Trolleys: The free transit option you’re probably not using

There are plenty of things to gripe about when it comes to getting around Miami. Traffic is insane, public transit can be confusing, it’s too hot outside to walk — the list goes on and on. But there’s one pretty awesome transit hack that not many people know about: circulator trolleys.

They’re great because they are:

    • Free
    • Fast
    • Super predictable
    • Equipped with A/C + Wifi
    • And freaking adorable

Wait … free? How? What’s the catch and where did they come from?

Remember back in 2002 when voters passed that half-cent tax to fund the “People’s Transportation Plan,” that was supposed to improve mass transit? While most of those funds were spent on maintenance and operation, some of them were put towards these free trollies.

The surtax fund is monitored by the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust. The trust provides each of the 34 municipalities with a percentage of the half-cent surtax based on their population (higher population = more money).

Currently, Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables and 24 other municipalities provide a circulator service to their communities using half-cent surtax funding.

A couple of cool routes you can use the free trolleys for:

But there are a few snafus

One biggie is that because each trolley is owned by individual cities, there’s no way to plan a trip by trolley across multiple cities, even though it may technically be possible.

So the Institute of Collaborative Innovation, a private civic innovation consulting company, stepped in. The team plotted a countywide circulator trolley map.

Check it out here:

There’s not even a comprehensive list of all the circulator trolleys available online, so the team — led by Malik Benjamin, who is also the director of program innovation at Florida International University CARTA School of Architecture — had to basically Google each municipality to first see if they had a trolley before they could begin mapping them

Surprisingly, it didn’t take all that long..

“We had two people working on it. It took about two 10-hour days to put all the trolley data together,” he said.

That’s about 40 hours to make something immensely useful.

Code for Miami, a civic hacking group, is also applying their tech know-how to transit. They’re working with Miami-Dade Transit to improve their tracking data and get cities to publish trolley data in a way that can be used on Google maps.

Because the trolleys are owned by individual cities, data sharing is… challenging. A different private company runs each city’s system. Miami Beach, Doral, and Miami Lakes all use something called TSO Mobile. The City of Miami uses ETA Transit Systems.

Adam Old, a Code for Miami volunteer, summarized it well here:

“Ideally all of the transit services on your route would be mapped and reporting live GPS tracking on a single app. Since budgets are so regimented and nobody wants to pay for someone else’s tracking, and the apps are so expensive to build and maintain in a friendly way, the easiest way for this to happen is for each agency to release the GPS data from their trolleys, trains and buses in an open GTFS-RT (tracking data in real time) format.”

Fortunately, coordination is already in the works, although there’s no solid timeline on when it might be done.