors, often long stay, were generally engaged and taken with the bohemian atmosphere, the clear air and ocean, the ability to access a wide variety of outdoor activities and often ended the day in one of the many restaurants, bars or clubs. Locals and visitors were comfortable roaming Duval Street during the day and evening. Local merchants profited and the changes extended further up Duval. 

In the late 80’s things began to change. The powers to be decided that mass tourism, with numerous short time tourists over the long stay tourism that existed at the time, would suit their business interests better than the laissez fare nature of what was then a lively Duval Street. Along come the cruise ships around the same period. My Lucky Street Gallery was forced off Duval around 1993 and the street went through a radical change as mass tourism and cruise ship aligned stores and chains replaced the established local merchants. It did not have to be that way.” 

Longtime Local Artist John Martini
Biking in Key West in the 1970’s.

I tried to sum up the thread of what we were hearing at the time with this post: Reimagining Key West – 10 Things We Should Strive For and 10 Ways To Get There, April 22, 2020. The crux of the story was: a simpler, less crowded, locals-centric Key West, a place where Mom n Pop shops rule; a community that respects, protects and celebrates our natural environment; a culture where creativity and the arts flourish; a veneration for our historic district; stewardship of our history, storied characters and One Human Family spirit; a Main Street that brings back locals; an island that is easy to get around by biking and a downtown less congested with cars. We went on to importantly add: 

“We DO want to share all this with visitors. But we want visitors that can appreciate what our island has to offer on its own terms and merits without the expectation of mass culture or consumption that degrades all we’re trying to preserve, protect and enhance. If visitors can’t respect these terms, we should ask them to go elsewhere.”

An Authentic, Real and Local Focused Downtown

Most visitors, to any destination, not just Key West, crave an authentic, real place that the locals love. So, by catering to those of us who live and work here, and that includes people who live here part-time, you get that real, authentic experience that visitors appreciate. They don’t want chains and stuff they can get at home, and they really don’t want tourist trap places either. Visitors don’t want to be treated as tourists, they want to blend and be part of the scene. So, we need to help local, authentic places that cater to residents thrive. 

That means art spaces, galleries, live theaters and movie theaters, whimsical shops, bars, restaurants, dance halls, cabarets, food trucks, clothing, shoes, furniture, housewares, hardware, bakeries, butchers, grocery stores, little bodegas, and everything anyone can imagine. 

On the God Save the Points Travel Blog they wrote of Key West passing the referenda: 

“Sustainable tourism is a key new focus in the modern world, but so is the “quality” of the tourism. How much better would a destination be if it could reduce overcrowding by losing 50% of the visitors, while finding another way to bring back 8% of lost money with a fraction of the people? Much travel research done in Santorini, Venice and other popular cruise ports, all signs point to a new era of sustainable travel, with more focus on creating the best travel experience for the guests which make the most positive impact on local communities.”

Says another travel blog, Tourism Tiger: 

“The local experience trend means many tourists now want to travel like locals, and to immerse themselves in the culture, traditions, and language of a place. As more and more people grow tired of resorts and standard vacations, there has been a shift towards wanting to see the “real” side of the destinations they visit. And this is a trend that is only going to continue growing.”

Local color.

Local Focused = More People Living Downtown

Local focused should also mean bringing more people to downtown to live because more people downtown let our local businesses thrive even more. Perhaps with less day visitors some downtown buildings and parking lots can be repurposed for living and affordable housing. A good example is that awful parking lot on Duval at United.

And more people living downtown creates the ability to get around by bike, walk and transit. So local focused means ‘streets for people’ focused, which makes for a more interesting place, because nobody thinks car-parking is interesting.

July 12 City Commission Meeting and Duval Revitalization Study Offer Opportunity to Reimagine Our Downtown as Locals Focused

While we can’t go back to the 1970’s and 80’s, we can plan for a better future. It just so happens that we have two upcoming opportunities to do just that.

The first opportunity begins July 12 when the City Commission holds a Special Meeting on what to do in the wake of the State Legislature and Governor rescinding the Key West Cruise Ship Referenda. Without City Commission action limiting large cruise ships the second point is moot. If the Commission heeds the will of the people and figures this out, then the Duval Street Revitalization Study is the second opportunity.

Mayor Johnston has touted the need for Duval Street revitalization since she first ran for Mayor. She generated the Mall on Duval pilot which begat the study. We understand an RFP to hire a study consultant is forthcoming. The Commission needs to redouble their efforts on this important project as it is woefully behind schedule. It offers a chance for residents and businesses to rechart Duval Street’s future as more of a traditional Main Street catering to locals, snowbirds and longer-stay visitors instead of needing to accommodate the crush of cruise ship visitors. Let’s support Mayor Johnston’s efforts.

# # #

You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / Mayor Bravely Puts Onus on Commission to Do Heavy Lifting on Better Bike, Walk and Transit. Will They Come Through?

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on July 2, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

The City Commission received a final draft of the fourth of six priorities for its “Key West Forward Strategic Plan” on June 15. The “Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness” plank, full of bike, transit, pedestrian, and parking friendly projects, as well as a study and policy changes, shows some real promise. But the plan seems to rest on solving a heretofore unsolved problem of finding enough bus drivers for Key West Transit. Mayor Teri Johnston gamely said “The answer is us (referring to everyone on the dais). Are we willing to spend the money that gets us there? The limiting factor is us and what we’re willing to commit to.” We applaud Mayor Johnston for putting the onus on herself and the Commissioners. Let’s look at the plan, what’s good, bad, and missing and analyze the chances for it bringing about needed change. 

Key West Forward Strategic Plan

Mayor Johnson ran on a platform that included developing a strategic plan and she’s been coming through on this item with the excellent help of the plan’s amazing consultant Elisa Levy, the City Manager, staff, and citizens. 

City of Key West Transit, Engineering, Parking, Planning and Sustainability directors and staff teamed up over a period of months to work on the “Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness” element of the strategic plan. Their work was vetted with a couple focus groups and some local bike and transit advocates (including me). All of this was coordinated by Elisa Levy who has already completed and presented final drafts for Affordable Housing, Sea Level Rise, and Cleanliness. Environmental Protection and Pavement Management will be finished over the next month or so, ensuring the entire Key West Forward plan will be submitted to the City Commission at its August 17 meeting for approval. 

If you’ve read the drafts and seen Ms. Levy’s presentations, you know that some excellent work is being done. The Key West Forward Plan is being completed in little more than 8 months, following on the heels of completing an excellent Key West Recovers – 17-Point Business and Humanitarian Covid Recovery Plan for 2020 – 2021 that came out last October. Here’s video of Ms. Levy’s presentation to the Commissioners and here’s the PowerPoint she used to explain the plan.

The Good News

When Ms. Levy presented to Commissioners, she started with the “good news” that 15% of us Key West residents’ bike to work and 8% walk. She also shared that this element relies upon some excellent recently adopted plans including the Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan adopted in March 2019, the Key West Transit 10-Year Development Plan, adopted at the end of 2019 and a Parking and Alternative Transportation Report done in 2018. But even with the good news, there’s lots of work still to do.

Community Survey Rates Traffic and Parking Very Low

The entire Key West Forward Strategic Plan is built upon the findings of a January, 2021 Key West Community Survey of 3,776 respondents. This is how the six major priorities were identified as well as which projects were most prioritized by citizens and which city services and amenities were rated as lacking and needing improvement. Of 18 city services or issues ‘traffic flow’ came in ranked at 16 and ‘parking’ came in at 17. The only thing ranked lower was ‘affordable housing.’ The sad thing is that although ‘public transportation’ was asked to be rated by the 3,776 residents, so few used it that they responded “I don’t know” on the questions and so it couldn’t even be rated and ranked. This shows you how far transit must go to improve here in Key West.

The survey also pointed out that Key West residents are highly motivated about reducing our carbon footprint. 

How We Reduce Congestion and Our Carbon Footprint

Ms. Levy noted that Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness is a priority because we’re so congested. She pointed out that Key West is one of the nation’s top 5 destinations and that our average monthly airport arrivals have jumped from fewer than 50,000 to 70,000. The solution to reducing congestion and our carbon footprint? Discourage driving and encourage use of alternatives like bike, walk and transit by making them easier to use. 

The consultant said that to make real progress Key West would need to both make it harder to drive and easier and safer to bike, walk and transit. But that this plan mostly relies on trying to make the alternatives easier because if we make it harder to drive, we don’t really have a viable transit alternative for people. She said if we take something away or provide disincentives to driving than we must provide more vibrant and frequent public transit because lots of people can’t bike or walk. And we can’t provide transit that’s good enough to get people to switch from driving to transit because we can’t find enough bus drivers, as there’s a labor shortage. And here’s where the Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness element begins to lose some of its promise and luster, which we’ll address in the analysis. 

The Plan for Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness

The Plan for Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness to “improve the ease and safety of residents and visitors as they traverse the island” includes four goals:

Goal 1: Bike and Pedestrian Routes

– Bike and walking trails, bike racks, wayfinding, design and build Wicker Bike Trail and Crosstown Greenway Phase 2
– Sidewalk repair, safe crossings, and intersections
– E-mobility devices, street trees and a reverse angle parking pilot

Goal 2: Public Transit

– More frequent (every thirty minutes on North and South Lines and every hour on Lower Keys shuttle) bus service
– Maps at stops, transit app, WIFI on buses
– Retain drivers

Goal 3: Parking

– Explore: Intermodal Center, rooftop parking, one-way streets
– Parking app, pay by phone
– Reverse angle parking pilot

Goal 4: Carbon Footprint

– Mobility study
– Public education
– Policy and code changes
– Electric buses
– Dynamic/raised parking rates

Analysis – Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

The draft plan focuses on the coming year. As such it concentrates on items that can realistically be completed in that timeframe. But even this limiting factor seems a bit ambitious given the recent resignation of the Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator Tim Staub, whose last day at the City is July 30. (Tim is leaving to go to grad school. This is a big loss for the City.) If they could accomplish half the items in here within 12 months that would be a good thing because there’s some solid projects in the plan.

Goal 1 – Ensure Safer and More Accessible Bike and Pedestrian Routes
Will anything get done in the next year because of Mr. Staub’s departure?

Doing Phase 2 of the Crosstown Greenway and constructing the Wicker Bike Trail, also on the Greenway, would go a long way towards making this important path through the middle of the city the best option to use from points north into town and vice versa because it is so much safer than N. Roosevelt Boulevard. More bike racks are needed everywhere, especially in the busy Duval Street corridor so if the City spends the allocated money and purchases and installs some racks that’s a good thing. But much of the bicycle and pedestrian elements in the plan are labeled as “TBD” or to be determined and we’re afraid the fact that Mr. Staub or a committee (TCT) is designated as the responsible party means things won’t get done because no one, high-ranking person is responsible.

