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Siesta Key Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011 6 years ago

Our View: Downtown's answer on Key


Sometimes the best solutions can be found in our own backyard.

Sarasota has been looking at a downtown public transportation option for years, something that would take people to various places without requiring them to drive and park at each destination. The goal is to reduce traffic congestion and improve mobility by use of buses or a trolley system.

The holdup has been that the options tended to cost in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And public transit always requires ongoing subsidies. So the options conceived in the minds of city planners were going to cost taxpayers a lot of money and require annual expenditures.

But the solution may well be operating successfully on Siesta Key. With Jonny’s Free Beach Rides, Jonathan Reed operates a free service for people who want a ride to almost anywhere on Siesta Key.
The company uses six-passenger electric cars in distinctive yellow to run from Siesta Key Village down to Turtles restaurant at the south end, maxing out at about 25 mph.

And it is popular. Freed told the Sarasota Observer his company has run 22,500 miles on the Key in less than a year. That’s a lot of trips carrying a lot of passengers. If you take the distance from the Old Salty Dog down to Turtles — 4.9 miles — you get the equivalent of 4,591 full-length trips.

People use it. Not surprising. Freed does not charge for ridership. And he does not ask for any subsidies from local government. It’s all private, and it’s all free for users.

Freed makes money selling ads on the cars as moving billboards traveling around the Key and by charging drivers, who pay Freed to drive the vehicles. The drivers then make money on tips from passengers, who apparently tip quite well.

Now Freed wants to take his business concept to downtown Sarasota and run it up and down Main Street.
There are some hurdles. First, government planners just don’t normally think in such a creative, no-government-needed kind of way. They go for big, complicated and ultimately expensive and inefficient solutions.

Second, the city needs to change its pedicab ordinance to allow vehicles offering free services to operate on city streets. It took a step in this direction Monday when commissioners voted to have the city attorney draw up language changing the ordinance and setting the date for a public hearing.

This is a win-win-win-win-win situation. It is a double win for taxpayers — no capital costs and no subsidies. It is a win for riders, because they will not have to pay. And it is a win for the city because it immediately provides the transportation option for downtown. And for those for whom it is a big deal, it is a win for being “green” because Freed runs electric vehicles.

But will city of Sarasota bureaucrats go along with it? Good question. Hopefully, the newly constituted City Commission will see the benefits and give Freed what he needs.

The worst that can happen is that it will not succeed, in which case, it is only Freed’s money on the line and not the public’s. But we think he will find a way to make it go. Give him the chance.

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