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Downtown, Siesta transit services off to different starts

The Siesta Key trolley was an instant hit. A downtown circulator has had a lower profile. What lessons can be learned from the first weeks of these new transportation services?

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 13, 2017
  • Sarasota
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On Siesta Key, the newest transportation service has been an instant success story.

After launching the free Siesta Breeze trolley last month, Sarasota County Area Transit reports there have been more than 25,000 riders in the first 15 days. The trolley is a six-month trial for now, but already island leaders see it as an entrenched part of the community.

“I don’t wanna be the guy who runs SCAT who stops it in six months,” said Harold Ashby, president of the Siesta Key Association.

In downtown Sarasota, the newest transportation service is catching on more slowly.

Despite a launch ceremony with commissioners in attendance, iRide Sarasota is in more of a soft-launch phase, officials say. The service is built around a fleet of free on-demand electric carts, but other details remain variable as officials determine the best course of action.

“The community is not aware of that yet,” said John Moran, operations manager of the Downtown Improvement District and an early advocate for the service. “Maybe on purpose — because we want to make sure it’s right before we heavily promote the existence of it.”

The trolley and downtown circulator are at different stages of maturity, but city and county officials are confident the services have the potential to be a long-term fixture.

Learning curve

Sean Flood, CEO and founder of the company that’s operating iRide Sarasota, has been through this before.

“The biggest challenge is educating the consumers about a new service,” Flood said. “That’s not unique to what we do.”

The city is contracting with Flood’s company, the Gotcha Group, to launch the downtown service. The goal is for the operation to be self-sustaining within two years, but for the first two, the city is committing up to $338,000 toward the program.

Flood and other Gotcha Group officials were in Sarasota for the first week of service, and they saw positive reactions from residents and businesses. But he knows there’s still more work to do. Things like the hours of operation and the number of vehicles assigned to a certain area will be refined as the Gotcha Group gathers information.

“All services like this don’t start day one where everybody immediately knows it, and it’s oversubscribed, and people are using it constantly,” Flood said. “It’s a slow build.”

City leaders such as Commissioner Suzanne Atwell were energetic about iRide Sarasota when it launched earlier this month. The transit operator is taking it slow as it adjusts to a new market.
City leaders such as Commissioner Suzanne Atwell were energetic about iRide Sarasota when it launched earlier this month. The transit operator is taking it slow as it adjusts to a new market.

Soon, there will be a dedicated app for iRide Sarasota, which will help generate data on how the system is being used. Until then, riders can hail a vehicle or call 444-2585 if they want to get picked up.

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell highlighted one of the service’s challenges at an April 3 meeting. She had spoken to a resident who said some of the vehicles, wrapped in advertising, don’t make it clear that you don’t have to pay for a ride.

“Someone said, ‘I saw that go by — why don’t they say they’re free?’” Atwell said.

City Parking Manager Mark Lyons said establishing consistent branding is a priority, but there’s not a rush to make sure everybody is using the service. Lessons learned during the height of season might not apply in the summer, so Gotcha Group and the city are taking their time to collect information before getting locked into any model.

There isn’t much history to go on. Gotcha Group usually operates in college towns and around major events. Having an everyday service in a metropolitan area is a different challenge, and it’s not one many municipalities have undertaken.

“While we learn from trial and error over the next several months how to make it effective and efficient, the rest of the country is doing the same thing,” Lyons said. 

iRide Sarasota has one other thing going for it: the city’s commitment to promoting multimodal transportation. It’s not a given that residents will ever embrace the service, but already, Lyons is hopeful it could expand.

“As we continue to refine what we’re doing, you’re going to see them in every district around the downtown — and hopefully, we can explore other areas at some point,” he said.

Easy breezy

Although things are rosier on Siesta Key, there’s still a looming question of whether the trolley will live beyond its trial window.

SCAT spokeswoman Kendra Keiderling said the organization is already looking for funding to keep the Breeze going past August. In season, she believes there’s ample evidence the trolley is a vital resource.

Higher ridership numbers don’t guarantee funding, but she said it goes a long way toward convincing the state it’s a worthy cause.

Earlier this month, Michigan resident George Bishop took the trolley down from Siesta Key Village to Siesta Beach. With 12 people staying in one place, he was excited to forego his rental car and find another way around.

“A lot of out-of-towners coming in, they’re looking for ways to get to the beach easily and conveniently,” Bishop said. “Keep it going.”

This was Bishop’s first visit to Siesta Key, but the visibility of the trolley made it easy for him to find. That’s the goal, Keiderling said.  SCAT and Siesta leaders are diligently promoting the service in hopes of preserving it.

“We have flooded the area,” Keiderling said. “I have literally walked this entire Key handing out information.”


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