Electric carts will soon ferry people around downtown Lakeland during weekday lunchtimes and weekend evenings. A one-year pilot project that starts July 4 has a goal of moving visitors and employees from parking and offices to restaurants, bars and shopping.
The new shuttle service to be called The Squeeze was approved Tuesday by the Citrus Connection’s board of directors. Six years in the making, the program is a collaboration between Citrus Connection and Lakeland Downtown Development Authority.
“It’s a fresh approach to transportation,” says Tom Phillips, executive director of Citrus Connection.
Phillips says The Squeeze will open up new options for people who not only work and visit downtown Lakeland, but who live there, too. “If The Squeeze touches their residential and links them to downtown, that’s a no-brainer.”
Funding for the project is coming from federal COVID stimulus funds aimed at helping businesses rebuild after the past year, Phillips said, adding that driving patrons helps to drive business. “This is government helping small businesses, which is the backbone,” he says.
The carts are an alternative to buses and come with a much lower price sticker: $20,000 per cart, compared with $500,000 per 40-foot bus.
“There’s not the frequency” with buses, says Julie Townsend, executive director of Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. “And you’re not going to park and wait for a bus. This is more of a circulator. This is more about convenience. Five minutes matters when you’re on a lunch hour. We’re trying to take away confusion and make it easier, provide certainty (in terms of frequency of stops).”
Phillips plans to start with two electric vehicles. Availability will determine whether they will be able to buy six- or eight-passenger vehicles. Until routes are drawn out, it’s too early to know how long passengers might have to wait for a ride.
The concept builds on the success of the Peach Line, which uses mini buses to service the Dixieland neighborhood.
Eighty-seven percent of Citrus Connection riders do not have access to a personal vehicle, Phillips says. “I want 80% of the people who use The Squeeze to be choice users. We’ve been focused only on transit-dependent for 40 years. Lakeland is past ready for choice-based transit. Get out of your car and use it.”
While the LDDA and Citrus Connection are currently working on the route, Phillips sees Munn Park as the central starting point.
“Munn Park is the sun,” he says. “It’s the middle of the solar system for this project. The further out we get from Munn Park, the less frequent the stops will be.”
Plans are to use existing designated loading and commercial zones within the downtown area.
“We’re not going to pick locations based on individual businesses,” Townsend says. “We’re looking at the 15-min loading zones, the commercial loading zones that are already designated. We want to make sure we’re picking locations that service the largest numbers of people.”
Riders will be able to purchase tickets – probably $3 for a week pass (the lowest price point planned) or $9 for a month pass, Phillips says – via a cashless mobile ticketing app. They can then access the free myStop mobile app (Apple, Google), which is GPS enabled, to see in real time where the cart is and how many seats are available. There will also be QR codes at each stop and on the carts. And masks will be strictly enforced.
Two drivers will be hired. “These are livable wage jobs, with full health care coverage” Phillips says. “These will be new jobs coming to Lakeland.”
Although the funding was approved for a one-year trial run, Phillips hopes to see expansion in a few years. His vision includes two more lines running in concentric rings where riders can transfer from cart to cart, connecting the three distinct areas of downtown Lakeland.
“Any time you can offer the public and customers choices for their transportation needs in an urban environment, it just provides people that piece of mind that they’re going to be able to eat and shop in a timely manner,” Townsend says.