The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Key West is going to sink under the tourist car invasion

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


The refrigerator magnet reads “When you live on an island, expect company.”

It’s late Friday afternoon and I’m trying to cross Truman AKA U.S. Route 1 at Mile Marker 1. Traffic to the left of me. Traffic to the right. No end on either side. Cars are backed up to Duval at one end and the “Welcome to Key West” sign on the other. Miles of tourists, two to five a car, and a handful of locals wishing they were home or wheeling down the Publix aisle.

There is one empty parking spot in Key West on Friday nights and these cars will drive round and round in a automotive game of musical chairs. Key West has too much company and we’ve not a clue how to manage our guests.

We’re wringing our collective hands over sea level rise and climate change — which are, without doubt, going to do us in a hundred years from now — while doing nothing to rein in the millions of tons of gasoline-charged, bar coded tourist vehicles that have turned Key West streets into a year-long land cruise.

We fret about cars in Key West. On a two-by-four square mile island with one way in and out (excluding boats and airplanes, of course), locals can make do with one car per household. We do occasionally make the trek to the mainland or the Key West suburbs, which is what my neighbor calls Stock Island, two miles up. Bikes, trikes, scooters and feet fill in the gaps.

The by-sea and by-air tourists don’t need cars, but apparently no one tells them that. Instead, they land at Key West International airport or dock and fast foot it to the rental car desk for that most desirable blaze orange mustang convertible with its telltale bar code, drive 1.6 miles to the vacation rental, spend an hour in search of a parking place, illegally park it in front of my driveway or pay through the nose for a garage and never move it again for the duration.

Key West traffic is abysmal and that makes it exactly like any other over-stuffed tourist town. Locals check the cruise ship and daily events schedules the way mainlanders check the weather report. Any signs of disturbance and we avoid downtown. We time our grocery and errand runs to the days the vacation rentals are not on turnovers. (Heaven forbid one should venture out on a Saturday or Sunday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.)

Key West hates tourist traffic and we hate that we are so dependent on day trippers from the mainland, fanny-packers from the cruise ships and winter-worn passengers on the planes. But, there you go. We are. To the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. Tourists are this island’s mainlined drug of choice.

But surely we could do without their cars, too?

Over the past year, the city has taken to marking more than half of the neighborhood parking spaces as “residential only.” Residents buy a $10 annual sticker so they can park in one of those spots.

In some ways, it’s helped. In others not so much. Tourists ignore the warning because they know they’re unlikely to get towed or ticketed. And, with fewer “y’all come” spaces in Old Town, tourist cars range farther from the center of action and into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Come this time of year, my usually empty street is filled both sides. And, yes, I swear when I come back from Publix and Strunk’s Hardware and have to off-load a block away.

What to do? How about we get some political gumption and do the Disney World thing? Park all incoming, non-local cars and buses up the Keys a ways — as close as Stock Island — and provide round-the-clock, every-10-minutes jitney service into and around the island. Free.

Heck, give ’em a margarita. But keep the cars off the island.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor of Key West Island News and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a media management company, and a former newspaper editor. Her household has one car, two bikes, a motorcycle and five cats.


  1. D

    We visit about once every 4 years with motorhome and tow car and stay on average 4 to 5 months.

    Since we are no longer wanted and you want to ban our car, we shall go elsewhere. We leave Tuesday this time after arriving early Oct.

    I’m ready to take our money elsewhere. Attitudes of locals has become worse on every visit. I’ve had enough. Our 5k per month spent locally is ending.

    • LGC KWIN

      Sorry to hear that, D. Every vacation destination has its challenges for locals and for visitors. Safe travels home and hope you’ll find a better welcome the next time you’re here.

