Streets for People / Duval Loop Ridership is Plummeting. Save the Duval Loop!

Think about our experience in Key West the last year or so. Everyone’s exhausted from an amazingly busy 2-year period. More visitors than ever. Increased overnight stays and record numbers of hotel and sales tax receipts. Parking revenue has never been higher. Everything, everywhere on the island is up! But ridership on our once very successful downtown circulator, the Duval Loop, has fallen off a cliff. Projections for ridership this year are 25% less than even last year’s awful pandemic-stricken numbers and are less than 1/5 of the rides in Fiscal Year 2018/2019 prior to Covid. When all other economic indicators are up, why is Duval Loop ridership plummeting?

Perhaps because today, buses arrive maybe every 30 and more likely every 40 minutes instead of every 15 as during the system’s first couple of years. Maybe because the distinctive and beautifully branded pink and blue buses are now replaced more than half the time with unbranded buses that include short plain white vans, longer plain white buses and the City’s lone hybrid bus painted green. It could be because the 18 Duval Loop bus stops are a mish mash of inconsistent branding with absolutely no map and schedule information whatsoever. And perhaps it’s because there’s no marketing and outreach for a service that is the front door to over a million visitors annually. The lack of effort is simply appalling. Why is City Hall letting the goose that laid the golden egg crumble before our very eyes? The City needs to take corrective action now before things get even worse. Here’s why we need a great service and how we fix it.

Once Upon a Time the Duval Loop Was Awesome

In its first couple years of service the Duval Loop was universally hailed as something City Hall got right. Talked about for decades, the downtown circulator, when it finally debuted in the summer of 2017, was distinctively branded, had a business-friendly outreach and partner program and most importantly was free, frequent (every 15 minutes) and had a simple, easy to understand route. This formula was immediately successful. In its first year it helped double Key West Transit Ridership. In its second year it accounted for nearly 60% of the entire systems’ total rides as it hit 419,000 total trips. In the City’s 10-year Transit Development Plan (TDP) adopted at the end of 2019, the Duval Loop was cited in surveys as the model for an overhaul of the system’s other routes. 

And then Covid happened. So understandably the numbers dropped, just as everything on the island did for a bit of time. But as the rest of the island rebounded and prospered as the visitors returned, the Duval Loop hasn’t because its frequency was cut back, its bus stops and marketing ignored and allowed to rot, and its distinctive buses replaced by ugly white vans and buses indistinguishable from work and delivery vehicles. This year the Duval Loop is anticipating about 74,000 trips. Less than a fifth of its over 419,000 2018/2019 Fiscal Year high. 

With over half the funding of Key West Transit coming from State and Federal funds dependent on ridership numbers, we shouldn’t be letting this happen as it could cause a death spiral on outside funding.

Why We Need a Great Circulator Downtown

Traffic and parking congestion have been a top concern for decades. More and more visitors are coming to our island and 77% of them arrive by car exacerbating traffic problems and parking conflicts. As beloved Key West Island News columnist Linda Grist Cunningham aptly explains:

“We’ve got too many motorized things clogging our streets…After all, our streets were laid out a couple hundred years ago. Tiny streets on a tiny island, when both people and transportation devices were smaller and fewer. The island simply isn’t built to handle our crowds and must-have SUVs.”

A 2019 study confirmed that visitors want and expect a frequent downtown circulator like the Duval Loop. The study also showed that visitors who rented cars on an initial visit to Key West did so much less on subsequent visits as they learned they didn’t need a car to get around. The analysis told us that visitors who have access to a vehicle, will indeed use it to get around, if there aren’t good options, like the Loop, instead.

And there’s the rub. Without an awesome Duval Loop and better all-around transit and safer biking for that matter, visitors will default to using cars. And that’s bad for our environment, our health, and our prosperity. Here’s what we need to do to fix this:

1 – Bring Back 15 Minute Frequency

When the Duval Loop was created everyone understood that frequency was the key to success. They used two buses on the route at a time. The bus came along every 15 minutes 10 am to midnight and every 30 minutes 6 am to 10 am. While today the City says on its website that the bus comes along every twenty minutes 10 am to 8 pm and every 30 minutes 8 am to 10 am and 8 pm to 10 pm, this is rarely the case. That’s because they are only using one bus at a time, on a longer route. We’ve been tracking the Duval Loop for months using the “Live Map” feature on their website and from our observation deck on Fleming Street and if the bus comes along every 35 to 40 minutes, you’re lucky. During the busy season when there’s plenty of traffic and parking congestion on the street – you’d be hard pressed to drive the route without stopping in 20 minutes. So, this stretches to 30, 35 and 40 with traffic and stops. And that’s because they are using one bus at a time, not two as Key West Transit did in the old days.

