Streets for People / Freebee On-Demand Ride-Hailing-to-Transit Might Provide Stock Island Residents With Reason to Leave Their Cars at Home 

With the additional traffic that 667 new housing units on Stock Island are expected to bring over the coming few years, the County is exploring a partnership with the South Florida based private company called Freebee to provide its on-demand ride hailing service to residents to help mitigate congestion on U.S. 1. On May 18 they approved budgeting up to $425,000 towards a 50/50 match of a FDOT grant to fund a potential $850,000 project. They’ve also started discussions with City of Key West officials on collaborating in the endeavor. 

We’ve made the argument that the City and County need to invest in improving the awful transit options that currently exist between the two islands to alleviate some of the resulting traffic from these new housing developments. The general idea proposed by the County to date is to utilize on-demand (think Uber) micro-transit (small electric cars or golf cart-like vehicles) to get people from their home to one central transit hub on Stock Island, where a Key West Transit shuttle would then whisk them directly downtown. The one central stop would make it easier for the transit agency because the buses wouldn’t have to circulate all over the island but rather to just to one point. This might be the kind of service that could help some Stock Island residents leave their cars at home. Let’s explore why something like this should be tried and how it could work.

New Housing Coming to Stock Island Means More Traffic

Construction has been moving along briskly at the 280-Unit Wreckers Cay at 6155 2nd Street – adjacent to Boyd’s Campground. Tenants are expected to start moving in this September 2022, and officials say they’ll bring the eight new buildings online at about one a month or so with the project being fully occupied by this time next year. The Key West Housing Authority’s 104-unit Garden View Apartments on College Road is under construction and should come online in late 2023. 

A couple months ago we learned that Roy’s Trailer Park at 6500 Maloney Avenue gave their 108 owners notice they have six months to relocate because the property will be redeveloped from 108 trailers to 240 workforce apartments. That’s a net of 132 additional housing units at Roy’s bringing the total of new workforce housing units on the island to 516.  Add in the 148-transient condos and 3 workforce condos – total 151 – recently approved at the Key West Harbor Yacht Club, also on Maloney Avenue, and that’s 667 new units and a lot of potential new cars crossing Cow Key Bridge. There’s a lot of concern about traffic, especially along U.S. 1, because visitor traffic is increasing too. 

Transit Between the Islands is Currently Awful

The likelihood that all these new residents will use transit instead of driving is almost nil. At least with today’s transit system. Census data shows less than 1% of current residents use the bus to get to work. Buses come along every 95 – 120 minutes on the Lower Keys Shuttle and every 80 – 95 minutes on the North and South Line routes that serve Stock Island. Current statistics prove that kind of infrequent service isn’t going to entice many people out of their cars. 

What’s Freebee? Business Development? First/Last Mile Solution? 

The Freebee on-demand micro-transit company operates in about 24 South Florida municipalities. Usually at the request of a local government or a local business improvement district (BID). The service is free and subsidized by the local government, business community and advertising on the vehicles and app. It works like Uber and Lyft using an app and takes people door-to-door, usually within a confined business area. In some cities they can also be hailed like a taxi. 

They use small electric cars, vans and golf-cart like vehicles called GEMs (global electric motorcars). Advertising predominates on the outside of the vehicles, they are referred to as “moving billboards,” and they are co-branded between Freebee and the local community/business district. In nearly all cases the idea for setting up the services is to help support local businesses. Drivers act as tour guides and promote local establishments that contribute. Advertising on the inside and outside of the vehicle and the app do the same. 

Think of it sort of like our Duval Loop, but on-demand and more direct. Perhaps its niche is between traditional transit and Uber. The Miami Beaches Freebee page describes it this way:

“As a transportation service, we are changing the way that people move around Miami. No longer is there a need to worry about the stress of driving and parking. With our new smart mobile app, Miamians can hail a Freebee right from their phones. Our drivers will play their choice of music, engage in friendly conversation, and get them safely to their destination. We know that people have the option of taking a taxi, Uber, Lyft, limo, bus, trolley, etc. We strive to transform transportation into an experience.”

The Freebee service in Islamorada has expanded to included trips for medical services outside of Islamorada to three specific locations if the trip begins in the municipality. So, it seems like Islamorada is also using the service as a substitute for traditional transit. 

The other way Freebee is used, is as a first/last-mile solution. The Tri-Rail Cypress Creek Station in Fort Lauderdale recently partnered with Freebee to provide their customers with a free ride to and from the station within a couple miles. In much of the country, this kind of micro-transit is indeed used as a first/last mile solution connecting people to larger fixed route transit. Remember this example as we discuss Stock Island.

See Freebee in St. Pete Beach, the Miami Beaches, Aventura, Downtown Fort Lauderdale, Cypress Creek Tri-Rail, FIU (Florida International University), Del Ray Beach Business District, Florida City, Virginia Beach and for a complete list go here.

How the County Envisions Freebee to Work on Stock Island

At its May 18th meeting a Freebee executive described how the system works in other cities and said Freebee on Stock Island could take residents directly downtown, seven days a week, for whatever span of hours the County wanted. (Link – Click video: details begin at 2:04 or 11:17 timestamp)  County Mayor David Rice asked if this would take cars off the road were Freebee taking one or two people downtown. Especially when the vehicles would return empty. Good question. This sparked a thoughtful discussion between all the Board members and in the end, they seemed to agree with Commissioner Cates that this only made sense to use on Stock Island. So, the idea would be to use Freebee to get people from the home to a central hub on the island where they would meet a shared vehicle that would take them downtown. When we recently corresponded with Ms. Mathews at the County, she said this was still the direction they were going. 

