Growth in Tampa, St. Pete drives new customized downtown transit models

Tampa Bay Business Journal

Written by Janelle Irwin

As the Tampa Downtown Partnership makes plans to expand its popular free Downtowner service with Chevrolet Bolts, the group’s sister agency in St. Petersburg is taking a different approach.

It’s a prime example of why transportation planners say a one-size-fits-all model of moving people isn’t the best idea.

The Tampa Downtowner is an app-based service paid for by the Partnership that shuttles passengers around downtown by letting riders hail a six-person, golf cart-like electrical vehicle. That service doled out 100,000 rides within just seven months of operation.

The agency plans to add four Chevy Bolts to its fleet of 12 electric carts to increase capacity that, as the service becomes more popular, leaves passengers waiting as long as a half-hour during peak times.

The Bolts have a longer range and would be able to operate all day as opposed to the carts, which have to be deployed six at a time to ensure time for recharging.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership is moving forward with a different kind of transit service in its urban core. That agency is working with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to revamp its trolley service to better connect with the regional transit network and provide more reliable transportation for people in downtown.

Joni James, the partnership’s CEO, said she’s looked at Tampa’s model and right now and that type of service isn’t a priority.

That’s because the transit needs in the two downtowns are vastly different.

Downtown Tampa’s entertainment and nightlife scene are on the rise, and the completion of the downtown portion of the Riverwalk has breathed a vitality into the area that had long been missing, but the city remains a hub for Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. business that is well-suited for the Downtowner service.

In St. Pete, there’s no shortage of young professionals crowding downtown restaurants at lunchtime. But the entertainment scene is on fire, and there’s a higher concentration of people who live downtown.

It’s not that a Downtowner-like model wouldn’t work in St. Pete, it very well could, but the city needs a loop to connect with bus service in and out of downtown that, as of right now, is relatively lacking.

Plus, the Tampa Bay Rowdies already offer some service similar to the Downtowner.

As regional transit plans begin falling into place through the Florida Department of Transportation’s regional transit feasibility study, how cities manage transit in their urban cores amid increasing parking and congestion issues could serve as a valuable model for sprawling areas of the counties.

In each city, groups are carefully determining what the area needs and how best to accommodate them.

Applying that flexibility across the region, while still considering how to connect the network, could turn a page in the region’s longstanding traffic woes.

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