When the bus arrives every 15 minutes there’s no need for a schedule. Research from around the world and Key West Transit’s own surveys show frequency is the number one driver of getting people to use the bus instead of opting to drive. If the bus comes along every 15 minutes no one has to think about it, consult a schedule, or download an app, hope it is working and track when the next bus is arriving. You simply go to the bus stop, wait a few minutes and board. It is the number one recipe for success and it is a key ingredient in making downtown more prosperous.

2 – Only Use Branded Buses

When most of the Loop’s riders are visitors, you can’t leave them guessing about what bus to get on. When a small white van or big blank bus pulls up to the bus stop would you expect visitors to exclaim, that must be our bus! No. They likely think “What is this cheap outfit?” and are afraid to hop aboard. If Oceans Edge, Beachside Marriott, and the Perry all use branded shuttles why in the world is Key West Transit rolling out vehicles that could be mistaken for work trucks? If there’s a reason Key West Transit is using multiple types of buses, why aren’t the buses branded? The distinctive pink and blue Duval Loop buses are smartly designed. They have the route largely painted right on the side of the bus. It says, “Free and Frequent,” has the website on its side and even boasts “Get there. Have fun. Get back!” branding. 

3 – Put Map and Schedule Information at the 18 Bus Stops

We’ve written a couple of times (here and here) about the lack of care exhibited with the 18 Duval Loop bus stops. Many of the stops don’t say Duval Loop. Two years after the system went back to no cost to ride, orange tape still covers the word free. The tape was put on for a brief time when the system ill-advisedly charged a $1 fee. To be fair, some stops do have a small sign that says Duval Loop, but it’s hit or miss. 17 of the 18 stops do have a number, one through 18, but what does this mean? Not one stop has any map that might correspond to these numbers or provide any “You are here” context. Not one stop has any information about when the bus might operate or how often it comes along. None have a website either. Experts and common sense tell us that each bus stop is an opportunity to market the service to potential riders and telegraph to regular customers that the system cares. The current state of the bus stops tells visitors and residents alike, that the City just doesn’t care about its transit system.

4 – Market the Service

While we’re convinced that 40-minute frequency, unbranded buses and awful bus stops with no information are the major culprit in declining ridership, it doesn’t help that the City doesn’t market the service whatsoever. This when the City spends upwards of $350,000 annually to market the Historic Seaport. We’ve talked about a dozen marketing things Key West Transit can do to help increase ridership in the past. Research tells us that you get more use out of whatever service you put on the street if you market it well. Sad to say, more than a year after we wrote the story on easy to implement, low-cost marketing ideas, none of these are being done. If we care about our system, we need to invest in a little marketing. It will go a long way towards helping.

Address the Elephant in the Room – No More Excuses 

No doubt officials will whine about the lack of drivers as the reason for less frequent and unbranded buses. We get it. The whole island is going through a staffing crisis. But this has been the Transit Department’s lament going on five plus years with no resolution. In the current fiscal year’s budget, the City committed $2.8 million or $5,417 per employee annually to help with that problem. That, and Key West Transit received a no strings $1 M American Rescue Plan grant this year. Where’d the money go? Time to stop crying wolf and raise driver wages more significantly like HTA does.

The City currently advertises a $19.96 per hour + benefits for CDL (commercial driver’s license) licensed drivers, full or part-time. They advertise $15.30 per hour for non CDL drivers. It is the non-CDL licensed employees driving the unbranded vans and cut-a-way buses.

Historic Tours of America or HTA (think Conch Train, Ghost Tours, and Trolleys), which uses CDL drivers for their buses, starts their drivers at $22 + tips. They often provide bonuses. Perhaps the City needs to match HTA as a start, or even go higher since City drivers don’t make tips. There’s no excuse, not to get this done.

City of Key West Leaders Need to Rally Round Our Duval Loop

When confronted with the reality that the once successful Duval Loop is struggling and needs an infusion of help, let’s hope the City leaders don’t circle the wagons as is often done and get defensive and make excuses. Pay a wage that attracts drivers. Get the frequency back to 15 minutes. Use only branded buses. Upgrade all 18 bus stops with branding, map, and schedule information. And spend some effort and money marketing what a very good program Duval Loop could be once again. Our beloved downtown will be a better more prosperous place if we get this done.

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