Streets for people / March Madness and the Duval Loop

In intending to update an older article on the Duval Loop for today’s column, I asked my friend, Thaddeus Cohen who lives in Bahama Village, for some thoughts on why the Duval Loop ridership has never recovered its pre-COVID highs, despite the fact that the number of visitors and our downtown economy have been thriving since then. His response was so timely and wonderful that I’m reprinting it in its entirety as a guest column. Enjoy!

March Madness, it’s that time of year. Many of us are excited that our school has made it to the big dance. Time to fill out those brackets. Who are the number one seeds who will be Cinderella. Is my team hitting its stride now that it’s playoff time. Will our stars meet the moment. How’s my bracket doing. 

Well… it looks like the Duval Loop is a bracket buster. It was our star. Transit surveys said it was the model for our transit system, number one in our region. What happened? How did we get knocked out in the first round.   

When a team is not performing up to expectations or under achieving the coach inevitably says we have to focus on our fundamentals, back to basics. 

The Duval Loop as envisioned had two missions. The first was to reduce tourist traffic downtown. That traffic was characterized by 1. tourists circling around downtown looking for a parking space clogging the roads and 2. short trips from the hotel to our attractions clogging the roads. 

 The second mission was tied to the first traffic issue i.e. looking for parking which inevitably had cars parking in residential neighborhoods. The Loop was to reduce the number of tourist cars parking in the residential neighborhood. 

The fix provided a circular bus route one block from Duval that was fun, free, and frequent. The Duval Loop was game ready, colorful uniforms (bus  wrap), press releases and literature working with the hospitality industry on how it worked got the Loop at its peak to over 450K riders and a dramatic reduction in neighborhood parking complaints. It had all the marking of a number one seed. 

Okay, I get it. The landscape changed. 

COVID, lack of CDL drivers, budget constraints, the system was expanded into adjacent areas like the Truman Waterfront Park and down into the historic seaport. However, the resulting changes are clearly not good; fewer buses equals longer wait times from 15 minutes or less to over 30 minutes, which is bad; loss of its uniforms i.e. now the Loop has non-descript vehicles, a mix of vehicles; and it appears to have lost the connection to our businesses. There is no star power.  There’s not even a Cinderella story to tell.

So, you guessed it. The Loop needs to get back to basics, to fundamentals and execution. 

Transit may now be competitive in attracting CDL drivers that’s a start. Think of it as the new NIL environment for drivers. The transit team has to tell its story as to why a driver wants to go with the Loop compared to other transit offers. Not easy, but we have to pay to play to stay in the game. In this environment the transfer portal is always open. 

We need to tighten up the route, back to the original concept, a circular around Duval. The Loop can’t be all things to all riders. Execution, at least a two-bus route or whatever it takes to have a 15-minute wait time. Let’s get our uniforms back. The Loop needs to be colorful, distinctive, to show we are ready for prime time. The bus stops need to be rehabilitated with map holders, route stop numbers and coordinated with the bus attire.

Let’s connect again with our boosters, the hospitality industry and the businesses that drive the economy. The Loop was designed in part to encourage the use of public transit, reduce traffic congestion, pollution, and fuel consumption. It’s a win for employers, employees, the transit system, and the community. 

The frustration of traffic congestion and parking in the neighborhood was front and center at the March District 6 community meeting. 

It’s time to be a number one seed again. We have the blueprint to be a winner. It’s comeback time.

Thaddeus Cohen

Thaddeus Cohen has worked transit issue as a former Secretary Florida DCA, Assistant City Manager Pensacola, Florida, and developer of the Duval Loop while Key West Planning Director. Mr. Cohen lives in Bahama Village.

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