You may have heard that in life there are no free rides. Forget about that. In a growing number of South Florida cities, you really can ride for free.
So you’ll have to forego air conditioning, the ride won’t last more than five or 10 minutes, and you won’t exceed 35 mph. But you can take comfort in knowing you are helping to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Tipping the driver is optional.
Partnering with local governments and private advertisers, several companies are building fleets of low-speed street-legal six-seat electric shuttles to ferry the permanently or temporarily car-less over short distances within congested urban zones.
Pedestrians in busy sections of Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and West Palm Beach can use smartphone apps to summon rides from two growing services: Freebee, in the middle of a pilot program in a square-mile section of downtown Fort Lauderdale, and Circuit (formerly The Free Ride), which serves Fort Lauderdale’s beachfront resort area and last week began shuttling tourists and commuters in the core area of Hollywood.
Both companies also serve communities in Miami-Dade, while Circuit operates in West Palm Beach, the Town of Palm Beach and Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens.
Another company, Swoop, operates exclusively in Miami Beach, with vehicles advertising various lifestyle brands as Spanx, Glam Squad, European Wax Center and Coterie.
The services typically operate within densely populated areas no larger than a square mile on streets with speed limits no higher than 35 mph.
As South Florida developers have no choice but to turn away from sprawl and focus instead on building high-rise, mixed-use, “live-work-play” communities, founders of the eco-friendly electric fleets say that — by providing access to train and bus stations — they’re helping residents realize the dream of living without a car.
Circuit loops downtown Hollywood to the beachside
Circuit was founded in The Hamptons, a string of seaside resort communities on Long Island, New York, in 2011 when co-founders Alex Esposito and James Mirras discovered that consumer product brands would fund the entire cost of operation for the opportunity to advertise to the area’s affluent residents.
The company then replicated the concept on the Jersey Shore; in Austin, Texas; and in such popular California beach communities as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Venice, San Diego and Marina del Ray, among other destinations.
“The initial concept was using ad dollars to get people from crowded urban areas to the beach,” Esposito said in an interview. Then as the company started working closely with San Diego in 2016, “we realized our simple beach shuttle concept had great applications in congested urban areas.”
Despite targeting affluent enclaves, the services are used by anyone needing access to and from the companies’ service areas — bartenders who take the train, office workers going to lunch, high-rise condo residents heading to dinner or a show. Unlike fixed route services like trains and buses, the companies’ electric vehicles come to their clients, pick them up and drop them off at their destinations.
Hollywood’s partnership with Circuit began when the city solicited bids to replace its Hollywood Trolley, which will be shut down by June 30. Circuit agreed to run six cars daily — and up to 10 during the busiest parts of the season — within three zones: the city’s beachside, Federal Highway business district and downtown. Shuttles will also run between downtown and the beachside via Hollywood Boulevard.
The city wanted a service that would be free to riders, said Joanne Hussey. the city’s communications manager.
“Riders can use their app to ask them to come and get them. We really liked that. They didn’t have to go to a trolley stop and wait. We had feedback from people saying, ‘When I go to the trolley stop, I don’t know when it’s going to be there.’ We also liked that this uses electric vehicles.” That fit in the city’s goal to be as “green” as possible, she added.
Users can hail rides by downloading a smartphone app called Ride Circuit, or, if they see one of the vehicles approaching, simply hail it as one would hail a cab, Hussey said. The city is calling its service Sun Shuttle.
Hollywood’s contract with Circuit calls for the city to spend up to $884,351 annually, but that can be reduced by an agreement that pays the city half of any money generated by Circuit’s sale of advertising in and on the vehicles.
Freebee juggles three business models
Jason Spiegel, a University of Miami grad who started Freebee in 2011 with fellow Hurricane alum Kris Kimball, said his company can make money giving away free rides by pursuing three business models:
One model calls for cities to fund the entire operation as if it was their own.
Under the second, the city pays a contracted rate that gets reduced as advertising is sold. Prior to its current deal with Freebee, Coral Gables agreed to pay $300,000 a year and saw that amount reduced to $110,000 after Baptist Health came on board as sole sponsor. But when the contract came up for renewal, Coral Gables decided it didn’t want outside advertising and agreed to pay $486,000 to expand from three to five vehicles and keep its service self-branded, Spiegel said.
Under the third model, ad revenues fund the entire operation. Riders are greeted with ads not only wrapped around the outside of the vehicles, but inside and on mounted tablets. Often drivers pass out product samples provided by the advertisers. Riders can take selfies with the tablets, send them to their friends and even listen to their requested music, Spiegel said.
Freebee is funding the three-month pilot program in downtown Fort Lauderdale solely with ad revenue, Spiegel said. Beer maker Corona had an exclusive contract during the first month and rum giant Bacardi is sponsoring the final two months, he said.
The company is negotiating terms of a longer-term deal that could include more service areas, more vehicles and expanded hours if the city agrees to contribute financially, Spiegel said.
Hours of operation vary among the services and zones. In Fort Lauderdale, Freebee operates until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and until 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Circuit operates in Hollywood from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Spiegel said he’s not concerned about competition from Circuit, which beat Freebee to the Fort Lauderdale market with its own fully ad-supported service that operates on the beachside, downtown area and Las Olas Boulevard.
He says there’s plenty of business to go around, even if Freebee achieves its goal of expanding to other areas of Fort Lauderdale, including the beachside and Cypress Creek Road business district.
Founded in 2013, Freebee employs about 75 full time workers in South Florida, Spiegel said, adding, “That should be over 100 over the next few months.”
Circuit, founded in 2011, employs 32 in South Florida — not all of them full-time — and 140 nationwide, according to Circuit partner Jason Bagley.