With all the talk during the last couple of years of pedestrianizing Duval and some adjacent streets, experimenting with Mall on Duval, for putting in wider people-oriented sidewalks, for installing parklets and for slowing down the commercial streets so they can be used for people, art, trees, vendors, water fountains and more, we found it odd this plan remains silent on all these elements. Especially when 2 of 3 residents in the survey said they favored closing parts of Duval for pedestrian traffic on evenings and/or weekends. Our hope is this oversight will be rectified by the time the plan is adopted and that a similar commitment to the Duval Street Revitalization Study is made in the document.

Goal 2: Improve Public Transit
Will we continue to say “we can’t find bus drivers” because we’re not willing to pay market rate for this important position?

Currently on the North and South ‘City’ Lines the wait between buses is between 80 and 90 minutes and on the Lower Keys Shuttle is between 90 and 120 minutes (see “Sustainability Board Wants to Make Free Frequent and Simple Transit a Reality, February 6, 2021 for details). So, for the Plan to target 30-minute arrivals on the North and South Lines and 60 minutes on the Lower Keys Shuttle is a difference maker that should be applauded. But Elisa seemed to hedge the bet on this getting done citing the ‘labor shortage’ in Key West. 

Mayor Johnston said that during discussions with staff and stakeholders everyone agreed that to really get people out of cars we needed to get the frequency down to 15 minutes, so no one is 100% satisfied with not meeting that threshold. But targeting 30 minutes seems the best anyone can hope to do this year. We agree with the Mayor that 15-minute frequencies are needed but if the City can really get to 30 during the next fiscal year that begins October 1, 2021, we’ll count that as progress.

What the plan should do is identify a 20-minute frequency target in year two and a 15-minute goal the next on the North and South Lines as well as keep chipping away at the Lower Keys Shuttle by targeting 60 minutes in year 1, 45-minutes in year 2 and 30 minutes in year 3. By year 4 Key West Transit should also begin to implement more of the additional “Loop” and “Connector” routes promised in the 10-Year Transit Development Plan

To get any of this done the City will need to raise the pay to attract drivers. Currently the starting pay for non-CDL (commercial drivers license) is $15 an hour and for CDL drivers it is $16.89. Yes, the City offers health, vacation and pension benefits, but these hourly wages are simply too low for such an important position. That’s why these positions have gone unfilled for years. Historic Tours of America or HTA offers a starting salary of $20 plus gratuities and similarly generous benefits to drive its Conch Train and Trolley buses and often seems to be paying a signing bonus. Key West Transit must at least match what HTA is doing to compete. So why won’t they?

Maps at the bus stops with route and schedule information is a must so it is a good step they are finally committing to this. We’ve written about this before and will refer you to that article for why this is so important (The Sorry State of Key West Bus Stops – We Just Don’t Care; April 2, 2021). And while we think the plan elements of WIFI on the buses and a ‘Key West Transit App’ are nice, what the plan is missing is a commitment for a real marketing program (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things Key West Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership; April 9, 2021). For Key West Transit not to have a full-time marketing person is indefensible. If an FTE isn’t feasible, contract the function out like the Key West Historic Seaport does. Either way they need to get it done.

Goal 3: Parking Improvements
Well at least we aren’t adding additional free parking spaces, so less is more.

Making parking ‘easier’ to find and pay for, for those who do drive, is a good goal. Especially when that doesn’t mean making it more plentiful and free – because that induces more people to drive and just works against reducing congestion and our carbon footprint. So, studying a Key West Intermodal Center on Stock Island is a good thing. As is looking into one-way streets and reverse angle parking if it slows the street down leading to safer streets for bicycles and pedestrians or even frees up some street space for people.

We like the idea for a parking app for drivers to identify spaces available in parking garages to prevent circling (congestion). The app should be supplemented by more wayfinding around town to direct people to the same places because not all visitors will already have the app on their phone when they arrive. More pay by phone is also a good element of the plan.

What else is missing besides wayfinding? Well for starters the plan should likely commit to more Parking Enforcement personnel for the Parking Department. The case can certainly be made that these staff pay for themselves and then maybe we wouldn’t have carpetbaggers coming into town claiming they can make the City more money by getting rid of the department (Monorail, Monorail, Monorail or Just Say No to Privatizing Key West Parking; June 25, 2021).

There’s also no attempt of any kind at real parking reform. As we’ve discussed in these two stories: (Getting the Parking Right Leads to Streets for People – Part 1: Nobody Goes there Anymore. It’s Too Crowded – Six Reasons for Right Pricing Parking March 12, 2021; Getting the Parking Right Leads to Streets for People – Part 2: Battling Our Inner George Costanza – Ten Things We Can Do in Downtown Key West to Get the Parking Right March 19, 2021), downtown Key West has about 3,000 on-street parking spaces, one third are free and one third are nearly free ($0.05 cents a day) with a Residential Parking Permit. The balance are metered spaces. Until this abundance of free and underpriced parking is addressed, we’ll continue to have people cruising and causing congestion looking for these spaces, limiting turnover for retail and encouraging visitors and workers to use these spaces instead of long-term lots. We discussed 10 ways Key West could address this problem. NONE of these ideas is being put forward in the plan. That’s sad.

Goal 4: Reduce the Island’s Carbon Footprint
We Can Start by Educating People on Bike, Walk and Transit

We applaud the Plan for acknowledging the need for a mobility study. More information is always better. But given the timeline for expected completion in 2023 this line item will have no impact in the next few years. I mean the Duval Street Revitalization Study was to be half completed by now and is back out for yet another RFP, so it gives us pause at starting yet another study. But we do have excellent and recent Bike/Ped and Transit plans – so perhaps we should just concentrate on getting these already completed documents implemented.

Yes, we need electric buses. Good idea. Yes, we applaud changes to our land-use code to remove minimum parking requirements. Its time has come. And yes, by all means let’s raise parking meter rates and the price of Residential Parking Permits. All needed. All good things. 

By far, the most immediately impactful and cost-effective item on this list could be ‘Public Information Efforts to Encourage Methods of Green Transportation.’ At the moment there is nearly zero marketing efforts by Key West Transit nor the Bike/Ped program. Studies show encouragement programs lift the use of these services by 15 to 50%. And their cost, relative to providing the service or putting in the infrastructure, is peanuts. This is the easy stuff. We’ll spend a million dollars plus for a bus or for a quarter of a mile of road but spending a few hundred thousand annually on marketing is deemed excessive. It is penny wise and pound foolish not to educate people how to use your bus and bicycle systems. We need to target employers and lodging with information on alternatives so they can influence their employees and guests respectively too.

Using the City’s wonderful but only public information officer to do the work associated with encouraging people to use green transportation, in addition to everything else she’s already doing for the Police Department and entire government, is silly. Here’s what the work entails. And that work isn’t simply putting out the occasional PR piece and Facebook post. It is marketing. It is also unrealistic to say that there’s no cost for this effort other than funds already available for the PIO’s use. Rather, the PIO should have a contractor, like what the Key West Historic Seaport uses, as well as a similar budget ($250,000) for this effort. THAT would show some serious effort and might move the needle. Otherwise, this is simply window dressing.

The Glass is Half Full

Despite the above caveats of what’s lacking in the plan, we’d say the glass is half full because we have excellent and current Bike/Ped and Transit TDP Plans on the books and adopted by the Commission. The Key West Forward Strategic Plan Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness focuses those efforts and City staff’s time over the next year. It gives us citizens an easy road map to ascertain whether what they said will be accomplished, is or isn’t.  

With the Onus on the Commission – Let’s Root for the Mayor to Succeed

The Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness element is a good start. And it is built upon forward looking, progressive and detailed Bike/PedTransit TDP and Parking and Alternative Transportation Group plans. It has buy in of City staff and has been developed alongside the City Manager and Mayor. That gives it a chance to succeed. Commissioner Sam Kaufman asked the question: “How many years have we been talking about bikes and adding bus frequency? Do we even have the capacity to do this?” 

He’s right. Without the commitment of money for bus driver pay, projects, infrastructure, and studies and without the commitment of enough money in staff and consultants to do the work, and for the guts to occasionally remove parking so we can install good bike lanes, implementation will fall short. 

Mayor Johnston bravely answered Mr. Kaufman’s question with a call to arms saying: “The answer is us (referring to herself and the Commissioners on the dais).  Are we willing to spend the money that get us there? The limiting factor is us and what we’re willing to commit to.” Amen to that!

As budget season rolls around over the next few months, let’s give the Mayor and Commission the support and room to commit the money and resources to get the Traffic and Parking Friendliness element of the Strategic Plan implemented. That means we won’t be able to reduce taxes and we may need to prioritize these things over others. But with the citizens backing we may find the Commission is finally willing to commit the money to a better bike, walk and transit future for our island. We’ll know the answer in a few short months. Let’s root for the Mayor and Commission to succeed.

# # #

You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / Monorail, Monorail, Monorail or Just Say No to Privatizing Key West Parking

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on June 25, 2021and is reprinted here with permission. 

On Tuesday, June 15 the City Commission heard a pitch from United Parking Partners’ Florida subsidiary FLParkingCo to privatize the City’s Parking Department, lessening the operational burden of our local government while bringing in oodles of guaranteed cash to Key West. The scene in City Hall reminded us of the Simpsons episode (Marge vs. the Monorail) where fast-talking salesman Lyle Lanley convinces the good townspeople of Springfield to buy a monorail system. Look, using private contractors has its place. Turning over our public streets and an important revenue source isn’t one of them. The City Commission should just say no to privatizing the Parking Department. Here’s why…

“Parking Ambassadors”

Lyle Lanley, I mean Dan McNutt, CEO of FLParkingCo, kept talking about Parking Ambassadors, as if they were highly trained concierges roving our streets and spreading joy. I suppose it sounds better than “Certified Parking Enforcement Specialists,” the current City staff designation, but come on now ambassadors? Really? “Right this way Sir and we’ll show you to your personal parking spot. Oh, let me get the door for you. Do you need directions?” 

Of the Parking Ambassadors, the presentation said: “FLParkingCo will staff the operation with fully vetted and trained parking ambassadors, who will serve the City of Key West stakeholders, residents and visitors with the highest level of professionalism and dedication.” When you use euphemisms and double-speak like these for the people doing the enforcing and writing the tickets, you know something’s up.  

Lyle Lanley in Season 4, Episode 12, Marge vs. the Monorail

FLParkingCo Goals Are Flimflam 

Mr. McNutt’s presentation focused on two goals. The first is generating revenue by “managing a well-designed and properly maintained paid parking program available to the residents and visitors.” Hmmm… I wonder why our Parking Department never thought of that. How this differs from the current approach, wasn’t explained.

