They look like long golf carts plastered with ads. Open to the city air, these electric vehicles carry as many as five passengers and go anywhere within downtown. Need to get from Little Italy to the Gaslamp Quarter? Text and a driver will show up within 15 minutes. And it doesn't cost a dime.
It's called The Free Ride, and the New York-based company has toted San Diegans around downtown for more than a year. With similar operations in 10 cities around the country, advertising supports the service.
Over the last year, members of the downtown business community have become enamored with the idea, pushing for a public investment of funds that would boost the number of vehicles on the road to 20, up from five, as well as help develop a ride-share-style app.
In response, Civic San Diego, the nonprofit that controls permitting and planning downtown, awarded the private company a $1 million contract through a competitive bidding process, announcing last week the terms of the agreement.
“This solves a huge problem, and it's a creative solution for moving people in and around downtown,” said Kris Michell, president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
The on-demand service replaces previous efforts to establish a fixed-route circulator shuttle downtown, which supporters of The Free Ride argue would have been significantly more expensive.
“As we learned more about it, we recognized that this is a much better way to go fiscally and from a service perspective,” Michell said, adding that she'd like to see the project grow to offer as many as 50 vehicles.
However, the project has angered the United Taxi Workers of San Diego, which has argued that the publicly funded service would substantially eat into the industry's business.
Illustration by Carolyn Ramos
The Free Ride San Diego service area, which is also the Downtown Community Parking District
“You're pretty much giving $1 million to young, affluent kids from the Hamptons and taking it from our immigrant and refugee workforce, who live in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights,” said Sarah Saez, program director for UTWSD.
Michell dismissed these concerns.
“From a taxi perspective, these are going to be such short hauls, three blocks here, four blocks there,” she said. “Not really the hauls that they like.”
Set to also launch its own ride-sharestyle app, United Taxi Workers officials have also blasted The Free Ride program as largely servicing tourists who otherwise would be contributing to the local economy.
“They say it's going to be for the people who work downtown, but it's for the tourists,” Saez said. “It's another giveaway to the tourism industry, the hotel, restaurant industry.
“Our drivers are probably going to end up picketing it,” she added.
An internal survey of The Free Ride in San Diego, which services about 150 riders a week, found a diverse ridership, said cofounder Alexander Esposito at a Civic San Diego Board of Directors committee meeting last Wednesday.
“It really is people who are downtown,” he said. “From senior citizens going to and from the grocery store to young professionals leaving happy hour in the Gaslamp area, we've really hit a wide array of riders.”
A long line of supporters from the business community showed up to voice support at the meeting, which was the last step before approving the full contract expected later this month.
“The only thing I saw missing from this proposal was probably surfboard racks on top of the carts,” joked Jarrod Russell, director of public affairs for Underground Elephant, a digital marketing company located downtown with about 100 employees.
“Eighty percent of our company is millennial, and I think many of us are looking to the innovation economy as the future of diversifying our economy,” he added.
The initial $1 million of funding is for fiscal year 2016, with subsequent public investments subject to approval in the annual budget, according to Civic San Diego officials. An investment account for increasing or replacing the vehicle fleet will be maintained with 35 percent of annual net operating income—a subjective term often used in real estate to represent revenue minus the costs of maintaining a building or asset.
“The initial investment would be the million dollars, and then we'll explore,” said Stephanie Shook, Civic San Diego project manager. “It's all subject to the parking district budget, [and] how much we allocate to the project going forward. So we'll explore future investment when the budget comes to the board for approval in April.”
Several board members raised questions about the contract terms, including the city's legal liability and whether the vehicles would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Answers to those and other questions are expected to be resolved in the final contract, according to Civic San Diego officials.
“There is a provision that there will be adequate disability-equipped vehicles that will be deployed as part of the process, and we're working through what those requirements will be to be able to serve the disabled community,” said Civic San Diego President Reese Jarrett.
The public investment comes from the Downtown Community Parking District fund, which must be used for parking and traffic mitigation in the downtown area. The parking district also defines the service area, which includes the downtown neighborhoods west of Interstate 5 and south of Laurel Street.
Vehicle advertisements will be subject to Metropolitan Transit System guidelines, with the exception that advertising alcohol will be permitted.
Hours of operation will be from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight on Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
After the initial subsidy, the project is expected to create 30 living-wage jobs and meet ridership benchmarks to be eligible for future funding. The program estimates servicing 3,000 riders a week with 20 vehicles, up to 18,000 riders a week with 60 vehicles.