Technology

A bus service that residents can’t get enough of? It’s happening in Miami

It is likely Freebees will continue to operate in Coral Gables.
It is likely Freebees will continue to operate in Coral Gables. Freebee

If you haven’t heard of Freebees, you’ve almost certainly seen them.

They’re the free, elongated golf-style carts often spotted on Miami Beach. Freebees are quieter than some of the similar looking vehicles that prowl Collins Avenue, but it’s the same idea.

Today, the Miami-born company is in the midst of expanding across Dade and beyond, thanks to local governments looking to provide transportation options to residents traveling short distances in flourishing urban cores.

“It’s been a tremendous hit,” said Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark.

Last year, Coral Gables city signed an agreement with Freebee during the traffic-clogging Streetscape downtown overhaul. The city expected about 60,000 passengers to use the service within the mile-and-a-half radius around Miracle Mile where the Freebees run.

The service has proven more popular than expected.

“Demand is not being met,” Swanson-Rivenbark said. In other words, there are more passengers looking for Freebees than there are vehicles available. City administrators are now “highly likely” to recommend renewing the contract and expanding the service area, she said.

Right now, the city pays for about three-quarters of the service’s cost, with advertising revenue from Baptist Health and other companies taking care of the rest. If the contract is renewed, she said, the city will likely pay more to have less advertising on its vehicles.

Residents have indicated that, for a free ride, increasing city spending by a bit will be worth it, she said.

Freebee now has agreements with the governments of Miami Lakes, Coconut Grove and its original municipal partner, Key Biscayne. The service also continues to run on Miami Beach and in Miami’s central business district, from the Rickenbacker Causeway up through Wynwood, Midtown and the Design District. Those other two routes are paid for purely through sponsorship deals with major brands.

Freebee began as a project by University of Miami grads Jason Spiegel and Kris Kimball to make traveling around South Beach easier, by turning vehicles into rolling billboards. The new agreements will likely secure Freebee’s presence as a fixture of Miami’s streets.

“There’s more traffic, less parking. it’s not getting easier — it’s not getting better,” Spiegel said.

Today, the company has 50 employees operating 40 buses throughout Miami. Its management team also is talking with cities in places as far flung as Texas, Spain, and Dubai to bring Freebee options to communities there. They are expecting to see $4 million in revenues this year.

Despite being another on-demand transportation option, Spiegel says Freebee is not competing with Uber and Lyft.

“Our job is not to take you from South Beach to the airport,” he said. Instead Freebee provides transportation for distances that are too short for rideshares and too long to walk with groceries.

Nor is Freebee interfering with longer-form transportation, such as buses or Coral Gables’ free trolley service, said Gables parking director Kevin Kinney.

“The target audience for Freebees are people already in the downtown district, or living in one of the residential buildings downtown,” he said. “It’s purely to keep them from using their car to get to lunch, dinner, or a meeting four blocks away.”

A previous version of this story misstated the number of vehicles Freebee operates.

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