They also discussed a second lofty goal of “Improve the Parking Experience.” This goal seems to rest with those wonderous Parking Ambassadors as their presentation says on how they’ll improve the parking experience: “Hire, train, and staff the City of Key West’s parking program with qualified and screened personnel, who will serve as ‘Parking Ambassadors’ and adjudicate paid parking citations on a professional and friendly basis.” To implement this goal the presentation provides 3 objectives as follows:

  • “Develop a staffing plan in conjunction with seasonal demand and City needs
  • Prepare professional Parking Ambassadors to execute the program
  • Institute process-driven and value-add program focused on the highest levels of user satisfaction”

That’s it? How in the world does this “improve the parking experience?” More euphemisms and double-talk add up to flimflam.

Financials Don’t Add Up

The basic pitch is that FLParkingCo is offering the City of Key West a guaranteed $10M a year and 50% of the net profits above $10M to take over the functions of the Parking Department. Ohhhh… Ahhhh…. $10 million guaranteed. Sounds promising, eh? Well let’s look a bit more closely at the numbers.

FLParkingCo presented a six-year look at the City Parking Department’s financials from 2016 through a projected 2021. The spreadsheet included in their presentation shows the Department steadily increasing revenue from $6.2M in 2016 to a projected $10M in 2021. So, the City Parking Department is already hitting $10 million a year and they want Key West to share 50% of the profits above that? That’s the deal? Really?

Interestingly their spreadsheet only includes “gross terminal” or meter revenue. Where’s the revenue from tickets? Where’s the revenue from permits? Add in those numbers and the City’s Parking Department, which together in a typical year bring in between $1 and $1.5 million and you are already bringing in well more than $11 million. So, was FLParkingCo being deceptive in not showing the whole number?

According to the presentation spreadsheet the profit margin or Net Operating Income (NOI) for each year is in the high 80 percent range. And as we said, that doesn’t even include ticket and permit revenue. So, the City is already very efficient at this parking thing – spending a little over $1M in operating expenses for the Parking Department and bringing in about $11.5M total. Why on earth would we turn it over to a for profit concern and make potentially less? 

FLParkingCo Doesn’t Have a History of Operating Municipal Parking

A look at FLParkingCo and their parent company Unified Parking Partners shows they operate parking for hotels and restaurants, hospitals, airports, commercial buildings and event parking. No doubt they do a very fine job in all cases as their testimonials attest to. But neither site provides examples about operating programs for cities. When Mayor Johnston asked Mr. McNutt about this, he said they didn’t operate any cities in Florida, but they do have some in other states. We couldn’t find them. 

The Public Interest Isn’t Served 

Regardless of the numbers or even if a private company could potentially bring Key West more revenue via privatization, it’s a bad idea to turn over a public asset to a private monopoly. Says the think tank Sustainable Cities about Parking Meters and the Perils of Privatization:

“Parking spots are the curb lane of your streets. Your streets are the primary public space in your city. They are intimately connected with everything that happens in the city, which is one reason parking policy is so politically controversial. On street parking – in contrast to garages, which are very different – is a fundamental and integral element of urban planning policy. In effect, these deals aren’t about just parking spots, they are assigning a property right interest in the biggest component of public space in the city to a private monopoly that doesn’t have the public’s best interests at heart… management of public space is, along with public safety, schools, and taxation, one of the single most important factors contributing to the attractiveness of a city as a place to live and do business. In an innovation era, in an era of ever more rapid change, locking yourself into a fixed policy for public space is a terrible mistake.”

We agree. Would having a contract with a private company preclude the City from removing parking spaces for bike lanes? How about taking away a few spots for parklets? Reducing a few spaces for sight line purposes or delivery services? What happens when there are special events and metered parking is temporarily unavailable? What happens if the City wants to expand Residential Permit Parking? Would the City have to reimburse the FLParkingCo for the “loss” of revenue in these cases as happens with the disastrous privatizing of city parking in Chicago?

Presumably the City Commission still would set the rate for meters, garages and permits. But when the City raises the fee, 50% of that money goes directly to the bottom line of the company, not the City.

What happens when the private company, in a rush to generate revenue goes on a predatory enforcement binge? Who takes those outraged calls? And can City Commissioners simply say well I’m sorry we don’t have control over that anymore? Not likely. Commissioners will get the blame but have no redress. 

From the Season 9, Episode 1, The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.

Let Shelbyville Hire FLParkingCo, Key West Should Just Say No

At the end of FLParkingCo’s presentation, I half expected Dan McNutt to say, as Lyle Lanely said to Mayor Quimby and the people of Springfield, “I come before you good people tonight with an idea. Probably the greatest…Aw, it’s not for you. It’s more a Shelbyville idea.” In the Simpsons episode Mayor Quimby quickly says, “Now, wait just a minute. We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.”

But when Mayor Johnston asked for questions to the presenter, she was met with crickets from the rest of the Commissioners on the dais. The Mayor asked a question, but the way she asked it, seemed like she was just being polite. One got the sense, that unlike the people of Springfield, the Key West Commission wasn’t impressed by this presentation. Either were we. Let’s hope this idea never sees the light of day.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / New City Manager Will Be Good for Bike, Walk, Transit and for Key West

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on June 18, 2021and is reprinted here with permission.

On Tuesday night the City Commission ended their search for a new city manager by naming Interim City Manager Patti McLauchlin to the job. Ms. McLauchlin is an excellent choice and has the potential to deliver in making our little island more bike, walk, transit and streets for people friendly. Everyone should be excited for a promising next few years. Here’s why.

She’s Already Doing a Great Job

On Tuesday night Mayor Johnston said “I don’t think any of us could ever have imagined what you’ve accomplished in your first three months as interim city manager, but it has been outstanding. We know you’re going to lead this community in a moral, equitable way and I can’t tell you how proud I am of you.” 

Says longtime Key West good government advocate and member of the Parks and Recreation Board Roger McVeigh of the new City Manager: “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.”

She and Mayor Johnston Appear in Sync

For those of us observing city hall, it has been obvious since her appointment as Assistant City Manager in 2019 that Patti McLauchlin is in sync with Mayor Teri Johnston. We’ve noticed a redoubled effort to bring staff along with the mayor’s efforts since her Interim appointment. There’s an obvious and easy rapport between the two public servants and that bodes well for our issues.

As we’ve documented here (Key West Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People Top 10 Stories of 2020 – #2: Teri Johnston’s Re-Election Moves Our Issues Forward; January 2, 2021), here (#4 Duval Street Revitalization Project Brings Hope to Downtown; December 28, 2020) here (Grading the Candidates on Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People: Mayor’s Race; July 24, 2020) here (Key West Releases 17-Point Covid Recovery Plan; October 21, 2020), here (Duval Street Revitalization Moves Forward; June 10, 2020 and here (2019 Top 10: #4 Mall on Duval; December 27, 2019) we believe Mayor Johnston gets it. As we said earlier in the year of the mayor:

“A Covid Recovery Plan, a Strategic Plan, a Duval Street Revitalization Plan and an understanding of and willingness to act bravely on bike, walk, transit and streets for people by our mayor, gives us hope for our little island’s future.”

Having a City Manager who thinks similarly and who knows how to engage the bureaucracy to action will only help Mayor Johnston accomplish her progressive vision. Mayor Johnston wins with Patti’s selection. Which means we all win.

Patti’s Been the Point on Recent Planning Efforts

The City’s Covid Recovery Plan and Strategic Planning (Key West Forward) efforts envisioned and championed by Mayor Johnston and most excellently executed by Elisa Levy have one big thing in common. Patti McLauchlin has been their point person. She’s at every meeting and makes sure to round up the right staff. She’s a constant presence in moving this forward. She has been and continues to be the point person on both plans. Anyone who has participated in these programs has come away impressed and hopeful that we’re finally getting somewhere. Credit the new City Manager for being able to bring it all together.

Adds City Hall observer Roger McVeigh: “Working closely with Mayor Teri Johnston, Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy and seasoned Finance Director Mark Finigan, Patti is well on her way to developing a Fiscal 2022 budget that, for the first time during my almost 20-year tenure in Key West, reflects the priorities of the citizens.”

She Even Righted the Ship on Café Permits

Recently the City announced tighter code compliance with Sidewalk Café Permits. While it seems officials just wanted to get a handle on making sure businesses were complying with ADA clearance rule, insurance requirements and paying the proper fees, business owners and residents noticed the contradiction in that these restaurants were doing a good thing by enlivening our downtown streets and said so on Facebook. Patti McLauchlin noticed too. She quickly called a June 8 public meeting to discuss and review the issue. THAT’S the kind of good communications and thinking we need to see more of from management.

Our New City Manager Will Continue to Make Our Island a Better Place

Patti McLauchlin is a people person, a planner, and a proven doer. She’s tireless. She’s in sync with our Mayor Johnston and she’s beloved by City staff. THAT’S a recipe for success across the board. It means over the next few years we’ll be willing to bet that bike, walk, transit and streets for people issues will get a fair shake. And that gives us hope. 

I’m going to end with my good friend Roger’s words about Patti as they are so appropriate: “It is refreshing to see the City appoint a calm, considerate, thoughtful and dedicated leader who understands she works for us. Patti sets the perfect example for all City Directors and City Staff to follow. I have no doubt that Patti is the leader, the right person at the right time, that can achieve the needed accountability and lead City Staff to a true rebirth of Key West.”

Amen to that Roger! Congratulations to our new City Manager, Patti McLaughlin.

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Photo credit: Dorian Patton

You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / PeopleForBikes Ranks Key West 39th Best City for Bicycling

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and published for KONK Life newspaper June 11, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

On June 3 PeopleForBikes released its 2021 City Ratings expanding internationally for the first time for this its fourth annual iteration. The City of Key West received a score of 58 on a 100-point scale which earned it 39th place of 767 cities measured and 10th place in the Small U.S. Cities category. An improvement over last year’s #115 ranking. Pretty darn good! We’re small, flat and have good weather, so lots of us ride bikes. That’s the reason for our relatively high score. We asked some local leaders about what the rating means and dug deeper into the scoring for some analysis. Here’s what we found and what it means for bicycling’s future in Key West.

The PeopleForBikes Annual City Ratings = Tough Standards

For the first time PeopleForBikes included 30 European, 45 Canadian, and 25 Australian cities. It also expanded its list of U.S. places from 567 to 660. They also simplified the scorecard and went to a 100-point scale rather than a 5-point scale used in previous years. Last year in 2020, the City received a score of 1.9, ranking it #115 (Key West #115 in Best Cities for Bikes List, June 10, 2020). In 2019 it received a 1.9 and garnered a 2.1 in the annual list’s first year in 2018

The City Ratings are a data-driven approach to evaluate and compare bicycling in cities that can help leaders pinpoint improvements to make biking better for everyone. This year’s ratings draw from two key factors: the quality of the bicycle network in a region (Network Score) and community perceptions of bicycling (Community Score). The first is sourced from the PeopleForBikes Bicycle Network Analysis, the second from online surveys submitted by local residents and advocates about bicycling in their city. The simplified ratings allow PeopleForBikes to compare U.S. cities with the best places around the world. Being able to benchmark against the best allows places to set the bar high.

