No Car, No Problem: Getting Around Is Getting Easier
Getting around the bay area without a car keeps getting more interesting. We have scooter and bike rentals, a seasonal ferry, trollies, and even an old-fashioned streetcar. Now, St. Pete boasts an innovative way to whisk residents and visitors through some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Of course, I’m referring to the new SunRunner, the Bus Rapid Transit Route (BRT) that takes riders from downtown to St. Pete Beach.
Spend more than a few minutes with someone in our house and you’ll start hearing about how much we love the new SunRunner. I’ve been accused of being on the PSTA payroll, but I assure readers that the only thing PSTA has given me is a ride. Great cities have solid public transportation systems, not just as a last resort, but as a viable and reliable way for visitors and locals to get around. And while I might not do it every day, I like that we can now travel any or all of the distance between St. Pete Beach and Ybor City without a car. And instead of being a traffic headache, it’s downright pleasant. But is it practical? It’s the details that make it work.
The Cross Bay Ferry has become a familiar sight making its journey from Straub Park to Tampa’s Riverwalk during the winter tourist season. These boats are almost always full, and there’s a plan that hopes to make the service permanent, year-round. Thanks to local government subsidies, the $12 ($8 seniors, $5 students) one-way fare is probably cheaper than the cost of gas and parking. Once you get to Tampa, you can take the once-beleaguered, now hugely popular, TECO Line Streetcar and go all the way to Ybor City, exploring stops in Channelside and Sparkman Wharf along the way.
Boats are great, but can we get excited about a bus? Over the past year it would be hard to miss the lane changes and new platforms along 1st Avenues North and South that are part of PSTA’s new SunRunner, which launched in October. By now, residents might know that the new Bus Rapid Transit route can get them from downtown to the beach in 35 minutes (a journey that used to take an hour on the Beach Trolley).
More significant than the quick ride to the beach is that trips to the Edge District, Kenwood, and Grand Central take less than 10 minutes from downtown. It’s designed like light rail; buses pass every fifteen minutes, so there’s never a wait. The dedicated lane means the bus bypasses traffic and the platform speeds the boarding process for everyone, particularly those with mobility challenges. The new route is free for the first six months and ridership has been beyond expectation. But here are a few things people might not know about getting around – and out – of St. Pete.
Bringing your bike is getting easier. Typical buses have bike racks on the outside front of the bus that can hold two bikes. But the SunRunner buses are different. The bike racks are inside the bus and feature a contraption that locks on the front wheel to lift the front of the bike vertically, securing it and saving space. If the racks are full, just stand with your bike, New York-subway-style. The Cross Bay Ferry also welcomes bikes, so you can bring your own wheels to the Riverwalk.
Paying for your bus ride is simple. As mentioned, the SunRunner is free through mid-April, but you don’t have to worry about exact change to ride any bus. A transit app called Flamingo allows users to load money into the app. Just scan your phone when you board and the fare is deducted from your Flamingo account. Once you hit $5 for the day, your rides are free. The app works in Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Hernando Counties. It’s easier than calling an Uber. You can stay connected, too. The SunRunner has free wi-fi and each seat has a USB charging port.
Yes, the SunRunner’s closest stop to the Old Northeast is down at 5th Street and 1st Ave North. For some of us, that’s a 10–15-minute bike ride away. Another option is the bus running up and down Fourth Street. Like the SunRunner, Route 4 runs at 15-minute intervals during peak times. Route 38 running up Beach Drive will take you past the Northeast Publix all the way to Tyrone Mall and leaves once each hour.
The TECO Line Streetcar running between Downtown Tampa and Ybor City is now free.
Heading to the beach? Yes, you can bring your beach chairs, your coolers, and anything else you can carry with you. You’ll get there faster and save time and money not trying to park. Also, you can bring your pet on PSTA buses, as long as they’re in a carrier.
But do these rides really replace the car in real life? During COVID, my family downsized to one car. For a while we were able to stagger our kids’ activities so that all the running around could be done with one vehicle. But eventually we hit a regularly scheduled conflict, for which the SunRunner is the perfect solution. Now we frequently use it to get to the YMCA for dance classes. It typically takes us 15-20 minutes to get to the YMCA by car. Using a combination of SunRunner and bicycles, we’ve made the trip in as quick as 28 minutes. Is buying and insuring a second car worth saving 10-20 minutes a dozen times a month? To some it might be, but now we have the choice. Our ballerina thinks riding the SunRunner to dance is a special treat.
Another example of its usefulness came when we had visiting family. We parked (for free using the ParkMobile app) in the SouthCore garage (1st Avenue South and 1st Street), had coffee at Craft Kafe on Central, bought books at Tombolo out at 22nd Street, visited art galleries in the Warehouse Arts District, and then stopped at Dr. BBQ on the way back. Without the SunRunner we would have needed two cars and great luck with parking.
St. Petersburg is in danger of being a victim of its own popularity. Changing the way people get around, reducing the burden of parking on businesses, and giving people a reason to leave their home or hotel without their car is the key to smart growth. Perhaps one day we’ll have a commuter ferry like the one we rode from Hingham to Boston, that carried tourists, but catered to businesspeople.
Public transportation has long been the Tampa Bay Region’s weakness. It took years of planning to win the federal and state grants that got the SunRunner off the drawing board. St. Pete has joined 26 other US cities with Bus Rapid Transit, including Austin, Cleveland, Albuquerque, Chicago, Nashville, and San Antonio. More than just a good system, it offers an example of what’s possible if we embrace different solutions to old problems.