Streets for People / Key West Transit’s Uber-Like On-Demand “Key West Rides” Service Begins November 30

The City announced this week that Key West Transit’s new “Key West Rides” Uber-like, on-demand bus service begins on Wednesday, November 30. On that day the two North and South Lines that snake their way from Stock Island to downtown via different fixed City routes will disappear. In their place customers anywhere in Key West and Stock Island will be able to use an app on their smartphone to request a ride, from 6 am to 8 pm, to be picked up and then taken between any of 160+ bus stops throughout the service area. The matching technology will group riders going in a similar direction for quick and efficient shared trips at the same $2 per trip price as current City routes. Duval Loop and Lower Keys Shuttle routes will remain as they are today.

First proposed during the summer of 2021 budget process as a way to cope with a lack of bus drivers, this innovation is welcome news because a healthy, green, and prosperous island needs a well-functioning transit system as an alternative to the congestion and pollution the increasing number of cars brings to our paradise. And our beleaguered workforce needs decent options like this (and bicycling) to help cope with the spiraling costs of commuting by car on top of already other-worldly housing costs. Our story looks behind the scenes on how this came about, provides some more details, and looks to future iterations and improvements.

Driver Shortage = Lack of Frequent Service = Declining Ridership 

In the two years’ before Covid, annual ridership on Key West Transit’s Duval Loop, City Routes and Lower Key’s Shuttle totaled 620,071 and 652,404 and then fell by half in 2020-2021 to just 352,500. Even as the island’s economy rebounded with record numbers of visitors, transit ridership continued to plummet. In the just completed 2021-2022 fiscal year that ended last month on September 30, only 223,863 rides were taken. That’s just about 1/3 the rides taken a few years ago. U.S. Census data shows less than one percent (1%) or almost no one takes the bus to commute to work.

Part of the problem is a lack of qualified bus drivers due to our housing-crunch. Without drivers, service levels haven’t been what they were pre-Covid. With buses running less frequently, people can’t depend on it and ridership drops. 

Transit advocates, I included, have lobbied the City to ramp up the dismal frequencies on the different routes to attract more residents, workers, and visitors to ride. The City routes only come by every 80 – 95 minutes, the Lower Keys Shuttle every 90 – 120 minutes and even the Duval Loop only comes by every 30-40 minutes these days. Research shows that if these frequencies were every 15-20 minutes more people would use the service. But the reality is, more frequent service needs more drivers, and this isn’t currently possible given our housing/worker crisis. When I asked Rod Delostrinos, Key West Transit Director about driver pay here’s what he said:

“The City Commission has approved the reclassification of the driver positions resulting in higher pay. The driver vacancies are slowly being filled, but we are still short drivers. The compensation along with other benefits package the City of Key West offers will hopefully persuade current drivers to continue with us and new candidates to apply.”

On-Demand Service To the Rescue

Anticipating the driver shortage is a longer-term issue, and thus the frequency problem wasn’t going to be solved quickly, Mr. Delostrinos and his team came up with the on-demand service as a solution during the budget process in the summer of 2021. Here’s how he put the difference between operating on fixed-routes and on-demand when we chatted this summer:

“On-demand transit allows for the City of Key West to use its transit resources more efficiently. Transit vehicles within the city area will eventually operate only with trip requests thus eliminating empty or near empty vehicles from continuous circling of set routes. Fuel savings, better personnel utilization given a 55% shortage of CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) drivers, and reduction in carbon emissions are a few of the anticipated positive impacts.”

As Key West Transit staff is already stretched thin, in June the City Commission approved a $248,880 competitive bid exemption contract with Via Transportation, Inc. to provide Key West Transit with the hardware, software, training, marketing, and support to operate the program. We give Rod and his team credit for trying something completely different and partnering with a private sector transportation company for support. After more than a year of planning, it is now all coming together. Says Mayor Teri Johnston: 

“I am thrilled to get the on-demand service up and running. As new housing units are added in and around Key West, this service can offer a cost effective and reliable way to get to and from work, save some money, reduce our street congestion, noise levels, parking issues and pollution all while lowering our stress levels.”

Key West Rides On-Demand Transit Service Explained

The easiest way to explain how to use the service is to say it works very similarly to Uber, meaning you use an app on your smartphone to request a ride. The free Key West Rides app will be available on Google Play and iOS App Store on November 23. Here’s how Key West Transit explains it:

“Trips must start and end within the designated service area. After booking a ride, the app will display the pick-up location where the vehicle will meet you. This is a bus stop -to- bus stop service so that you will be picked up and dropped off close as possible to your destination. Since this is a shared ride service, you may board with others in the vehicle or stop to pick up others. Key West Rides On-Demand currently has only one zone in Key West, including Stock Island. Check the zone and bus stops out in this interactive map.”