PeopleForBikes says: “While a score of 52 might seem low, cities with scores of 50 or more demonstrate higher ridership, improved safety and greater access than their peers. That being said, most U.S. cities will fall short of world-class examples of integrated bicycling in places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. By offering a comparison to some of the world’s great bike cities, we hope to inspire and motivate others to accelerate their bike infrastructure and programs that get people on bikes.”

Having tough standards set by some of the best cities in the world like Utrecht (83), Amsterdam (81), Copenhagen (80), and Paris (66), helps explain how a seemingly low score of 58 is still able to get Key West to the top of the lists. 22 cities in the U.S., including Key West (39th), came in the top 50 internationally, but again, the international sample was very small and used mostly for demonstration purposes.

Key West’s Score – Bicycle Network Analysis

This is the Network Score for Key West. “The Bicycle Network Analysis, or BNA, is a data analysis tool that measures the quality and connectivity of a city’s bicycle lanes — in other words, its bike network. A bicycle network is defined as the system of paths, trails and streets that someone riding a bike can use to access everyday destinations, like:

  • Neighborhoods — access to parts of the city where residents live.
  • Opportunity — access to jobs and schools.
  • Essential Services — access to places that serve basic needs, like hospitals and grocery stores.
  • Recreation — access to recreational amenities like parks and trails.
  • Retail — access to major shopping centers.
  • Transit— access to major transit stations.”

Key West, at 4 miles long, 1 mile wide and a total of 4.2 squares miles, is small. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that access from where people live to where they work, go to school, shop and play is all relatively close. In most cities, this simply isn’t the case, especially as most towns aren’t surrounded by water but have sprawling suburbs. Our numbers are generally above 50. Which is good. The exception of course is transit. And it isn’t that you can’t get to transit by bike, rather the low score is a reflection of the awful transit service or transit score that we have here on the island. So that part of the score won’t improve till our transit does. (Sustainability Board Wants to Make Free, Frequent and Simple Key West Transit a Reality; February 6, 2021)

The Network Analysis Map below (methodology explained here) shows high-stress (red) and low-stress (blue) areas for bicycling in Key West. This map looks like there are a lot of high stress areas, especially on some of the major streets. So, we’re surprised by the high BNA score and think some of it may have to do with the way the analysis aggregates the data by Census Block and thus mitigates some of the red. Also, we suppose if you avoid the red streets, you can get around most everywhere, and that’s true, but you really have to work at it to avoid these red streets. 

We hope to explore this map in the future to document where change is needed. For example, the First and Bertha Streets Corridor stands out here as high stress, is labeled in the Bike/Ped Plan for protected bike lanes and yet as the street is being rebuilt, will get no new bicycle infrastructure (First and Bertha Streets Corridor Road Improvements Are Another Missed Opportunity to Make Bicycling Safe and Easier; June 4, 2021).

Key West’s Score – Community Score and Survey

Each year, PeopleForBikes conducts an online survey to capture perceptions of biking from people that live, work and play in the cities being rated. We’ve often promoted this survey on our Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown Facebook page. The Community Score is based on a 100-point scale derived from four equally weighted scoring categories: Ridership, Safety, Network and Awareness. Answers to questions in these four categories provide valuable insight into how often people ride bikes for transportation and recreational purposes, how safe they feel riding a bike in their community, whether the local bike network helps them reach useful destinations and if they are aware of nearby bicycling resources. Here’s Key West’s Community Score:

As we said at the top of the story, lots of people in Key West ride bikes to get around. They’ve told this to PeopleForBikes in the survey and this is reflected in the score of 72 for ridership. The survey’s also saying, as is reflected in the 65 Network score, that we’re able to get where we need to go on a bicycle. However, Key West’s low score of 43 on Safety means people in the survey are telling PeopleForBikes we don’t exactly feel safe getting around. The awful 34 score on “awareness of biking resources and our city’s efforts to improve biking” is the weakest score of all. 

The Awareness and Safety scores jives with our and other’s analysis that we score well here in Key West because we’re small, flat and warm. Not particularly because of anything the City of Key West is doing. 

What Leaders in Key West Are Saying About the City Ratings

We asked some Key West leaders and bicycle advocates what they thought about the Key West’s score and ranking. We also asked bike rental owners an additional question, if they are seeing more people biking these days and what that means for their business. Here’s what they had to say:

Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman:

“Key West is so special and unique. We live where you can traverse our island by bike and get to anything with a tremendous amount to do and see – all available by bicycle. Add the welcoming nature of our residents, the local cultures, the great restaurants and entertainment- all accessible by bike too. Most of our roads have a low-speed limit which is bike friendly. Also, many KW residents rely upon bikes as their sole form of transportation creating spaces where most drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists alike are accustomed to sharing the roads, sidewalks and paths. Although Key West certainly could use improvements to bicycle infrastructure, locals and visitors alike can travel most areas safely and relatively quickly. No other place offers the awesome beauty of the water and nature with all of the above. We love Key West and so do visitors on bicycles!!”

Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen, bicycle advocate and owner of BikeMan Bike Rentals:

“There are tons of people on the island and that equates to all the bike rental shops being very busy. Also, all of the hotels in Key West are online, we are maxed out. The rankings are not a good reflection of the effort and money that the city puts into its bike infrastructure, which is almost nothing. We are warm, small, flat, and interesting. That’s why we’re a popular place to bike.”

Tim Staub, City of Key West Transportation Coordinator:

“It’s a reasonable ranking. It can be improved, but it will take time because of how the (PeopleForBikes) program is weighted towards the whole built environment, not just the network. A big thing I’m noticing from the rankings is the heavy weight on cities with gridded narrow streets, lanes, small lot sizes, and short setbacks.”

Evan Haskell, bicycle advocate and owner of WeCycle Key West bike shops:

“I’d agree with Tom (Theisen) that our place in the rankings has more to do with the mass of people cycling than anything the city has done to improve conditions. There are some great things in the pipe, but we will have to be pro-active to make sure the new Bike/ ped coordinator is on the same page (bummer that Tim is leaving). *

Not only are there tons of people here and the town is maxed out, COVID-19 had the effect of getting more people active outdoors. Bike rentals are up, with 2021 looking to well exceed 2019 figures. I’d be selling bikes like crazy if I could get them. It’s a global bike boom for demand and that is compounded by the global shipping challenges affecting all imported goods. If i order bikes right now, I’m looking at Summer 2022 arrival and I’m still waiting on bikes I ordered back in October.

Like everyone else on the island, the staffing challenges are real. The employee market has never been so tight, which is a good thing for our residents as wages are rising.”

Key West City Commissioner Gregory Davila:

“I guess I’m happy that Key West was ranked high however, I don’t want anyone to think that we’ve achieved something so it’s ok to stop moving forward.”

Roger McVeigh, local and vocal bicycle advocate:

“Great news on the rating! In light of our year-round pleasant weather and flat and small geography (7 square miles), there is no reason we should not be number 1 in rankings.”

What Does All This Mean for Key West’s Bicycling Future?

Drawing from the data and the conclusions of those we interviewed, we’ve gotten all the low hanging fruit already. Because we’re small, flat, have a compact street grid and have great weather 12 months a year, we don’t have to do much to find lots of people on bikes.

The PeopleForBikes survey AND the people we interviewed agreed that there’s nothing the City is doing that is enticing people onto bikes, but rather our relatively good score is because of the natural factors already in place. 

The good news is that’s the bridge to a better future. Roger is right. There’s no reason that Key West couldn’t be #1, at least in the Small Cities in the U.S. category. We could become known as the world’s bicycling paradise. We could become known for the same bicycling culture as rock star cities Copenhagen and Amsterdam. We start with a better natural base than most any city in the world.

But the low safety numbers in the PeopleForBikes survey show people don’t exactly think it is safe to bicycle in Key West and all the red “high stress” streets on the Bicycle Network Analysis show where people think it is unsafe. Research shows that to get the people who aren’t comfortable on the streets to bike, you need to have good bicycle infrastructure. We have a roadmap in the Bicycle Network Analysis that shows us where to target the infrastructure improvements. All of this is in our Bike/Ped Plan. We just have to implement it and not ignore it as we’ve done on First and Bertha Streets. That’s the hope for the future and the only way we’ll improve our score.

*As we go to press, we’ve learned that the City’s Transportation Coordinator, Tim Staub, submitted his resignation and his last day will be July 30. He’s leaving his position to go to Graduate School. We’ll definitely be bringing you a story soon on how his good work will be sorely missed. If you see Tim, please thank him and wish him well.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / First and Bertha Streets Corridor Road Improvements Are Another Missed Opportunity to Make Bicycling Safer and Easier

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and published for KONK Life newspaper on June 4, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

Monroe County is in the middle of a year-long construction project to rebuild the First Street/Bertha Street corridor, a major thoroughfare that crosses the entire island, Gulf to Atlantic. The City’s Bike/Ped Plan indicates that this “High Stress” corridor should get a trail and protected bike lanes. Rebuilding the street from the ground up is the perfect time to construct these recommendations. But nothing of the sort is happening, mostly because of the desire to save some little used parking spaces. Alas, our island’s leaders will be letting another major street rebuild go by without noticeably improving conditions for bicycling. That’s a shame.

The Perfect Time to Add Bike/Ped Facilities is When We Rebuild/Repave Our Streets

I’m paraphrasing our mayor, but at a recent meeting she lamented that we keep talking about bicycling and talking about bicycling and then we repave our streets and we do nothing for people on bikes. Amen! To her credit she tasked the City Engineering Department to start sharing repaving designs with the Commission before these things become done deals. 

Think about it. During the pandemic the City rebuilt Duval and Simonton Streets between Truman and Front Streets. When they put the top layer of asphalt on and repainted these streets, they didn’t enhance the streets for bicycles or pedestrians. No new bike lanes. No new pedestrian crossings. Just the same old nod to our car-convenience culture and plenty of parking spaces for private autos, just like before. Unless something drastic happens, despite the best of last-minute intentions, we may see the same thing happen next year when they start rebuilding S. Roosevelt Boulevard (City Commission Tries to Have Its Cake and Eat It Too on S. Roosevelt Blvd. – Perhaps Dooming a Safer Project May 7, 2021).

According to the Federal Highway Administration “The best time to create bicycle lanes is during regular street reconstruction, street resurfacing or at the time of original construction.” FDOT, County and City engineers will all tell you the same thing too. So, since they haven’t put in the final layer of asphalt on this project, is it too late?

