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.

  • Ernie

    After four years of living in Miami, I only now rode a trolley for literally the first time, from the Arscht Center to Midtown. The apps to track when the next trolley weren’t working for me, but besides that everything was really convenient. A+++ would use again.

  • BK

    I would love to see Jitney service included in those maps! Apparently there is a Conchita “CTE” jitney that goes to Dolphin Mall, and another one between downtown and Tri-Rail, but I have no idea where else they go. You won’t find a “Miami Mini Bus” map anywhere either–and that seems to be a popular service from downtown to NE Dade.

    What’s a shame is many of these circulator routes only run an hourly or 2-hourly schedule. (BTW, Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach are missing on the map). You can NOT just go to the street and catch one–it takes significant planning around the schedule, which IMHO is a waste of PTP funds. This also makes them pretty useless as a “last mile” option. Any way to indicate frequency on the map? Thick lines for 10-15 minute service?

    Miami Trolley biscayne route is a bit long for a “circulator route.” Takes forever to do the entire route, and bus bunching is a HUGE issue. Dedicated lanes would help the reliability and travel times greatly.

    • adamold

      Yeah, Jitney service routes would be great to add. I’d love for them to be GPS tracked, too. Although it matters less since they are so frequent. It would be really nice to see if the one coming was a slow driver though—not that uncommon.

  • Eileen Higgins

    I ride the Miami and Coral Gables trolley all the time (LOVE them), but it’s random on whether I’ve just missed one or not. The Miami Trolley app hasn’t worked in more than two months now. I’ve sent tweets to the app and contacted several City Councilors, but no one monitors the twitter account and its still not reporting trolley locations on the map in the Apple version. Last year, the app disappeared for 3+ months from the App store. I was able to finally contact the City Manager who did get it back up in a few days after I tried in vain again with several City Councilors (who likely drive everywhere so they don’t use the App.) In Coral Gables, it stops running at 8 pm, which is fine. However, when I’m at a stop at 7:55 pm … have I missed it already? What does 8 pm mean? The last arrival at the Douglas Road station or 8 pm at that stop? Not sure since every stop has the 8 pm listed on its sign. Keep up the good work on helping others know about this great service and for helping those of us who use it get better information!

    • Roshan

      Eileen, thanks so much for this note. I’ll pass it along!

  • Darren Liddell

    Great read! Thanks for the article.

    Also, Miami Shores has a shuttle. While not exactly a trolley, does offer free rides! Please pass along to the code Miami Team. http://www.miamishoresvillage.com/miami-shores-village/shores-shuttle-information.html

    • Roshan

      Awesome! Thanks Darren, will do!

  • Vice-Queen Maria

    Hi Roshan! Here are two more. Thank you for doing this! This was SO need for #miamischlep 🙂

    I’ve used one on North Miami Beach but I can’t find any info on it on the city’s website. Not to be confused with the North Beach trolley. Two different cities.

    I did come across this one for senior citizens though. Another much needed service for that demographic: http://www.citynmb.com/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={F5855F6B-71D6-496D-ACFD-5F00349C448A}&DE=

    Also, there’s one in Palmetto Bay this is my life saver for “last mile” issues. It picks up and drops folks off at the Park and Ride lot on 168th and other South Dade locations in the city: http://www.palmettobay-fl.gov/content/ibus-bus-circulator-service

    • Roshan

      Woop. Thanks Maria. Will let them know.

  • Juraj Kojs

    How neat! Yet, one gets stuck in traffic with the rest of auto vehicles… How about better city trains?
    Join the participatory musical campaign Bang for the Train:

  • Benjamin Brandt

    Good work! If I may add one thing, though: I belive the route included in Sweetwater is not the free trolley route, but the route for MDT 212 (which confusingly is called Sweetwater Circulator). They do have a trolley, and it’s route is very hard to trace (I tried), see here: http://cityofsweetwater.fl.gov/transit.html
    Further, it says “last updated January 2014”, and my guessing is, they adjust their route according to abuelas calling in and making whishes. Which is a good thing, except when you want to draw a map.

    • Roshan

      Code for Miami is working on making that a little bit easier. Thanks for the clarification. We’ll pass it along!

  • There’s a circulator in West Miami that got left off the map. The route map on the city’s website is basically indecipherable.

    • Roshan

      Dope! Thanks for letting us know, we’ll pass the info along.