Streets for People / 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

Chris Hamilton

Parking is a big topic, so we broke this piece into two stories. Last week we set up the problem and discussed why the topic should be addressed in “Part 1: Nobody Goes there Anymore. It’s Too Crowded.” This week we discuss specific solutions in Part 2: Battling Our Inner George Costanza – Ten Things We Can Do in Downtown Key West to Get the Parking Right.

Summary Recap of “Part 1: Nobody Goes there Anymore. It’s Too Crowded – Six Reasons for Right Pricing Parking”

There are approximately 3,000 on-street parking spaces in Old Town below White Street. About 1/3 of these spaces are metered, 1/3 are marked Residential and 1/3 are unmarked. Residential Permits can be had for $20 annually or $0.05 cents per day. The unmarked spaces are FREE. That means two thirds of downtown’s public, on-street parking spaces are virtually FREE. Traffic and parking congestion is the result. Islanders often don’t want to go out to eat or a movie or shopping downtown because they perceive the streets are too crowded.

If we want to make a dent in traffic and parking congestion, we need to apply the right parking strategies and manage our community’s parking to its maximum. We can’t give it away or subsidize it (underprice it), as this exacerbates congestion AND works against people using alternatives to driving.

Six Reasons for Right-Pricing Parking:

  1. Discourage Cruising for Free On-Street Parking
  2. Encourage Turnover for Retail
  3. Encourage Visitors to Park in Long-Term Lots and Keep Them There
  4. Fairness and Equity
  5. It’s a Wasteful use of Valuable Land
  6. Additional Revenue for Transportation Alternatives

In a January, 2021 community survey of Key West residents, done in conjunction with the new Key West Strategic Plan, just released by the City, parking and traffic flow were in the bottom three of the worst rated services of the City, coming in at 16 and 17 of eighteen rated items. This underscores that, yes, people perceive there is a problem.

The George Costanza Parking Conundrum

When a city undervalues parking by providing free, nearly free and underpriced metered parking, many people think like George Costanza and always believe if they just try hard enough, they’ll find a spot. In one of the most popular Seinfeld episodes of all time – the 39th episode called “The Parking Space,” – Elaine tells George to just put the car in a garage because he’s never going to find a parking space. But George, like most Americans, is loath to pay for parking. And that’s the dilemma. If people, whether they are visiting for a few days, parking for a work shift, or coming downtown for dinner, know there are free or nearly free parking spaces out there, no matter how rare they are, they are going to circle the block and go round and round until they find one rather than put it in a longer-term lot. And as we learned in last week’s story, that just leads to more congestion on our streets. It’s the same here in Key West.

We can tell visitors to downtown to park in the garages and long-term lots, but if they believe they can find a free or nearly free spot, well damnit, they are going to spend 10 or 15 minutes to find that FREE spot. And that’s what makes downtown so congested and that’s what gets people so frustrated when they “can’t find parking.” Here’s some solutions.

Ten Things We Should Do in Key West

As evidenced by the recent Community Survey, seemingly everybody thinks there is a parking and traffic problem. The thing is everyone comes at this a little bit differently. Some people “can’t ever find parking” when what they really mean is, they can’t find free on-street parking within a block of their destination. Others can’t find parking in front of their home on Thomas or Fleming or Olivia Streets. Businesses get frustrated when their customers can’t find nearby parking. The parking and traffic problem is really as varied as there are individuals, because what’s a problem for one person on one block isn’t exactly the same on another block.

With that being said, the following proposals are meant as a starting point for discussion. Thoughtful people can fine tune the details and numbers. But we stand by the general thrust of the basic points. We should do these things because they will improve our quality of life, business prosperity for Mom n Pop Shops, and our environment. The fact that taken as a whole they may raise some additional revenue is a bonus. Oh, and that additional revenue, should be designated to transportation alternatives and infrastructure improvements downtown. We should also stress that you need to do most of these things in a coordinated fashion. They work together. They support and build upon each other.

1 – Raise the Price on Metered Parking

In most places downtown, $4 an hour is too cheap to price this valuable real estate asset. Especially when surveys show the minimum to park in most garages, or lots is $5 or more per hour. Raise the rates to $5 or more immediately. Vary the prices so that it is more expensive during peak periods of the day and peak times of the year. For the very most convenient spaces, consider using a progressive price structure to favor short-term users. For example, charge $5.00 for the first hour, $6.00 for the second hour, and $7.00 for the next and so on.

Meters Must Be Priced Higher Than Garages/Lots. If the City is considering raising garage and parking lot rates at its facilities, we must remember the on-street metered rates always need to be more than surrounding garages and lots, and that needs to be common knowledge. Otherwise, people will want to try and park on the less expensive street spots first and that leads to the Constanza cruising congestion problem.

2 – Reform Residential Parking Permits – Raise the Price to Reflect the Value

The purpose of these permits is to regulate parking by giving residents priority over available designated spaces. Enabling them to park close to their residence.