The Project We’re Getting

The project is being broken up into three logical phases. Bertha Street between S. Roosevelt and Atlantic Boulevards. Bertha Street between Atlantic and Flagler Avenues and First Street between Flagler Avenue and N. Roosevelt Boulevard where it connects with Palm Avenue to whisk you downtown. (Oh right, the Palm Avenue Bridge was rehabilitated last year with no improvements to the bike or pedestrian infrastructure, but we digress.) The middle phase, Bertha between Atlantic and Flagler, is currently under construction. 

Here are the Phases/Sections, the current conditions and what is planned:

Bertha Street from S. Roosevelt Boulevard to Atlantic Boulevard
Bertha Street from Atlantic Boulevard to Flagler Avenue
First Street from Flagler Avenue to N. Roosevelt Boulevard

Four Good Things Worth Noting

The project isn’t without its merits. Here’s four good things happening:

Good Thing #1: Stormwater Management

One of the good things everyone is getting out of this project is a stormwater management system, including backflow prevention devices, that will fix the drainage problems on this corridor. That’s a big deal, because the multi-use bike/ped path on Bertha between S. Roosevelt and Atlantic floods regularly, often forcing people on bikes into the car traffic. 

Good Thing #2: A Slightly Wider Multi-Use Bike/Ped Path

The multi-use bike/ped path on Bertha between S. Roosevelt and Atlantic we’re told is currently anywhere between 8 and 9 feet wide. After the project is done, this will be 10 feet wide. That’s better.

Good Thing #3: Narrower Car Travel Lanes

Wider is not better on car travel lanes though because wider travel lanes induce cars to travel faster. Thus, studies show them to be less safe than narrower travel lanes. So, we think it is admirable that this project is narrowing the travel lanes on Bertha from 14 feet wide to 11 feet wide. 

Good Thing #4: A Dedicated West-bound Bicycle Lane on Bertha

With the extra space taken from reducing the width of the car-travel lane, the County will install a bicycle lane in the westbound or Atlantic to Gulf direction between S. Roosevelt and Flagler Avenue.

176 Bad Things About This Project

Okay we exaggerate. Just a bit. But it feels like 176 things. Here’s ten missed opportunities or bad things about this project:

Bad Thing #1: It Doesn’t Do What the Bike Plan Says Should Be Done

What’s the point of holding community meetings, doing the field work, and making recommendations if someone is simply going to ignore two years’ worth of planning work? It is maddening! Check out pages 33 and 34 and 74 of the adopted Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. It clearly shows that on Bertha between Atlantic and Flagler and on First between Flagler and N. Roosevelt there should be bike lanes installed in the street in the short-term and that, when possible, a trail should be constructed on First Street and protected bike lanes on Bertha between Atlantic and Flagler. The perfect time to construct the preferred recommendation. You got it. When they rebuild the road.

Bad Thing #2: There’s No Westbound Sidewalk on Bertha Between S. Roosevelt and Atlantic

Why isn’t there a sidewalk instead of grass on the La Brisa side of the road? 

Bad Thing #3: A Bike Lane on Only One Side of the Road?

Why is west-bound Bertha worthy of a bike lane and not east-bound? What’s going on with that? 

Bad Thing #4: The West-Bound Bike Lane Doesn’t Connect to Anything

Nothing is worse than a bike trail that begins and ends without a safe way to continue on to your destination. Or a bike lane that is truncated. This bike lane doesn’t connect to a bike lane on S. Roosevelt, and it needs to connect through the intersection at Flagler and then continue on to First Street. It’s just this little piece of infrastructure that says we really haven’t thought this through. 

Bad Thing #5: Parking Takes Priority Over Bicycle Safety on Bertha

The reason there’s only a west-bound bike lane instead of protected bike lanes in both directions as the Bike Plan calls for is because someone at the City decided saving a few parking spaces on one-side of Bertha was worth more than bicycle safety. The sad fact is that these spaces are little used, and all of the properties have driveways. 

Bad Thing #6: No Change on First Street. None Whatsoever

There are no bicycle improvements on First Street. That is unless you count painting Sharrows in the middle of the street as an improvement. Says long-time bicycle advocate Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen: “First street is a disaster, why keep those few parking spaces and loose a full-on bike lane and corner visibility? They need to remove all parking on both sides and create safe bike lanes. We all salmon up George and their plan does nothing for us.” We agree.

Why is this? So that they can maintain the existing parking that no one uses. The housing along this stretch either has its own huge parking lots (George Allen Apartments) or the single-family homes all have driveways. Look at the pictures in the County presentation, go to Google Maps Street View or take a ride down the street yourself. Very little of the parking spaces are used. Obviously, this was noticed when the Bike Plan was produced and that is where space for a bike trail was to come from. The County told us it was the City that made the decision on the parking. The City referred us to the County for information about the project. Hmm…

Bad Thing #7: Swimming with the Salmon on George

The Bike Man brings up a point. If bicyclists are afraid of using First Street, which they generally are because of the heavy traffic, and total lack of bicycle infrastructure, they salmon up George Street as an alternative because it is much less used by cars. For those not in on the lingo, salmoning is a term for bikers who ride the wrong way up a one-way street or bike lane. George parallels First Street between N. Roosevelt and Flagler but is one-way in the east-bound direction. One thing the City could do is get rid of the parking on George and put in a two-way bike lane. But there’s the rub. In order to do this, they’d have to sacrifice some parking and we know our leaders will never do that. So, if they won’t fix First Street or George than there’s no safe way to get from one side of the island to the other.

Bad Thing #8: No Bike Crossing of First Street for Crosstown Greenway

We’ve talked about how the Crosstown Greenway is a major priority for the City herehere and here, so it surprises us that there are no markings planned for the Crosstown Greenway on Staples Avenue as it crosses First Street. This is an oversight. 

Bad Thing #9: There’s No Bike Infrastructure at the Bertha/Flagler/First Intersection

The intersection where Bertha Street, Flagler Avenue and First Street all meet is a difficult one because First Street and Betha Street aren’t directly across from each other. Intersections are always where the most crashes occur, especially for bikes. It is that way because even when there is bicycle infrastructure, like a bike lane, the engineers don’t design the bikeway all the way through the intersection. This project is no different. There’s absolutely NO consideration of how bicycles are supposed to safely travel through here. 

Bad Thing #10: The Corridor is a Disconnected Mess

Picking back up on connectivity, one of the main reasons people cite for not riding a bicycle for transportation is the lack of a connected network of easy, safe, recognizable bicycle infrastructure. There are Sharrows in both directions on First. There are Sharrows in one direction and a bike lane in the other on Bertha between Flagler and Atlantic. And there is a multi-use path on one side with a bike lane but no sidewalk on the other side of Bertha between Atlantic and S. Roosevelt. That’s a disconnected mess. No network effect. 

Yet Another Lost Opportunity for the City to Do Right by Bikes

This is a Monroe County project, but they tell us the City of Key West Engineering Department had input and made the decisions on parking that ultimately have made this project another disappointment for people on bikes or who want to bike. None of the four well known bicycle advocates we contacted said they’d ever been asked for input nor heard of opportunities to do so. Either did we. 

Our island is flat, compact and warm. Perfect conditions for bicycling. And yet only 12 percent of us commute to work by bike. If the City is serious about climate change, sustainability, health, equity, small business prosperity and yes, happiness, we need to do better. Time after time our leaders have failed us because they always make the easy choice to bow to the predominant, mainland attitude that cars and parking rule. We only seem to do bicycling when it fits in with and doesn’t inconvenience those mainland car values. 

We need to double down on the opportunity to make Key West a bicycling paradise. The easiest and most cost-effective time to build on that promise is when we reconstruct our roads and streets. For this First and Bertha Streets Corridor project, the final asphalt hasn’t been poured. The paint and markings haven’t been laid. Will any of our City leaders have the guts to demand better for this project now before its too late? 

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / Want Sidewalk Cafés and Other Amenities? We Need to Take Some Space from Cars

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and published for KONK Life newspaper on May 28, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

On May 19 the City announced they’ll begin tighter code compliance with the Sidewalk Café Permit Ordinance. Comments from business owners and residents started popping up on Facebook. In response, a week later the City announced a June 8 public meeting on the subject. Hmm… While it seems officials just want to get a handle on making sure businesses are complying with ADA clearance rules, insurance requirements and paying the proper amount of fees, perhaps it’s time to look at the issue more broadly and relieve the stress on our overcrowded downtown sidewalks by taking away some space from cars.

A More People Centered Duval Keeps Stalling Out

We’ve seemingly talked and talked about a more people friendly Duval and adjacent commercial streets for decades and nothing seems to happen. Perhaps because of the all or nothing approach of much of our discussions, nothing gets done. On the one hand people want a car-free Duval and on the other people say it can’t be done because where will the traffic go? And so, stalemate. 

To her credit Mayor Teri Johnston has been trying. First with the Mall on Duval pilot project and then with the Duval Street Revitalization Study. The mayor also spearheaded a Key West COVID Recovery Plan that aimed to assist restaurants with attempts to move some seats outside. The Mall on Duval pilot ended with acrimony all around, the Duval Study was to have begun months ago, only to be thrown back on the street for yet another RFP, and the business efforts of the COVID Plan have expired.

Why can’t these endeavors seem to gain any momentum and permanence? Fodder for another story…

City Aims to Bring Restaurants into Café Compliance

Now the City has announced its Code unit will be more readily checking up on the folks who did move some seating outdoors and ensuring their permits are in order and paid up. Said the City:

“The City of Key West’s Code Compliance will begin enforcement of the Sidewalk Café Permit Ordinance beginning in two phases. Phase one will ensure that food service establishments that want to place tables and chairs on City sidewalks have completed and submitted the application to the Planning Department ensuring that the requirements for insurance and ADA have been met. Phase two will ensure that the additional seats will be paid for starting October 1, 2021.  Permit applications are available on the City’s website here.” 

The eight-page Sidewalk Café Permit Program Guidelines and Checklist and accompanying fees seem kind of onerous on their face. Take for example a restaurant that wants to put out two little tables with four total seats. This is what their fees add up to:

Example Biz             Amount         Fee

   $100.00                 $100.00         annual “Base Application Fee”
$2,368.80                 $592.20         one time per seat “Impact Fee”
$2,000.00                 $500.00         annual “Revocable License Fee”

The business in the example will owe $4,468.80 for year one and then $2,100.00 annually thereafter. For four seats.

While we no doubt need compliance with these issues and all businesses should pay their rightful share for using city right of way, on the other hand these businesses are trying to do exactly what people have been asking for by putting tables on the sidewalk. They are enlivening our downtown streets and helping with the pandemic by using the outdoor air. And then we go and…

Perhaps some wiser heads at City Hall noticed the seeming contradiction in tone, and that’s why one week after they announced the get-tough policy, a June 8 Public Meeting to “discuss and review” the licenses for sidewalk cafés was on the schedule. THIS seems like a better approach, doesn’t it?

