Servicing the ‘last mile’ in San Marco

Servicing the ‘last mile’ in San Marco
Adam Dostalik, Beachside Buggies app developer, and Joe Carlucci, president of San Marco Merchants Association with Beachside Buggies Co-owner Dustin Kaloostian and Scott Wohlers, SMMA vice president

San Marco’s parking problem may be solved.

Thanks to the efforts of Robert Harris, former president of the San Marco Merchants Association, and others, Beachside Buggies, the same free-ride transportation service that successfully serves the Jacksonville Beaches, will be expanding its micro-transit facilities to San Marco. 

The transportation company is branded at the Beach as Beachside Buggies and will be known in San Marco’s historic district by the moniker Beach Buggies – San Marco. 

Courtesy of several San Marco merchants, Beach Buggies – San Marco will bring two 
10-seater electric carts to the area to help alleviate San Marco’s parking woes.
Courtesy of several San Marco merchants, Beach Buggies – San Marco will bring two
10-seater electric carts to the area to help alleviate San Marco’s parking woes.

The San Marco Merchants Association and other local businesses will fund the service in its entirety through sponsorships and advertising, so it can provide two environmentally-friendly, zero-
emission, long-range electric vehicles to ferry residents, shoppers, and tourists around the commercial areas of San Marco and the Southbank at no cost to its riders other than tips for the drivers.

“This will totally solve our parking problems,” said Harris, who after discovering the buggy service last year while spending time with his family in his Jacksonville Beach condo decided to woo them to San Marco. “If you are a merchant, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. If you are a San Marco resident, you can keep your car at home and use this.” 

Mike Balanky, a Southbank resident, said he plans to work with the service to help SMMA “pioneer” the buggies. “This could be huge. It is amazing at the Beach. I can see it constantly circulating the whole of San Marco and the Southbank,” he said, adding he also envisions the micro-transit service to gain popularity and eventually expand to 5 Points, Riverside, Avondale and Downtown. “The more connectivity, the better,” he said.

Owned and operated by Billy Chenoweth and Dustin Kaloostian, Beachside Buggies got its start in 2014 when it started offering free rides to restaurants and businesses using golf carts within Jacksonville’s three beach communities. Today the service has expanded to include eight 10-seater electric carts and 14 passenger vans that run approximately 12 hours a day, seven days a week. 

“I wanted to create a business where I didn’t need to leave the beach,” said Chenoweth, a Jacksonville Beach resident. “There was no taxi system at the beach except Uber. No one to do the short rides. Drinking is huge at the beach, and this was one way to get everyone home safe at the end of the night.”

Since then, ridership at the beach has ballooned to 10,000 riders per month. “During peak times, we get a ride request every five to 12 seconds. It’s that busy,” said Kaloostian. 

“Our goal is to create a unique culture within the San Marco business district and its residents,” he said. “We hope to slowly evolve the thinking of a more shared-economy green approach to micro transit. We want to change the way people think about their last mile in San Marco.”

Chenoweth agreed. “Our idea is to create a system that rotates people around wherever they need to go,” he said. “People who go to San Marco (can park and) won’t need to move their cars. They won’t always need to be looking for parking. If they live in San Marco, they will never need to move their cars from their homes,” he said. “If we can get everyone who lives in San Marco not to bring their cars out, it will mean there will be more parking for the people that don’t live right here.” 

The service will use custom-made, open-air vehicles that seat 10 and look like a cross between a car and a golf cart. Narrower than the average car, the buggies have 13-inch wheels, caliper brakes and use batteries that recharge overnight by plugging into any electric outlet, costing only a penny a mile in electricity, said Chenoweth. 

At its inception, the short-trip service will include residences and commercial locations north of River Oaks Road to the Southbank and along Kings Street. As more businesses sign up as sponsors, more vehicles will be added and the buggies will be able to cover a larger area, said Chenoweth.

Beach Buggies differs from other transportation services in that it receives no government subsidies and is funded only by local businesses who choose to advertise or sponsor the service. 