As the number of spaces allocated to this program downtown (approximately 1,000) is scare, the price should take this into account. $20 for an annual permit comes out to $0.05 cents a day. $0.05 CENTS A DAY! To ease into this how about next year charging $60 annually for the first vehicle. At $5 a month, this is still a bargain as garages charge upwards of $200 monthly. Charge $120 for a household’s second vehicle and progressively on up. Then raise these rates automatically with inflation so this doesn’t become a political hot potato every year.

3 – Reform Residential Parking Permits – Institute a Zone System

Residential Permit Parking is intended for residents to be able to park within a few blocks of their home. Zones should be small and only available to people who reside or have a business within that zone. This is common practice throughout North America. Wikipedia says “residential zoned parking is a local government practice of designating certain on-street automobile parking spaces for the exclusive use of nearby residents. It is a tool for addressing overspill parking from neighboring population centers such as a business or tourist district. ”

In Key West there’s only one Zone. It covers the entire City, including Stock Island. Anyone can purchase this pass for $20 or $0.05 cents a day. The permit allows folks on Stock Island to drive into downtown and use one of those 1,000 on-street Residential Permit Parking spaces for virtually FREE. As long as they like. For people living north of White Street, the only reason to get a pass is to be able to park for 5 cents a day downtown.

The people who live in the core in Bahama Village, the Seaport or around the Cemetery are the ones that need a permit to ensure parking near their home. But with 10,000 to 12,000 annual permits out there and only 1,000 Residential Permit Parking spaces, those spaces are hard to come by, especially in season. Let’s say that again, there’s at least 10 permits for every one parking space.

It isn’t fair to the people who live downtown. Perhaps we should just call these passes what they are, Residents Please Drive and Park Anywhere You Like for Free Passes and not pretend to call them what they aren’t. Most people aren’t using them to park near their own home, but they might be using them to park near your home. We often hear the tired argument that “I pay city taxes, so I should be able to park for free anywhere in the City I want.” But if these people lived on Elizabeth, Emma or William Streets, would they really say the same thing? Doubtful.

How many zones are needed? That’s a good question. We have 3 Commission Member Districts and 6 Voting Precincts downtown, perhaps those boundaries could be used for zones? How many different micro-neighborhoods do we have? Or perhaps you just use one zone for downtown and one for the rest of the City? However, you slice it, having multiples zones is better than having none.

The Residential Parking Permits would still get you 4-hours free at the beaches and select lots and garages all over downtown, but people who don’t live nearby would no longer compete with people who actually live on a block. All the zones could be $60 or perhaps just the downtown zones are $60, and the other zones are $30?

4 – Put Hourly Limits on the 1,000 Unmarked Spaces Downtown

There are at about 1,000 unmarked, free spaces in Old Town below White Street. One can park in these spaces for three days or 72 hours before having to move a vehicle. THESE are the parking spots that the George Costantza’s among us, whether they be overnight or day visitors or uptowners and non-islanders without Residential Permit Parking passes, look for. Limit the parking in these spaces to a certain number of hours, say 4 to 6 hours between the hours of 8 am and midnight. This encourages people who are visiting to use the long-term lots. We might also consider turning more of these spaces over to Residential Parking Permit and more to metered parking spaces.

5 – Allow Use of Hourly-Limited Unmarked Spaces for People with Residential Permit Parking Permits

For persons that live in the City and currently have a Residential Parking Permit but don’t live downtown, they might say that the Zoned system (#3) doesn’t allow them to park close-in for nearly free anymore. For persons that live in a downtown zone, they might say well now that you’ve instituted 6-hour parking on the unmarked spaces, if I find one of those, I can’t use it. However, this proposal (#5) would allow ANY Residential Permit Parking holder, from any zone, the right to use these spaces, as they were previously, for up to 72 hours at a time. The signage for the unmarked spaces would say:

“6-Hour Parking, 8 am to Midnight,

Except Vehicles with Any Zoned Residential Parking Permit.”

You’ve likely seen these kinds of restrictions, all over the country. They work to push visitors to long-term parking lots or garages.

6 – Reform the City’s Employee Parking Program and Get Employers Involved

We need better data, but anecdotally we find people who work downtown complain about the lack of parking as they hunt for those elusive 1,000 free unmarked spaces or if they live in the City and have a Residential Parking Permit also try to find one of those spaces, which then frustrates people who live on the block.

There are two City programs to help employees out.

  1. There’s an Employee Parking Lot Permit, for $25 a month, that allows employees to park in the Truman Waterfront Park or the Park n Ride Garage at Grinnell and James Streets at the Seaport. Employees can also park behind the County building on Whitehead after hours and on weekends. The Duval Loop also serves all three points to take people for free anywhere in downtown.
  2. Employee Assistance Parking Permit. This premium permit allows the user to park in ANY metered space, without feeding the meter for 12 hours a day. It costs $175 a month + 7.5% sales tax. It is valid for one specific vehicle.

