At a time when the taxi-versus-rideshare hubbub takes on momentum, a player slinks into San Diego and sets up shop downtown. The Free Ride offers a wave-us-down ride service in a coverage area between Little Italy and the Convention Center, using modified versions of the 100 percent electric GEM vehicles from Polaris.
The six-seat, open-air cars serve as both billboard and shuttle, which company partner Sean Fruin describes as “experiential marketing.” The outside of the car doors are wrapped in advertisements from companies such as Dos Equis and VitaCoco. Inside, brochures and 30-second commercials for local advertisers play on a five-minute loop on an overhead iPad. A sign on top of each car reads, “Wave Us Down for a Free Ride.”
The Free Ride purchases the GEM for approximately $16,000 each and then spends another $3000 or $4000 to modify the vehicle with open-air aluminum doors, brochure racks, and iPads loaded with the app they built to play commercials and allow riders to use the “selfie booth” feature to take and share photos of themselves inside the car.
The company, started in 2011 by 20-somethings James Mirras and Alex Esposito, began as a seasonal (Memorial Day to Labor Day) free-ride service in the Hamptons, at the east end of Long Island. During the winters, they transported the cars down to Palm Beach, Florida. In 2013, they decided to take advantage of the year-round market potential of Southern California and set up a route in Santa Monica. This year, they expanded to the Jersey Shore as well as San Diego, where they absorbed Tag A Long, a one-car company that offered a similar service, and partnered with its founders.
The Free Ride made its debut in San Diego during Comic-Con weekend (July 9–12) with three cars branded by Dos Equis.
“With the three cars, over four days, we did over 100 riders each day, and in total we did over 600 for the weekend,” says Fruin, the 27-year-old New York-born Encinitas resident. “Looking at the numbers from the initial launch weekend to where we are today, ridership is increasing every week. We’ve been doing so far over 500 riders each week. We’re seeing that Friday, Saturday, Sunday, those days are basically meeting the numbers of the busier days of Comic-Con.”
A couple of weeks ago, the company introduced a fourth car to San Diego, this one sponsored by VitaCoco. The outside advertisement reads, “When life gives you lemons, demand coconuts.” The top is outfitted with a large crate of plastic green coconuts, and the back luggage rack with a crate that reads “lemonade upgrade.”
Currently, the company keeps two cars at a time out on the San Diego streets between noon and 9:00 p.m. on weekdays, and between noon and midnight on weekends. Each car can drive approximately four or five hours before they must go back to the garage at Eighth and Broadway for a two-hour charge.
In late summer or early fall, the Free Ride will introduce a fifth car, and by early 2015, they plan to hit the double digits in San Diego.
Currently, Santa Monica has 7 cars; the Hamptons has 20 cars spread out among four towns; and the Jersey Shore has four cars.
The company has had to make some adjustments as it grows from the no-stoplight small-town atmosphere of the towns in the Hamptons to San Diego. One of the major differences is that in the East Coast towns that offer the free ride service, the route is fixed, and riders get on at given stops.
San Diego, however, requires more flexibility. Here, riders can wave down a vehicle as it passes. The exact coverage area adjusts according to day, time, and local event. For example, Friday or Saturday evenings, the cars can be found in the Gaslamp or near little Italy. During a Padres game, they might be found mostly near Petco Park. On a Monday or Tuesday evening, the drivers will stick around the business district hoping to take riders from the office to happy hours.
In San Diego, the service offered is door-to-door. “If we pick someone up at the convention center and they say, ‘Hey, I want to go to Horton Plaza,’ we’re going to take them to Horton Plaza,” Fruin explains. “If someone jumps in along the way, we’re going to take that person to Horton Plaza, and then if that person says, ‘I want to go to Harbor Drive/Seaport Village,’ we’re going to then take them down there.”
At this point, while the company is still new and unfamiliar, some people just watch the cars go by without quite understanding, or maybe believing that it’s a free ride. But, according to Fruin, riders beget riders.
The Free Ride, San Diego
Take a jaunt with the Free Ride, an "experiential marketing" service that will drive you wherever you want to go.
“When people see other people in the car, they want to get in,” he says.
He tells a story of a local who had just finished his shift at his retail job and tried to hitch his skateboard to the back of the car. When the driver told him he could get in and ride at no cost, he did, and then spent the entire ride shouting out the window that the ride is free. According to Fruin, San Diegans have been conditioned to disbelieve in the free ride.
“The pedicabs will tell you 10, 15 bucks, and then when you get to the end of the ride, it’s, like, 30 or 40 dollars,” he says. “You see people getting into screaming matches over the price. We’ll never charge. That’s the point of what we do.”
As an “experiential marketing firm at its greatest” (Fruin’s words), the Free Ride finds itself in a gray area between taxis, pedicabs, and rideshares, where regulations have not yet been established. They do, however, follow the Public Utilities Commission Guidelines, which include a one-million-dollar insurance policy, criminal and DMV background checks, and adherence to zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies for drivers.
Fruin makes it a point to say he does not believe his company is taking any business away from the taxis or ridesharing companies.
“We don’t take people to the airport,” he says. “We don’t get on the I-5.”
At some point in the not-too-distant future, they plan to open up routes in Pacific Beach and possibly Encinitas. And as for sponsors, they have their sights set on some big-time local advertisers.
“We’d really like to get great brands like SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo and the Padres and the Chargers,” Fruin says.
Unlike rideshares and taxis, the Free Ride does not offer a phone number to call for a ride on demand. For now, rides are limited to a wave-down service and any arrangements set up between drivers and riders. If demand picks up too much before the number of cars has increased, Fruin offers his apologies in advance.
“If you wave us down and we can’t get you, we’re sorry,” he says. “There’s not much more I can say than that.”