Mayor Johnston’s Thoughts on the June 8 Public Meeting

When asked about the upcoming Public Meeting on Café seating Mayor Teri Johnston thoughtfully replied:

“First and foremost, Key West is a perfect venue for outdoor dining.  We are blessed with near perfect weather, and you have to admit, Key West is a terrific “people watching” community. Our restaurants were exceptionally impacted by the global pandemic and our outdoor cafe program is an opportunity to bring some economic healing for our local businesses and employees.

There are some compromises that need to be openly negotiated between the City management team and our restaurant owners to keep our outdoor café program moving forward. To that goal, City Manager Patti McLauchlin has called for a transparent working session with our restaurant owners to work through the details to assure that this popular program will thrive.”

Good for the Mayor. Let’s hope the compromises she speaks of include the fees and making it easier for businesses to participate. Knowing her, we think it will.

The Elephant in the Room: Our Downtown Sidewalks Are Too Crowded

Note pedestrians walking and talking in single file. Imagine how much more pleasant this would be if the car parking were removed and the sidewalk was widened by a parklet to accommodate the tables and chairs. Oh and note the bike tied to the tree.

While its good the Mayor and City Manager are working with businesses to make this program a success, there’s still the issue of the elephant in the room. 

As the café table compliance issue popped up on local Facebook groups a week ago lots of opinions on various aspects were voiced. This sentiment from the always thoughtful and astute observer of Key West life, Linda Grist Cunningham of Key West Island News fame, struck me as spot on:

“When walking our narrow sidewalks, I resent having to negotiate patio tables and chairs (and customers.) There simply is not enough room on most of our sidewalks for dining, customers and those of us passing through. Sure, if the streets were closed and these dining areas moved off the sidewalks and next to the curbs, that would be fine. But is jamming up the sidewalk making it tough to impossible for pedestrians? Not so much”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Our narrow sidewalks are just too jammed up. There’s newspaper and promotional boxes, menu boards and A-frame retail signs, street vendors hawking their wares, bike racks, traffic signs, light and electric poles, trash and recycle cans, and bikes locked to everything because we don’t have enough racks. Yes, there are a few restaurants with café tables and let’s not forget all the people simply walking, talking and window shopping. Sometimes the sidewalk is so crowded you have to walk single file at certain times of the day. For people with mobility issues, this must be a nightmare.

But why is this?

It’s because we’ve given over too much of our community asset, the public right of way, to car traffic and private car parking. Walk Duval Street or any of the adjacent commercial streets like Southard, Fleming, Caroline and Greene. Stop and count the number of people on the block at that moment and then the number of cars. The people outnumber the cars 10 to one. So then WHY, why on earth do we give up some much of our shared space to cars and put everything else on the sidewalk as an afterthought? 

It is time this imbalance be addressed. 

Here’s Three Things We Can Do to Help 

While this issue of imbalance on our streets and sidewalks between people and cars should be folded into the City’s Strategic Plan and will be addressed by the Duval Street Revitalization Plan, if we ever get one, there’s some other things we could be working on in the meantime:

  1. Replace Car-Parking with Parklets

One way to “widen our sidewalks” and add more people activity to our streets quickly would be to allow businesses, organizations and the City to install parklets in space that is currently used for parking. Parklets are spots for people. Not cars. Parklets are an extension of the sidewalk out into the street, usually in what was formerly a parking space – thus the name. They are often temporary and can be built quickly and relatively inexpensively so putting them in wouldn’t preclude more permanent infrastructure changes in the future. Here’s a good story with more information and examples: 

How We Get Wider Sidewalks Downtown Without Ripping Up the Streets – Parklets; February 26, 2021

2. Pedestrianize Parts of Duval and Adjacent Blocks AND Still Allow Cars

“Shared Streets” or “Woonerfs” as the Dutch call them is a term for a street shared by cars, bicycles and people as equals. Although cars are allowed, they are restricted to a walking speed of say 5 mph and the onus for safety is entirely on the driver. Bikes cede the right of way to pedestrians. Instead of dividing a street with barriers, like curbs, sidewalk and bike lanes, everyone uses the street simultaneously and cars are forced to drive slowly. Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA is an example. 

One could do this by setting the speed limit on the designated blocks to 5 mph, getting rid of the parking spaces, installing signs saying Pedestrian Zone and putting up a few barriers to protect any parklets, or other outdoor street furniture. Here’s a story with examples:

Eight Things We Can Do to Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Cars; March 5, 2021

3. Create A Downtown Business Improvement District

This item may take a bit longer than the first two. But if there’s one thing that this whole episode of the City trying to corral restaurants into compliance on the Sidewalk Café Permit Program brings into focus, is that our little Mom n Pop businesses need an organization that can help them with these issues. A BID or Business Improvement District would be their advocate and would help coordinate a response and participation. As it is now, it is every business for itself in trying to deal with the City and a whole host of other issues, all while trying to do what they do best and run a business. Here’s our story with lots of analysis, details and examples:

Do Key West Commercial Areas Need Business Improvement Districts (BIDS)? – Part 2: What BIDS in Key West Might Look Like; April 23, 2021

Let’s Use the June 8 Public Meeting to Start Addressing the Imbalance Between Cars and People Downtown

While the City’s Public Meeting on June 8 is to “discuss and review” the licenses for sidewalk cafés, this program won’t be a success unless we begin to address the elephant in the room. 

Perhaps we can use this event to broaden the dialogue. 

People want a more pedestrian friendly downtown. People want to see more sidewalk cafés, benches, street furniture, art, trees, and more on Duval and adjacent blocks. But we can’t put it all on our already overcrowded and narrow sidewalks. Cars have the privilege of way more than their fair share of our community’s public right of way. Enrique Penalosa sums it up this way: “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally as important as one in a $30,000 car.” It is about time we address the grave imbalance in the way we use our streets. 

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / In Quest to Improve Crosstown Greenway, City Prepares to Construct New Bike Trail Segment

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and published for KONK Life newspaper on May 21, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

What do a new bike trail segment and professional baseball in Key West have in common? Well, if you know where MLB affiliates for the Padres and Cubs – named the Key West Padres, Sun Caps, Conchs and finally the Key West Cubs, who played in the Florida International League from 1969 until 1975, then you know where the new trail is going. 

Still confused? Here’s a hint. The teams played in Wickers Stadium. 

Still don’t know it? While most of the old stadium is long gone, locals, especially parents and their kids, now know the area as Wickers Sports Complex between 14th Street, Kennedy Drive, Flagler Avenue and Poinciana Elementary. The cool news is that a new two-way bike trail, an important connecting segment of the Crosstown Greenway, is scheduled to be constructed by the time school starts in September 2022. 

New Trail Starts with Planning

A few weeks ago we brought you a story about planning starting during the next 12 months on the Smathers Beach and Salt Ponds Bike Trails (What’s Old is New Again – Two New Bike Trails Take Us Back in Time to a Simpler Key West; April 30, 2021). These two bike trails, like the Wickers Trail Segment, are being pulled of the City’s Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, adopted in 2019. We applaud the City’s Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator Tim Staub for trying to get a mix of short-term and longer-term projects planned and constructed so that we get some quick wins on the ground now, next year and in each of the upcoming years after that. 

Mr. Staub has outlined all of this in a recently released, easy-to-read Transportation Report 2021 that outlines what he and others on City staff are prioritizing to do regarding transportation in the next 12 months. There’s a dozen plus planning, construction and service projects mentioned covering bike, walk and transit from the respective Bike/Ped and Transit Plans. We found out about all of these trail projects from this document and hope to highlight more of what’s in it over the next few months. 

Commissioner Davila Nails Why This Project is Important

When asked about this project because he’s known to be a fan of it, Commissioner Gregory Davila said: “The Wickers Bicycle Trail is vital to improving the safety for our residents. Currently, bicyclist and pedestrians have to cross two parking lots in order to travel between Duck Avenue and the current bicycle path that runs between Kennedy Drive and 12th Street. That’s just not safe. It only makes sense to improve that area with a dedicated path. The space is there to make this happen.”

A Key Segment of the Crosstown Greenway

The Wickers Bicycle Trail is a key segment in the 3.5 mile long Crosstown Greenway. The Greenway is the City’s main bicycle focus over the next few years as it can more safely carry east to west bicycle traffic through the heart of the city, than North and South Roosevelt Boulevards as bicycle routes. Phase 1 of making the Greenway a more established route was completed last fall (Volunteers and a Little Green Paint Show How We Can Make It Safer to Bike; February 1, 20201).  A Phase 2 of the “Volunteers with Paint” project will happen sometime this year. 

A robust central bicycle route (the Greenway) is a major element in both the Bike/Ped Plan and Comprehensive Plan. For the Crosstown Greenway to obtain its promise though, there must be bicycle centric infrastructure and connectivity along all of it. Thus, the importance of this project. 

The Wickers Bicycle Trail

As bikers travel the Greenway north on the Seidenberg Avenue Trail – the concrete cut-through path from Seidenberg Avenue between 12th and Kennedy (the subject of a fun upcoming story) – bicyclists are met with four lanes of car traffic on Kennedy and then have to navigate two parking lots serving Wickers Sports Complex and Poinciana School before coming to Duck Avenue at 14th Street.

The new trail will link Duck Avenue with the Siedenburg Avenue trail, aligns them better with the intersections and improves the crossings of Kennedy Drive and Glynn R. Archer Jr. Drive. In addition to improving mobility, the area suffers from flooding from normal rain events. So, bicyclists will now be able to avoid sloshing through a huge lake every time it rains.

According to the design recommendations for the trail in the Bike/Ped Plan, the City hopes to:

  • Build a 10-foot-wide bicycle trail
  • Install a 6-foot sidewalk adjacent to the trail
  • Provide a minimum 2-foot buffer between the trail and sidewalk
  • Install 15-foot-wide crossings on both Kennedy Drive and 14th Street and Duck Avenue with stamped asphalt to accommodate the trail and sidewalk
  • Use refuge islands, curb extensions, stamped asphalt crossings, and bike boxes to create more predictable traffic patterns and shorten pedestrian and bicyclist crossing distances 

All of this is shown in the preliminary drawings here. This project is the first portion of the Wickers Sports Complex update that will be occurring over the coming decade. Mr. Staub notes that the design of this project is still in the works, but if all goes as planned, it should be contrasted prior to start of school in September 2022.

Hope for Key West’s Bicycling Future

Taken all together, Phases 1 and 2 of the “Volunteers with Green Paint” projects and the Wickers Field Trail segment on the Crosstown Greenway and the Smathers Beach and Salt Ponds Trails gives us hope that the City is finally turning the corner on implementing the promise of the Bike/Ped Plan and making it easier and safer to bike in Key West.