Keep #1, Reform #2, the Employee Assistance Parking Permit. It may seem like a lot of money, but consider that for downtown parking, surveys show that a monthly permit in a private garage costs between $200 and $225. In fact, the City’s Public Park n Ride Garage at the Seaport charges $200 per month + 7.5% tax for a monthly permit. So, buying on of these permits is less expensive than using a private lot or the public garage. There are about 350 of these permits in circulation. So that means 350 of the choicest metered parking isn’t being used by customers of nearby shops but by people who should be parking in long-term lots. Also consider that because these are the choicest metered spots, although that $175 in revenue per month may seem like a big haul, it is likely less than would be brought in if hourly users were getting those spots. DO AWAY WITH THIS ELITIST PROGRAM and turn the spots back over to people who are shopping and dining.

Get Key West Employers More Involved. Unlike many other cities where we find employers provide their employees parking or a tax-free parking or transit stipend, we find that Key West employers tend to leave how their employees get to work, up to the employees. The City and/or Chamber should work with downtown employers to help them provide information and stipends to use the Employee Parking Lot Permit, stipends to use Key West Transit and the Lower Keys Shuttle and even stipends to use for bicycling to work.

7 – Make It Easy to Find Long-Term Parking with Better Wayfinding

Direct people to long-term garages and parking lots with better wayfinding signage and marketing before they get downtown and through downtown, all the way to the destination. This way visitors aren’t hunting all over the place for on-street parking. Even better, coordinate all the lots and garages and direct people to those less full by providing coordinated dynamic signage.

Don’t forget to develop a truck/delivery plan for downtown so it is less congested with delivery and trash and recycle vehicles at all times of the day. Coordinate the merchants and plan the hours.

8 – Build a Park-n-Ride Lot on Stock Island and Bus People In

This idea has been talked about for decades. The recent 10-Year Key West Transit Development Plan calls for expanding the current Key West Transit facility on Stock Island to establish an Intermodal Center with bus transfer facilities and a park-and-ride for personal vehicles and tour buses. The plan calls for busing visitors to downtown every 15 minutes, seven days a week on a free Key West Intermodal Connector bus “allowing the reduction of ever-increasing congestion and parking demand.” Let’s finally get this done.

9 – Make it Easier to Get to Key West Without a Car

When asked “How they got to Key West”? in a 2019 TDC Visitor Profile Survey, overnight visitors said: 36% by personal vehicle, 29% rental vehicle, 8% fly into Miami and rent a car for a total of 73% by car. Twenty-three percent (23%) flew directly into Key West Airport, 3% into Marathon Airport and 1% came by tour bus. I’m surprised the ferry numbers didn’t even register, but the numbers beg the question about why we don’t have better ground and water transportation alternatives to get to the island from the mainland.

According to a 2019 Study published in the Journal of Transportation Demand Management at the University of South Florida entitled “Toward Car-Free Key West” by Mary Bishop the author cites a dramatic drop off for people renting cars on subsequent trips to Key West because they realize that once here they don’t need a car to get around. Perhaps the TDC’s marketing efforts could reiterate how compact, flat and easy Key West is to get around without a car and encourage people to get here by plane, ferry and coach buses.

The County and the State should be encouraged to invest in more ferry and long-haul bus service and dare we even say some sort of rail all the way to the island.

10 – Make it Easier and Safer to Bike, Walk and Take the Bus

Coupled with all of this parking management activity is the knowledge that if we expect more people to switch from driving alone everywhere, we need to radically remake Key West Transit so that all routes resemble the Duval Loop – free, frequent and simple. We need to make it safe to bike everywhere in town by slowing cars down and providing protected bicycle lanes, greenways, trails and lots more bike parking. We also need to make it safer to walk. We need to slow the cars and give preference to pedestrians on our crowded downtown streets – not cars.

Result – Streets for People, Not Just Cars

When we right price our valued downtown on-street parking via these parking management techniques and coordinate them with robust bike, walk and transit alternatives, it makes our streets more efficient and less crowded.

By vanquishing our inner George Costanza, we’ll have less cars on our streets and we just might get to turn over more of this valuable community asset to encourage more space on our main commercial streets downtown for wider sidewalks for people to sit, chat, eat and people gaze. It doesn’t have to be entire streets. It can be parts of streets or even just parklets. We might be able to turn over more of that asset for protected bicycle lanes and bicycle parking too. Or use it for trees, art and pop-up vendors.

Doing all this will be more friendly to our environment and help combat climate change. It makes us healthier. And happier too. Very importantly it helps local Mom n Pop businesses prosper. It will help us build a thriving, vibrant downtown that visitors AND residents will be happy to go to because it won’t be perceived as so crowded – with cars – anymore.

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Recent stories from the KONK Life Streets for People column:

Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth 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.