  2. DWS

    As a frequent older visitor I couldn’t agree more….however, here is what I found to be problematic about the island, and my suggestions….charge a heavy toll for incoming tourist cars (non-locals) something like $50 to enter KW….increase the cost of parking…and charge a toll type fee for rental cars at the airport. Use this money to supply a golf cart type service up and down Duval or a quick loop for another fee……I know they have the train that’s on and off, but the distance between stops can be a bit much for us older folks that can’t walk distances like that in the heat with our old knees and hips. Paying a buck or two for a ride up or down Duval would greatly increase our ability to see and spend more. You could sell tokens with a percentage going towards street upkeep and cleaning. Stopping every 2 blocks would be great.

  3. H. Norman

    Chin up. It’s regulating it’ self for some of us. I have been a regular since 1993. Gave up on KW about 15 yrs ago, and ever since when I come back stay from BP to Sugarloaf. On avg only head to KW once per visit. When they brought the cruise ships, and all the corp stores, the local government owned this. It no longer feels like a charming small island, it’s like any other cruise ship port, where cashing in is all that matters.
    Back in the day we didn’t hate the tourists, they were our way to connect to the world we had left behind, and meeting them was normally entertaining, and got you a couple of free drinks.

  4. Charles L

    It has amazed me there is no jitney service. You have the Free Duval Loop, but no jitney? We stay where we can park off street. More expensive, but I suspect the locals appreciate it more. I would if I lived there. While we LOVE exploring Key West, we love exploring all the Keys and a car for a day trip is what we use our rental for. Makes no sense to spend that kind of money to have it sitting the whole stay. If all we did was stay in Key West and drink the whole visit, then we would save the car rental. Probably couldn’t find the damn thing anyway!

  5. Chris Hamilton

    Linda – You are spot on. Here’s some things we can do. Residential Permit Parking should be done by zone so that you can park near your own home. It shouldn’t be a license to park anywhere you want for free ($10 for an annual permit is essentially free). We should expand the zones of metered parking. And the free spots that are unmarked should be for a limited time. 4 hours? 12 hours? Not the current 3 days. I work in a downtown B&B and 95% of our guests use these free spaces. Parking is a scarce resource that should be priced accordingly. Here’s some other things we can do:

  6. Barbara Sikorski

    It’s sad that you use the word hate. My husband and I have visited 8 times over the last 10 years. We drove in from Miami airport the first time. We have flown directly in ever time since. We rent a bicycle and scooter because we realized there was no need for a car. That’s one of the things we love about your island. We always visit during slow season. Now I’m not sure how we’ll feel next visit. When the resort is welcoming us back will they be thinking “we really hate to see you come”?

    • Jim Sewell

      Key West does not hate our visitors and only grumpy people that want KW to be like it was in the 60’s think that. The rest of us realize that our salaries come from tourists. Our nice island is possible because of tourists spending money while having fun visiting with us. Many of us have fun telling tourists about the history of KW or telling them what fun things there are to do as we pour them a drink or serve them a Cuban Mix sandwich and talk about the cultureal influences from Cuba. Without tourists this place would be a poor dump like it was when the Navy pulled out.

      • Linda Grist Cunningham

        Good points, Jim. And, though I’m not thrilled about the traffic, I am not among those who pine for the past. I believe that whether one fell in love with Key West in 1960 or yesterday, the island remains a magical place.

  7. Joe

    Charge $25 PER DAY to bring or rent (in addition to rental charges) a car in key west. Otherwise park and jitny in! Use the money for affordable house? Or how about workers to help keep the streets cleaner…. just don’t use it for more tourist advertising!

  8. Susie Trost

    I love, love, love the idea of the every-10-minute jitney service! Mandatory for non-locals! They could put a nice parking garage on Stock Island and offer valet service to those who want it. The rental car companies would scream, but…

    Oh well, we can dream, can’t we? ?

  9. Yeny

    I’ve been saying that for years! We need to greatly minimize the vehicular traffic here.

  10. Addie Sykes.

    I would like that (jitney service) idea. I have a dtr who lives in KW and of course as a Northern mom, I visit in Jan or February. I usually fly in and walk everywhere. But next year I would like to drive down and visit FL friends along the way. The car issue makes me hesitate. I would like to park my car off the island for my week.

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