Streets for People / It’s Time to Eliminate Free On-Street Parking for Visitors Downtown

Key West is experiencing record numbers of tourists of late. The TDC says 77 percent of these visitors arrive by car. Surveys tell us parking and traffic congestion is a top concern of residents’ island wide. People who live downtown say they have trouble parking in front of their homes. Locals who would like to go shopping, dining or to an event downtown complain about a lack of parking. So why are we allowing fully one third of all the on-street parking spaces in Old Town, about 1,000 spots, to be taken and used for free by visitors for up to three days or 72 hours? Shouldn’t they be parking in long-term lots and garages? It’s time to eliminate this giveaway and manage our on-street parking better so that residents and people using the commercial district have more options.

There’s Plenty of Parking, Just Not a Lot on the Street

There may be as many as 10,000 parking spaces downtown. Most of these are off street. There are a few thousand private parking spaces in driveways, retail and lodging lots. On top of that there’s another 2,000 to 3,000 publicly available for pay parking spaces in private and public lots and garages. There are another 3,000 on-street parking spaces in the downtown core, generally below White Street but including the Meadows. About 1/3 of these on-street spaces are metered, 1/3 are marked Residential Permit Only and 1/3 are unmarked and free.

On-street metered spaces are $5 an hour. Permits for Resident Permit Only spaces are now $35 annually. But the 1,000 unmarked spaces mixed in, side by side with the Resident Permit Only spaces are FREE for up to three days (72 hours) at a time. The problem is the competition for these unmarked free spaces between nearby homeowners, residents coming downtown for a few hours and overnight or day visitors looking for a place to store their car can be fierce and causes its own set of cascading problems exacerbating congestion and gridlock. Especially during season. 

If you have to pay for metered and Resident Permit parking why in the world are we providing the last third of on-street spaces to visitors for up to three days for free when they should be parking in long-term lots and garages? It makes no sense to underprice a valuable, scarce asset and lose potential revenue.

The Lure of Available Free Parking…

We get it. Free parking in most of non-urban America has come to be seen as a right. This is perfectly exemplified in one of the most popular Seinfeld episodes of all time, The Parking Space. In it, Elaine tells George to just put the car in a garage because he’s never going to find a free on-street parking space. But George, like most Americans, is loath to pay for parking and keeps hunting saying, “Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

Visitors are like George. If they know there’s a possibility of a free space, most are going to resist efforts to park the car in a paid lot or garage, and search for that free spot instead. And we all know this is true. 

I worked at a small hotel near the Historic Seaport that had no parking of its own. There are dozens and dozens of these scattered about the Historic District, to say nothing of all the short-term vacation rentals. We told our guests they could park in a lot across the street for $24 – $30 a night or they could find a free space on the street. 90 percent of them opted to go find free parking. Just like George Costanza. Day visitors to Key West know this as well.  

The Lure of Available Free Parking Causes Cruising that Congests Downtown

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

The Lure of Available Free Parking Discourages Turnover for Retail

If these close-in unmarked free spaces are taken by long-term parkers storing their vehicles, this discourages their use by short-term users for visiting retailers, restaurants and attractions. 

And the Lure of Available Free Parking Competes with Resident’s Ability to Park in Front of Their Home

A familiar lament of downtown residents is the competition for Resident Permit Only parking spaces. There are about 10,000 Resident Parking Permits issued annually. Residents, especially during the season, may have to park blocks away from their home because there’s only 1,000 Resident Permit spaces downtown and the 1,000 unmarked spaces are jammed with visitors who should be in long term lots.  

Three Simple Things We Can Do to Fix This

  • Put Hourly Limits on the 1,000 Unmarked Spaces Downtown

Some of the 1,000 or so unmarked free parking spaces downtown should likely be remade into metered and Resident Permit spaces. All the rest should get an hourly limit. Say four to six hours between the hours of 8 am and midnight for example. This is what will encourage people who are visiting for the day or overnight to use the long-term parking options.

  • Exempt Resident Permit Holders from the Hourly Limits

Allow anyone with a Resident Permit to use these now hourly spaces, for up to 72 hours, just like the Resident Permit spaces. That way the new hourly limits don’t impinge on any residents.

  • Direct Overnight and Day Visitors to Long-Terms Lots and Park It and Forget It

Marketing by the TDC and the lodging industry needs to make visitors aware there is no free parking in Key West well before they get here and to share with them where this parking is during their reservation process. This ensures the expectation is set long before they complain. 

As people arrive through the Triangle they should be directed by clear wayfinding to various lots and garages. Real-time occupancy information via these signs and online can help better manage the supply.

Further, the educational message should be to Park It and Forget It. Meaning once your car is in the garage or lot, forget it and walk, bike, and use transit to get around the island. We even call the Old Town Garage at 300 Grinnell, the “Park N Ride” for this very reason. The Duval Loop has a stop at its front door.

Someday, we may even capture most of these cars on Stock Island at an Intermodal Transit Center, but until then, Set It and Forget It downtown will have to do.

Everybody Wins When Parking is Managed Better

By doing these three things downtown residents win by freeing up a little more parking close to home. Uptown residents win by having more non-metered parking available to visit downtown for shopping, dining and events. Local businesses win because now there’s more needed turnover for the close-in spots instead of them being hogged by long-term visitors. And everybody wins because downtown is less congested and there’s fewer parking hassles when visitors are hunting for elusive free parking spaces.

Here’s hoping our City’s leaders find the courage to enact needed change.

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

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. 

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