Our island is small, flat and warm. Perfect for biking year-round. So, our focus as a community should be on getting more people to bike by investing in bike infrastructure because it’s cheaper than accommodating more cars. The City should be applauded for taking these initial steps in the right direction and encouraged to do even more, faster because in doing so we can make Key West America’s bicycle paradise. 

Oh, and next time you are riding your bicycle through the Wickers Sports Complex, see if you can spot the remnants of the old Wickers Stadium and a fun part of Key West’s days of yore.

Featured Photo at top of story taken by the City’s Property Appraiser’s Office c1970. Second photo of Wickers Stadium taken by Dave Horton. Both photos grabbed from here.

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Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / How Better Transit and Bicycle Facilities Can Help Address Affordable Housing

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on May 14, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

survey of residents in January, conducted as part of the City’s strategic plan process, identified affordable housing as the number one area of concern. No surprise. It’s been the number one issue for decades and still is. It seems all of our discussions of affordable housing focus mostly on the cost of rent or a mortgage. But that’s only part of the affordability problem of living in Key West, or in any city. The other is the hidden cost of transportation. Specifically owning and operating cars to get around. Research shows that many close-in, more expensive neighborhoods are actually cheaper to live in than those further away from the center city. Why? Because these neighborhoods are served by excellent public transit and bike facilities, lessening the need for families to own multiple cars. So, shouldn’t the City, as part of its approach to affordable housing, also ramp up public transit service and bicycling facilities bringing total affordability costs down? Yes, they should. We’ve even got the plans already on the books to get there, if the City’s leaders are willing to implement them faster. Let’s explore.

Affordable Housing in Key West

To its credit, the Mayor and City Commission are marshalling resources to address the affordable housing issue through their extremely well-run strategic planning process. They just had a very informative and thoughtful Affordable Housing Workshop on April 21. They’ve released a draft Key West Forward Affordable Housing document with a four-point process in goals and actions for getting there: 

  1. Build capacity for coordination and long-term planning 
  2. Develop new housing (College Rd., Bahama Village, etc.)
  3. Preserve and renovate existing housing
  4. Legislative and regulatory measures

If you read the draft, you’ll come away thinking these are all admirable goals and solid actions to be explored and taken. But nothing in any document or discussion addresses transportation as it relates to affordability. The City should take a step back and look at the total affordability issue to see if there’s additional ways, they can help address the problem.

Housing + Transportation = Affordable Living: A More Complete Measure of Affordability

For most people, after housing, transportation is their second biggest expense. In December the American Automobile Association said that in 2020 the average annual cost of vehicle ownership rose to more than $9,500. Now multiply that by every adult in a household and you’ve got a serious expense. In fact, many American households spend more on cars than they do housing, especially in the suburbs. 

Studies that have looked at housing and transportation costs have found that lower transportation costs in many urban areas with good access and transit help offset higher housing costs across most income groups. Location affordability measures the share of income spent on housing AND transportation. Households in location efficient places spent significantly less on household transportation, often enough to offset the higher housing costs of these choice neighborhoods. Walkable blocks with good transit service and bike facilities especially contribute to these savings.

If you live in one of these walkable neighborhoods with good transit and bicycle facilities, you may be able to live not owning a car or having just one car for a two-adult working family. If you live in a car-dependent subdivision those same two adults need two cars to commute to work, take the kids to school and go on errands that include shopping and play. 

More than 15 years ago in a groundbreaking study, the Center for Housing Policy linked these two together in their report entitled A Heavy Load – The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families. On average, the study found that working families in 28 metropolitan areas spent 57 percent of their incomes on the combined costs of housing and transportation, with roughly 28 percent of income going for housing and 29 percent going for transportation. In the search for low-cost housing, working families often “drive till they qualify” or locate far from the center of town where housing is often less expensive than neighborhoods close to downtown. But this dramatically increases their transportation costs and commute times because this housing is car dependent. 

The study found that one of the effects of the drive till you qualify mentality is an increase in driving that increases congestion in a city. Something we’ve also noticed in Key West.

In Key West there are More Cars, Longer Travel and No One Takes the Bus

Drive till you qualify is born out in the stats. Data gathered from the U.S. Census American Community Survey 5 year average, in 2019 and the 2019 Key West Transit Development Plan (TDP) paints a picture of a lot of vehicle ownership and car use for commuting and little if any use of public transit. The data also tell us something we already anecdotally know. Traffic across the Cow Key Bridge is increasing because so many people that work in the City now live in the County and a good number of people that live here also now work in the County. We’ve all heard stories of a less congested Key West in the 1970’s and 80’s, when more people lived and worked on the island. 

The search for more affordable housing has led many to the outer reaches of New Town, places like West Isle Club, Ocean Walk, Las Salinas, and Seaside and beyond the Cow Key Bridge to Stock Island, Big Coppitt, Sugarloaf, Summerland, the Torches, Big Pine and even Marathon. This has led to more cars and more driving. Fully 55% of Key West households and 65% of Monroe County (including Key West) households own 2 or more cars. More cars per family makes the cost of living more expensive.

2019 numbers link here. 2010 link here. 2000 link here.

Housing and Transportation Costs in Key West and Monroe County

The Center for Neighborhood Technology or CNT is a four-decades old non-profit think tank dedicated to providing research, tools and solutions to create sustainable and equitable communities so that neighborhoods, cities and regions work better for everyone. Over the years they’ve created some powerful, data driven interactive tools, one of the most popular of which is the Housing + Transportation Index (H+T®). From their website: “The traditional measure of affordability recommends that housing cost no more than 30% of household income. Under this view, a little over half (55%) of U.S. neighborhoods are considered “affordable” for the typical household. However, that benchmark fails to take into account transportation costs, which are typically a household’s second-largest expenditure. When transportation costs are factored into the equation, the number of affordable neighborhoods drops to 26%, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford.”

“The Index shows that transportation costs vary between and within regions depending on neighborhood characteristics. People who live in location-efficient neighborhoods—compact, mixed-use, and with convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities—tend to have lower transportation costs.”

According to the CNT transportation costs are considered affordable if they are 15% or less of household income. So, the overall Affordability threshold would be 30% for housing and 15% for transportation for a combined 50% of income.

There’s No “Affordable Living” (Housing or Transportation) in Key West 

In many cities across the U.S., you’ll often find that center city and inner ring neighborhoods that were built to a walking and biking scale and that have good transit are location efficient and have lower Affordable Living costs than their car-dependent suburban neighbors. Key West is compact and much of our city’s street grid was laid out for walking. So, we have some good bones to start with and that is borne out in the number of commuters who walk and bike. But we have horrible transit. 

When we use this tool and look at neighborhoods in Key West and Monroe County it tells us something we all already know. Neither the City, at 40% of income nor the County at 39% qualifies as affordable in meeting the 30% standard. And our car-dependent transportation makes it worse.  In Key West we are at 20% of income and in the County at 22% spent on transportation. Well above the 15% affordable standard and way above at 60% and 61% respectively on the combined standard of 50%.  Data shows that Americans spend 13% of their income on transportation.

H+T Fact Sheet for Key West

H+T Fact Sheet for Monroe County

In Key West a Regional Typical Household has an income of $57,000. Housing costs = 40% of income. Transportation costs = 20% of income and total housing + transportation costs = 60% of income. If we look at Regional Moderate Households with incomes that average $45,000, an even higher percentage of income is taken. Housing costs = 50% of income, transportation costs = 22% of income and total housing + transportation costs = 72% of Income.  

The numbers mirror the national trend line as housing is slightly cheaper overall in Monroe County, but transportation costs are higher and so overall livability or housing + transportation costs are higher. Regional Typical Housing 39% + Transportation 22% = 61%. Regional Moderate Housing 49% + 35% Transportation = 74%. So, living in car-dependent Monroe County is more expensive overall. But because transit is so awful in Key West, we don’t see the much lower transportation costs in the close in neighborhoods that you get in other cities.

The City Should Adopt a Broader View of Affordability that Includes Transportation – Affordable Living

As we stated at the top, we find it admirable that the City leaders are working hard to address housing affordability. With the help of their wonderful Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy, and a host of local experts and advocates, we have no doubt some good things will happen on adding to the supply of units that are less expensive to rent and own on that 40 to 50 percent of income that goes towards housing. But we’d posit that the City can bring down overall livability costs by bringing down the 20 to 22 percent of income that goes towards transportation. So, if the City adopts a broader view of Affordability that includes transportation, they can bring more tools to the effort.

3 Ways We Bring the Cost of Transportation and Thus Overall Affordable Living Down in Key West

Fifty-five percent of households in Key West and 65% of households in Monroe County have two or more cars. Only 10% of city households and 6% of Monroe County households are car free. When I left my native Washington, D.C. 6 years ago nearly 40% of all residents living in the District of Columbia and about 8 in 10 new residents to the city didn’t own a car. Why? Because the public transit, biking and walking is so excellent. This helped make living in the city relatively affordable and is one of the driving forces in why the city added 90,000 people in the last decade. Put another way. In the District, housing as a percentage of income is high and comparable to Key West at 40% of income. But transportation costs are 14% of income for an overall Score of 54% compared to Key West’s 60%. That’s the difference quality transportation can make.

In order to bring Affordable Living costs down in Key West, we have to enable people with multiple cars to go car-lite and people with one car to go car-free. Here’s how:

1. Promote Mixed-Use Infill Development and Coordinate it With Transportation Services

Much of the more recent affordable housing stock, like the 208-unit Quarry Apartments on Big Coppitt, have been built up the Keys. The upcoming 280-unit Wreckers Cay project and the 104-unit College Road project are being built on Stock Island. Most everything, at least at present, beyond Cow Key Bridge, we should consider car dependent. Building workforce housing where every adult and most teens need their own car to get to work, school and play is nuts. 

The City’s draft Housing Plan includes the 3.2 Acres in Bahama Village site for affordable housing and identifies other island locations for more housing. This is a good thing. So are ideas for amending the code to allow more accessory dwelling units and up zoning shopping centers and other parcels to incentivize redevelopment that includes a mix of uses, including affordable housing. 

All of this needs to be coordinated with transportation options in mind. Building new housing near existing or planned transportation improvements is imperative. So is planning future transportation projects to serve working families. Optimally all of the development along major transit and bicycle facilities should be allowed to get denser. 

2. Institute Free, Frequent and Simple Transit NOW

We can’t address transportation affordability and thus overall affordability, without a decent transit alternative. And let’s face it, other than the Duval Loop, public transit service in Key West is worse than abysmal. The “frequent” Duval Loop service has been slipping and no longer arrives every 15-20 minutes. The North and South Lines have 90–120-minute printed waits in between buses. And the Lower Keys Shuttle has 10 inbound trips a day and 10 outbound trips a day with waits of one to two plus hours between buses. On top of the inadequate service, bus stops provide no information about what route stops there or where the bus will go (The Sorry State of Key West Bus Stops – We Just Don’t Care; April 2, 2021). The transit agency doesn’t even try to market and promote what service they do have (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things KW Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership; April 9, 2021).