We’ve been told that Key West Transit will be taking calls in-house for those that don’t have smartphones. We don’t have a number yet. When we asked about anticipated wait times Rod told us: “Since wait times are affected on the number of riders, it would be difficult to speculate.”

As with an Uber, you’ll be able to track the progress of your ride on the app. The big difference from Uber is that you’ll still have to pay for your ride the old-fashioned way. With cash or a pass. Rides are $2 per trip, $4 for a One Day Pass, $8 for a 7-Day Pass and $25 for a 31-Day Pass. There are discounts for students, disabled/disadvantaged, military, and seniors. It would be nice in the future if you could pay using a credit card stored on your app.

The other difference from Uber is that this isn’t a door-to-door service. You pinpoint your desired beginning and ending points and the app directs you to the nearest bus stops. So, all those stops are on existing routes. We don’t yet know if they’ll be adding stops in places where no routes currently exist, like in parts of Midtown. Regarding if there will be any information at those stops initially the Transit Director says: “Eventually all stops will have information on “how to use” the On-Demand Transit. The information will available on flyers on the bus, websites, and brochures at various locations.”

It would be nice if you could rate your ride like on Uber too. But then again, look at the savings. Your ride is only $2 instead of $20!

Staffing and Data Can Help Shape Future Service Expansions

When we asked Mr. Delostrinos if there were any plans to go beyond 8 pm yet he told us:

“Not at this time. The service level is based on staffing. If this program is successful, service hours and staffing level increases could be discussed during the next fiscal year’s budget preparation.”

The Transportation Director also notes that analyzing the customer data – where people get picked up, dropped off and when – generated by the on-demand system will enable his team to potentially develop new efficient fixed route, circulator and/or express services in the future. He said:

“The key to determining better service is to analyze the first few months of on-demand transit service, recognize emerging ridership patterns, and possibly develop additional transit service such as limited express bus.” 

The tracking from the app should provide a treasure-trove of useful data. 

Potential Freebee Micro-Transit Service On Stock Island Tie In

In our story “Freebee On-Demand Ride-Hailing-to-Transit Might Provide Stock Island Residents With Reason to Leave Their Cars at Home,” July 22, 2022 we discussed the County’s $850,000 experimental project to use little Freebee golf cart like vehicles to take people from their homes on Stock Island to a long-haul fixed route shuttle that would then take people from Stock Island to downtown. In order for this to work, Key West Transit would need to provide that long-haul service. Currently the Lower Keys Shuttle only comes by 10 times a day or about every hour and a half to two hours. If the on-demand project is successful at providing more service with less drivers as officials anticipate and if the City is successful at recruiting more drivers, perhaps a long-haul shuttle can be initiated, or Lower Keys Shuttle buses can become much more frequent. Then the Freebee tie in would work much better. So, a lot of potential future service could be riding on the success of Key West Rides.

Bus Stop Upgrades Coming Soon

In our story “City to Begin Work On Making It Easy to Bike to Lower Keys Shuttle and Enhancing Bus Stops from Marathon to Key West,” November 4, 2022 we talked about how the City is beginning construction on a $1.4 million dollar project to install bicycle racks and bike lockers, map and schedule information, hail or flagging devices, trash and recycle bins, lights, and even some fix-it stations at 74 bus stops between Marathon and Key West. While this project is mostly aimed at Lower Keys Shuttle bus stops, the City anticipates following this up and doing something similar at all the remaining Duval Loop and Key West Rides bus stops. Making the bus stops an attractive place to wait and providing information on how to use the service will be a key in an overall better experience for existing riders and for attracting new riders.

Key West Ride’s Success Is a Win for All of Us

The last few years haven’t been kind to our island’s little transit system. Declining ridership (here and here), third-world-like bus stops (here and here) and disappointing follow-through on planning efforts to improve the system (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) have led many to give up on seeing a genuinely useful resident and worker-friendly transit system on our islands. But the bus stop upgrades, potential micro-transit on Stock Island and now most especially the new Key West Rides on-demand transit getting off the ground gives us reason to hope for better times ahead.

Our Mayor has been tenacious about keeping transit improvements on the front burner. As has our City Manager. Including these improvements in the City’s Strategic Plan has ensured it is being addressed (thanks to Elisa Levy). And good people at Key West Transit (we’re looking at you Rod Delostrinos, Rogelio Hernandez, and Carolyn Haia), and City Hall (Ryan Stachurski and Alison Higgins) are working together as a team to improve transportation options despite being short-staffed. Thanks to all of them!

An improving transit system helps our island’s workers, residents, and visitors by providing another viable cost-effective option, in addition to bikes, to being dependent on driving a car everywhere. It helps us combat congestion and parking issues and cleans up our environment. It makes us healthier and helps our Mom-and-Pop business thrive. So, let’s wish this team success in rolling out Key West Rides. We all win if this works.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. 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 car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the most recent 2022 stories below:

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