So far 14 San Marco businesses including Alexander Rose’s Green Palm Realty, the San Marco Theatre, Grape and Grain, Town Hall, Jon Singleton – Watson Realty, the San Marco Bookstore, The Bearded Pig, bb’s, Taverna, European Street Café, V Pizza, Sidecar, Beer:30; Hurricane Grill & Wings had signed on as initial sponsors. 

“We anticipate quickly needing more vehicles, and we anticipate people asking us to expand our boundaries,” said Kaloostian, and his partner agreed. “We are starting small because it’s hard to sell something before it’s there,” Chenoweth said.

Riders will request on-demand transportation through a free mobile app. If they see a buggy passing by on the street, they can also hail it much as one might hail a cab in New York City, said Harris.

“Our app is similar to Uber’s but when you show up on the map all the drivers can see it and see where everyone is going,” said Chenoweth. “Unlike Uber, which is one person to Point A from Point B, we pick up many riders and may drop them off along the way. We can move so many people with not that many vehicles. When you order a ride from us, you can see it on our app. You can see it driving around as it comes right to you.”

Businesses sponsoring the service will be featured on the company’s app and will be considered destination choices within its network. Riders requesting to go to those locations will be granted a higher priority, especially during peak periods, than those wishing to ride to other locations, he said. 

Tentative hours of operation for the service will be 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, Chenoweth said. 

Harris said having the buggies roam San Marco streets will aid in neighborhood security. “You will have somebody going by at street level at 8 to 9 p.m. You will see people, and not just in their cars,” he said.

The buggies will also serve as a “concierge” for riders, providing information about sponsored businesses and recommending them to riders. “We tell people where you can get the best hamburger, the best barbeque, and what’s going on at the sports complex,” said Chenoweth. “We hire drivers who live and breathe the areas we work in. We will only hire people who live in the San Marco area.”

Mission accomplished

 When Harris was elected as president of the San Marco Merchants Association three years ago, he decided to make it his mission to find a parking solution for San Marco.

“We have wonderful participation when it comes to marketing the area. It really markets itself,” said Harris, a partner in San Marco’s Harris Guidi Rosner Law Firm. “But if I were to drive through San Marco and think about renting (commercial) space, I would be genuinely concerned about parking. For my whole two years as president, I wanted to try to find a parking solution.”

Harris first consulted with District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer about building a parking garage in the lot behind San Marco Square, which is owned by Southside Baptist Church or on land near the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, but soon realized the idea was not feasible. 

Over the past three years, Harris has discussed transit possibilities with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), including trolleys similar to those in Riverside and Avondale a few years ago. JTA estimated the price would be $60,000 per year – $5,000 per month to be provided by SMMA – to cover two trolleys for three hours per day at lunchtime, Harris said. “Basically, it would cost $100 an hour to run the trolleys,” he said, adding they are not successful because they were hampered by traffic, and people, who were forced to pay a small fee, did not use them. 

Even though the trolley idea was a bust, Harris continued negotiating with JTA, garnering the support of CEO Nathaniel Ford who referred Harris to his innovation team. Harris and SMMA Executive Director George Foote discussed the idea of having San Marco be part a “pilot project covering several areas of town,” where the JEA Board might commit $600,000 for a six- to nine-month trial of E-cars, seating four riders and a driver. 

Several months passed before Harris heard back from JTA. About a month ago, the transportation entity offered $300,000 toward a public-private partnership in which SMMA was asked to contribute an additional $30,000, Harris said. For that money, JTA would provide two unmarked cars and a van (for Americans with Disabilities purposes). 

“JTA’s budget broke it down to two-and-a-half to three times the cost of what Beachside Buggies was offering. We thought it was not our best choice,” Harris explained.

Harris said he hopes JTA will decide to sponsor Beach Buggies – San Marco the same way it supported Beachside Buggies at the Beach in 2017. At that time, JTA gave Beachside Buggies a $40,000 capital grant to be spent on buggies and then discontinued JTA’s Beaches trolley service. Harris said he plans to discuss the matter with Ford, and if JTA chooses to do what it did at the Beach, it would be “phenomenal,” Harris said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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