At least two cites in San Diego County are now counting on free electric-powered vehicles to help visitors make their way around town.
The city of San Diego since 2016 has used downtown parking meter revenue funds to pay for the micro transit solution business Circuit to ferry riders around downtown via “FRED” (Free Ride Everywhere Downtown). In July, San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood began service from an EV named “The Beach Bug” with help from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
Now the city of Carlsbad has hopped on board, contracting with Circuit to pick vacationers up from their hotels and shuttle them via EV sedans emblazoned on the side with “Carlsbad Good Ride” to the city’s most popular spots — including South Carlsbad State Beach and other beaches, LEGOLAND, The Flower Fields, Batiquitos Lagoon and the Downtown Village.
The city on Sept. 1 began a year-long pilot program with Florida-based Circuit for sedans and an ADA-approved van. The pilot program in Carlsbad will run through Aug. 31, 2024, and is being funded through a nearly $1 million grant from the Carlsbad Tourism Business Improvement District (CTBID).
The process to access transportation is similar to Uber and Lyft with its on-demand app service but focused on shorter trips in dedicated service areas with a small amount of cargo – for example, the city says that boogie boards are okay, but surfboards are not.
Carlsbad Economic Development Manager Matt Sanford said that in a collaborative effort, Carlsbad hoteliers identified a pressing need to transport guests efficiently throughout the city.
“The CTBID Advisory Board’s decision to champion this initiative not only showcases foresight but also a commitment to enhancing the visitor experience in Carlsbad,” Sanford said. “By opting for the shuttle program, visitors can quickly reach their desired destinations and attractions around Carlsbad. This not only alleviates parking challenges and reduces street congestion but also promotes a greener Carlsbad. The shuttle’s design encourages ridesharing, minimizing the need for car rentals or hires, and subsequently reducing overall vehicle miles and emissions. Together, we’re making Carlsbad more accessible and environmentally conscious.”
Kim Sidoriak, president and CEO of the tourism organization Visit Carlsbad said the city’s destination and hotel partners have already expressed excitement at the ability to offer this service to their guests, free-of-charge.
“It creates a destination that’s better connected, easier to explore and more inviting to those who may be visiting the destination without a car,” she said. “We’re excited to hear feedback from visitors as this offering rolls out over the next few months – we’re confident it will be a terrific addition to our existing tourist offerings as a destination.”
‘Fun, Unique, Sustainable’
San Diego tourists are among the shuttles’ biggest fans and have frequented FRED for nearly 10 years. The Beach Bug has had a wave of success, with more than 11,000 riders from its start July 12 through Sept. 11.
The popularity and need for this kind of transportation has not gone unnoticed by locals involved in the tourism industry.
“Accessibility and ease of travel are top considerations when traveling,” said San Diego Tourism Authority President and CEO Julie Coker. “Free and convenient modes of transportation like FRED and the ‘Beach Bug’ EV shuttles add to our destination’s appeal by being fun, unique and sustainable.”
Circuit, which began in 2011 as a free beach shuttle service in the Hamptons but has expanded into a bi-coastal operation, has its fleet in a lot of places, including 70 of its 200 vehicles working in California. Circuit operates in more than 30 markets and eight states and has provided more than 6 million rides.
In addition to FRED and The Beach Bug the company runs a “gO’side” shuttle service that started last year in downtown Oceanside for all residents. Chula Vista also in 2022 hired the company to shuttle residents ages 55 and up around the northwest part of the city. In mid-September, National City began a similar pilot program with Circuit for its senior population, with free rides west of Interstate 805 called FRANC (Free Rides Around National City). The company recently won approval to start a pilot program next spring in Coronado.
“It’s like in a neighborhood when someone remodels their home and then the neighbors see… and the next thing you know, all the neighbors want to remodel,” said Daniel Kramer, head of business development for Circuit on the West Coast. “When we launch in a city, the next city overhears about it…”
Carlsbad remains unique, in that the city is specifically targeting the ridership of visitors staying at any of its 46 hotels.
“Carlsbad is 39 square miles with lodging properties spread throughout the community, so there is a need for easy and accessible transportation for our overnight guests,” Sidoriak said. “Carlsbad Good Ride will make travel around Carlsbad even easier and more enjoyable for our visitors, allowing them to avoid rental cars and the search for parking.”
Sidoriak also noted that Carlsbad, a city that encourages the “eco-conscious lifestyle” believes that the pilot program will also “eliminate the added transportation stress for visitors, reduce traffic congestion during high visitation seasons and create a positive impact on the environment with the usage of electric vehicles.”
Sidoriak said even though “revenge travel” in 2023 has not been as much of a factor as it was last year, “travel has moved up on the priority list in terms of what folks are spending their money on.”
Comparing 2023 to the pre-Covid year 2019, Carlsbad hotel performance has grown, according to Visit Carlsbad statistics. Hotels’ average daily rate is up 21% and revenue per available room is up 16%, which is significant with occupancy only down about 4%.
To keep travelers moving around the city in the best ways possible, Sidoriak said the city sought a flexible, on-demand service with knowledgeable drivers able to share destination information about Carlsbad, bring an external branding of the vehicle that “cohesive with the visitors’ experience” and have all the fleet on the road be electric. Circuit’s fleet of EVs to transport visitors and/or residents also helps cut carbon emissions, important to the city.
Kramer said the company looks locally for employees who know their communities to hire to drive its fleet of Kia Niro sedans and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) and aims to work in collaboration with other mass transit hubs in the areas they serve.
“We’re looking to expand more in San Diego and beyond in all regions,” Kramer said. “It’s great to have partners in all the cities. Everyone has a need for transportation and transportation as a whole is changing and evolving. So a program like ours where we can replace an underperforming (bus) route or help increase ridership by connecting to it, we can complement other forms of transportation and not compete.”
PRESIDENT AND CEO: Kim Sidoriak
BUSINESS: Destination Marketing Association
EMPLOYEES: 7 plus 7 on the board of directors
NOTABLE: The Visit Carlsbad website has a live streaming video camera showing the beach at https://visitcarlsbad.com/carlsbad-live-beach-cam/
CO-FOUNDERS: Alexander Esposito and James Mirras
HEADQUARTERS: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
BUSINESS: Micro transportation
CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org or on website
SOCIAL IMPACT: Greenouse gas reduction through the use of electric vehicles
NOTABLE: California has the with the majority of Circuit’s 200 vehicles, with about 70 running throughout the state, including about 20 in San Diego County, with more coming.