What the City Is Saying

We asked Key West Transit if they’d had further discussions with the County/Freebee since May 18, what was up with that and how they envisioned Key West Transit’s participation and how their new on-demand service came into play. Transportation Director Rod Delostrinos was kind enough to give us the following answer:

“The City of Key West- Key West Transit is continuously seeking approaches to improve community public transit. Multi-modal transportation is a great way to approach the community’s needs. Making our community more bike friendly and walkable is just the beginning. Introducing other modes contribute to ease of getting folks where they want to go. On-demand transit has the potential to improve the transit service delivery. Micromibility solutions certainly have a place in adding to these travel options. The advantage of everything that is being done to improve mobility is the flexibility it gives the people depending on where they are going, what they are doing, and how they want to get there.” 

We’d surmise by the response, that the City is being tight-lipped, for now, on any specifics about working with the County and Freebee, so let’s continue with hypotheticals…

A Central Transit Hub on Stock Island

The idea of a Central Transit Station or Hub isn’t new. It has been talked about for years in a different context though. People have discussed building a parking garage for visitors to the island and then busing them in, to not have everyone fighting for parking downtown. The City’s 10-Year Transit Development Plan calls this the “Key West Intermodal Center (KWIC) and would place it where the current transit facility is next to Mount Trashmore. 

The Freebee service is primarily for our residents and workers. And most of them and all the new housing are on the other (County) side of the island. So, if one is to establish a hub, it should likely go on the County side. Perhaps the biggest generator of traffic will be the 280-unit Wreckers Cay and it should go there or maybe right next door at the CVS. Another central spot is Bernstein Park. Maybe Dion’s. Where would you put the hub?

Wherever the station goes, it will be much easier for Key West Transit to service one-stop, rather than meandering all over the island. The time saving may allow Key West Transit the ability to serve the hub with much more frequent service than the current 80-95 minutes on the North and South Lines.

Walk To the Transit Hub 

The planning standard for a walk to a transit stop is a couple blocks. And Stock Island is big, so walking to a central hub is likely out of the question for most people unless they happen to be next door. That’s why you’d want to put the transit hub next to the most populous and dense community – Wreckers Cay. But a free ride from one’s home to a central hub, IF the service is frequent and then direct, could work for all those people that are too far to walk.

Bike To the Transit Hub

We’ve discussed the need for the City and County to make it safer and easier to bike from Stock Island to downtown as some people are capable of going the about 25 – 30 minutes or 4.7 to 5.3 miles from Wreckers Cay to the Seaport. But a lot more people could bicycle the short and safer distance it would be from points across the Stock Island to the transit hub. So whatever station is built should include a lot of bicycle parking. And make it covered while you are at it. This would make it a true multi-modal station.

So, people within a couple blocks may walk to the hub. People that can bike, perhaps within a mile, may bike. For all those people who can’t do either, Freebee would be the other option. And these day’s it’s all about providing options.

Does the City’s Own On-Demand Project Negate the Need for Freebee or Work With It? 

The City is progressing towards replacing North and South line fixed-routes with their own on-demand transit project, likely beginning this fall. So theoretically, as all the details haven’t yet been announced, the City’s service could cover all of Stock Island with their on-demand, bus stop-to-bus stop service that is also supposed to work like Uber. Perhaps negating the need for the County’s Freebee experiment. If this is the case, perhaps the County can contribute that $425,000 or the entire grant to Key West Transit to help offset costs.

Or does the County’s project with Freebee in getting everyone to a central hub or station relieve some of the burden on Key West Transit and make their job of serving Stock Island that much easier. 

It Seems There Are Three Main Options

While working with Freebee is a County idea and they specifically want to help the workforce on Stock Island, it is likely nothing can happen without the participation of Key West Transit. The three options may be:

  1. Key West Transit can do as they have planned and replace the fixed North and South Line routes with their own on-demand transit coverage on both Key West and Stock Island. Then Freebee can be skipped, and the County could use that money to help pay for their share of coverage.
  2. Key West Transit can provide their own on-demand transit coverage on the Island of Key West and provide a direct shuttle on a fixed, say every 30 minutes, schedule between Stock Island and downtown. Have Freebee get the bulk of people from their homes on Stock island to the hub.
  3. If the Key West Transit on-demand system can talk to the Freebee on-demand system perhaps the Key West Transit shuttles can be timed to meet Freebee within say a 5-10-minute window. This is more in line with the agency’s wish to only put a bus on the street when needed.

If the systems can talk to each other and if people don’t have to wait more than 5-10 minutes for the direct shuttle downtown, then option 3 seems to be the most efficient AND customer friendly. If the systems do talk to each other, it would seem customers would only have to place one trip request for the initial Freebee ride and not also the subsequent shuttle downtown. If they don’t talk, then option 2 is needed. For folks that walk or bike to the hub, would they use the Freebee or Key West Transit app? All things we suppose need to be worked out, but the potential is exciting. 

Another advantage of having Freebee under contract may be that they can help supplement Key West Transit with a new pool of drivers. 

Let’s Encourage the County and City to Get Something Done

The City/Key West Transit and County need to work together to mitigate the negative traffic and parking impacts of all the new housing on Stock Island. A free and easy to use transit option would go a long way towards helping our beleaguered workforce deal with high gas prices. That and if people can depend on this service maybe some households can get rid of a car and that will really be some money savings. A well-executed project could: ease the burden on our Keys workforce; make our environment greener; Take cars off our congested main road and reduce parking conflicts downtown; and assist our local Mom and Pop Shops. All of these would help make our little island paradise healthier and happier. 

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You can find a year’s plus KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the most recent 2022 stories below:

Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

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