No wonder about ½ of one percent (0.5%) of Key West residents and about 1% of Monroe County residents use public transit to get to work. The numbers don’t lie. Other than biking and walking there’s essentially no alternative to get around. In the Location Efficient neighborhoods, we discussed earlier, there was excellent transit service. That allowed households to ditch one or both of their cars which brought down the neighborhood’s overall affordability. Until our leaders seriously address our woeful transit system, most people will have no choice but to pay nearly $10,000 a year to own and operate each car on top of their already exorbitant rent or mortgage. 

But there’s hope.

In late 2019, the City Commission adopted an ambitious, progressive 10-Year Transit Development Plan (TDP) promising a system of five “Loops” (Duval, Old Town, Midtown, New Town, Stock Island) connected by a four simple “Connector” lines (Airport – along S. Roosevelt, North – along N. Roosevelt, Intermodal Connector – from a Stock Island Park n Ride to downtown, and Lower Keys Shuttle) all with 15-20 minute frequencies and eventually free fares. A system like THIS just might be able to serve our residents and workers and allow them to be less dependent on their cars and thus eventually have a more affordable living. 

On January 14, the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) adopted a Fare Free Resolution calling on the City to raise metered parking rates by $0.50 cents to target implementing the Plan sooner than later (Sustainability Board Wants to Make Free, Frequent and Simple Key West Transit a Reality; February 6, 2021). The SAB is following up on its January resolution and making their proposal part of their annual priority list being developed now. Hopefully, City Commission and staff will take note of the SAB’s good work.

The SAB has proposed a new funding mechanism to speed of implementation of a very good transit plan. Federal money is pouring into the City’s coffers for transit. And parking revenues that help fund the bus system are up. So now is the time, during the current budget process for the next fiscal year that begins October 1, to set the Free, Frequent and Simple plan in motion on an expedited timetable. Especially as the issue can be addressed in both the affordable housing process and strategic plan.

And let’s set a goal to help focus our efforts. On such a small island, shouldn’t we set a goal of 10% of Key West residents getting to work by transit by 2025?

3. Radically Speed Up Implementation of Our Bike/Ped Plan

We’re fortunate that bicycling as an alternative to driving is faring much better than public transit. So is walking. 12 percent of Key West residents already bike to work. Seven percent walk. But, listening to long-time residents it seems like even more people use to do this. But with our longer commutes and more congested streets it is likely getting harder and harder to entice people to do this. We’ve already got the low-hanging fruit of people that are confident enough to bike and walk on our streets. According to national surveys, when it comes to bicycling, about half the population falls into an “interested but concerned” category that is willing to bike if they perceived it were safer and easier. For this group that means high quality bicycle infrastructure. Here’s what that looks like:

Picture it. Clearly marked separated and protected bike lanes, greenways or bike boulevards, and off-street paths connect throughout the city, forming a seamless, uninterrupted network of bicycle facilities allowing safe travel through and around the island for everyone of all ages and abilities. Signs show bikers and walkers where they are and how to get to their destination. Bike boxes at busy intersections create space for bicycles ahead of the cars. Ample bike parking is found within a block of all work, shop and play destinations. Wider sidewalks in busy downtown areas, intersections with bump outs and mid-block crosswalks, traffic calming to slow the cars, and places for people to sit, watch, chat and eat in more places. This is the vision the Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Transportation Plan paints for our future. 

As one of Key West’s preeminent bike advocates consistently says, the island is warm, flat and small, so our focus should be on getting more people to bike, because that’s cheaper than accommodating cars. We agree. And we have a world class Bike/Ped Plan already vetted and done. In fact, our Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator has already started some projects including the first phase of the Crosstown Greenway and planning for the Salt Ponds and Smathers Beach Trails. But if we put more staff and money into it, we could ramp up the number of bicycle projects 10-fold and make a big jump.

With the advent of cheaper electric bikes and scooters, on a flat, small and warm island that is no more than four by two miles, shouldn’t we set a goal of at least 30% of our work trips made by bike by 2025? And at least 10% by walking. 

Excellent Options to Driving Make Our Island More Affordable Too

With 2025 commute mode goals of 10% for transit, 30% for bicycling and 10% for walking, that would mean fully half of all commute trips would be by these alternative modes. And when you add in carpool and other modes, it would mean that the drive alone rate would be closer to 40% instead of the current 63%. Those kinds of numbers can help bring living costs down.

For a few years now at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtownwe’ve been saying that an island where more people use the bus, bike and walk is more healthy, green, sustainable, equitable, prosperous and happy. We’d like to amend or usual list and add that an island where more people can take transit, bike and walk more easily is also more affordable too. Especially for working people. If we’re finally going to make headway on an affordable housing issue that has vexed our island for decades, maybe we need to come up with some new strategies and come at it from a new angle.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

Streets for People / City Commission Tries to Have Its Cake and Eat It Too on S. Roosevelt Blvd. – Perhaps Dooming a Safer Project

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on May 7, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.  

The City Commission seemingly took a step in the right direction Tuesday night, when by a 6-1 vote (Commissioner Wardlow dissenting), they rescinded a bad 4-year-old decision and gave the City Engineering staff direction to make the S. Roosevelt Boulevard corridor safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians with a new design. The catch is their resolution says to do this as long as it doesn’t interfere with the timeline or budget for the project. It was clear staff didn’t believe they could meet the spirit of the resolution. So, without some modest sacrifices in time, funding and maybe parking, the Commission’s gesture is likely too late in the process to make a difference. The Commission can’t have its cake (getting to say they did the right thing by voting for a safer design) and eat it too (make no concessions on timeline and budget). They need to summon the courage to do better.

In 2017 FDOT Gave the City the Opportunity to do the Right Thing

In February 2017 the then City Commission voted 5-2 (Wardlow, Lopez, Payne, Romero and Cates vs. Weekley and Kaufman) against the recommendation of FDOT, their own City Engineer and most of the participants of a public process to keep the current configuration of S. Roosevelt Boulevard at four through travel lanes when FDOT rebuilds the section of the road from the end of Smathers Beach to Bertha Street to mitigate flooding issues, as they did with the rest of the road some years back. FDOT and City staff recommended a safer two through travel lanes (one in each direction instead of two), a middle turn lane for the condos and hotel and bicycle lanes to attract some of the bike riders from the Promenade and lessen conflicts with beach goers, runners and walkers. The Commission couldn’t fathom making a change and didn’t want to inconvenience car travelers, even though an FDOT analysis said the change wouldn’t affect traffic flow or volume. But that was then. 

New Commission, New Decision

We have a more forward-thinking Commission now. After doing a lot of research, Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover sponsored a resolution on Tuesday night that rescinded that 2017 decision and instead directed staff to design the road to “Complete Street” standards as proposed four years ago. As the first speaker on the issue, WeCycle Bike Shop owner Evan Haskell said, “FDOT recommended this four years ago. It was the right thing to do then and it’s the right thing to do now.”

Mr. Haskell also answered critics who are afraid this will slow traffic down when he noted that the current four through lanes design includes installing signalized HAWK crossings, like on N. Roosevelt Boulevard, at each of the two condos (La Brisa and Key West by the Sea) and The Barbary Hotel. These wouldn’t be needed for crosswalks that only have to cross two lanes of car travel. He noted that FDOT said the HAWK signal will slow traffic more than the alternative (two through lanes). Speaker Roger McVeigh agreed and noted how much nicer a reconfigured boulevard could look in comparison and how important first impressions are to the visitors coming in at the airport.

The Mayor and Commissioners agreed. As Mayor Johnston put it “Why would we spend the time and money to put in an antiquated road. We keep talking about bike lanes and then we repave roads and don’t put them in. We have to build for the future.” Commissioner Hoover added that if we lose a few months on the timeline to get this right we should do so.

Is This Too Little Too Late?

The Mayor and Commissioner Hoover’s admonition to doing the right thing, even if it takes slightly longer, seemed to run headlong into the resolution’s wording about not compromising the current schedule. Engineering Department Director Steven McAlearney and City Engineer Kelly Crowe went into contortions in trying to explain why despite the vote, it may be too late to change direction. Said Mr. McAlearney, “It is more than just changing the paint on the road.” Which is exactly the opposite of what the Commission and public has been told all along.

Apparently, some items fell through the cracks, like getting all the rights-of-way deeded to the project. And this makes it harder to design something new that needs a few extra feet in width. In particular the City Engineer pointed out “We got the other required property’s (rights of way), but I don’t know why we didn’t get Key West by the Sea’s.” Engineering explains there’s a choke point in front of Key West by the Sea and they either need a few feet of space on that side of the road or you’ll have to lose some parking spaces, perhaps as many as 30, on the other side. 

Key West by the Sea Management has indicated that they may give the land to the project, as they see virtue in having a middle turn lane, a shorter crosswalk to the beach for their residents and a sidewalk, but it may take a few months to go through the formal process of the resident’s voting first. And the rub seems to be that everyone now seems in a hurry and very mindful that FDOT has a deadline of September 7 for the City, which is conducting and paying for the design, to turn in 100% completed drawings by then. 

Project Delays Are Typical on Road Projects. So Why is Everyone NOW So Adamant About Meeting a Deadline?

When was the last time an FDOT project was completed on time? We should note this project has been delayed a number of times already and isn’t scheduled to be constructed for two more years. But NOW no one seems to have any wiggle room in giving the City a bit more time with its design to make this a better project. I guess FDOT doesn’t like that the City changed its mind about the project and some at the City don’t seem willing to press the issue with FDOT. 

City Engineering staff presented so many caveats to the process that it was pretty clear in watching the proceedings they believed they couldn’t get a new design done by September 7. But the way the resolution was written, saying the Commission wanted the change as long as it didn’t interfere with the timeline and budget, hamstrings staff’s ability to do the right thing.

Let’s Not Let the City Commission Off the Hook So Easily

Commissioner Hoover seemed to say a small delay should be acceptable. She’s right. And the Mayor agreed saying: “We need to get to yes, by getting to a street for the future for Key West.” We agree.

This is a 25-year decision. What’s a few months or even a year and a couple hundred thousand dollars, if it means we all get a safer road that works for our future? It’s a small price to pay.

The Commission can’t have its cake (getting to say they did the right thing by voting for a safer design) and eat it too (make no concessions on timeline and budget). They need to summon the courage to do better and take the constraints off of staff about timeline and budget at its very next meeting. Otherwise, their vote will have been nothing more than an empty gesture.

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It’s Time to Reconsider a Road Diet on S. Roosevelt and Make the Promenade and Road Safer; March 26, 2021 

You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.