Words and images by Mark Judson
Riverside and Avondale, to the south of Jacksonville’s downtown, have become much more than hubs for urban hipsters sipping on coffee, discussing start-up ideas. These neighborhoods form a web connecting a wide-range of people, but sometimes those webs are further than a bike ride can take you.
The areas have become hotspots for folks seeking a change in scenery from the lackluster Southside and crowded Beaches. Breweries, gourmet food to fit every budget, live music, rooftop bars and everything in between — Riverside and Avondale have everything people don’t realize they need until they experience it.
Non-residents spending an evening in the area quickly become aware of a neighborhood feature intended to discourage traffic — a lack of parking. This is where the Riverside Avondale Night Trolley comes in.
Originally operating only the first weekend of the month, the trolley now runs each Friday and Saturday evening as a way to beat parking and eliminate the dreadful task of choosing a designated driver. Now everyone can enjoy their favorite craft beer or cocktail and blow off a little steam from the workweek.
Local business and non-profit consultant Heather Bailey, agrees the trolley makes a night out with friends much more manageable. Bailey helps organize a monthly ladies night that uses the trolley to safely navigate the local restaurants and watering holes. The “Ladies who Trolley” even have their own hashtag for the occasion.
Organizing a group of people can be a logistical nightmare. How many cars will be needed for the entire group? How many designated drivers will that require? Where is the best place to park? Talk about a buzz kill.
Bailey believes the trolley helps alleviate these issues and allows for the focus to be the real purpose of weekend evenings — enjoying a night out with close friends. She says the nighty bus line eliminates these stressors, ensures group safety and takes away a large part of planning.
Those familiar with Riverside know how popular the bike culture is in the trendy neighborhood outside of Downtown. So how exactly does a trolley establish itself in such a bike-friendly neighborhood?
“Not everyone has bikes,” Bailey says simply. Plus, there’s logistics to be accounted for in bike rides as well.
Dylan Phillips, who serves on the Riverside Avondale Preservation board, agrees.
“When we go out, [my wife] wants to arrive with her hair and makeup looking nice,” he said. A bike ride through the Florida heat and humidity isn’t so forgiving on one’s appearance.
RAP has been spearheading the effort to have a local trolley system and Phillips is one of the group’s leaders on the initiative. Phillips says he has focused on civil transportation for a long time, modeling the Riverside Avondale trolley concept off a similar project in Charleston.
Phillips collaborated on a survey several years ago that found 40 to 50 percent of patrons in the Riverside hotspots came from the Riverside area but drove. This, he felt, was a problem.
With garages and parking lots carrying a high infrastructure cost, a trolley seemed to be the perfect solution. Phillips and his team met with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, which viewed the idea as a way to “attract choice ridership.” Thus, the trolley program began January 2014.
The program is able to sustain, for now, thanks to local sponsorships and ticket fares. Riders can purchase one-way tickets for $1.50 or an unlimited, daily pass for $4. Phillips hopes riders can eventually sustain the program, but how can they do that?
“We need butts in seats,” said Phillips.
The trolley has six months to achieve an average weekly ridership of 500 people. After the six months is up, the trolley will become a permanent fixture or face the ax. Phillips has mostly relied on word-of-mouth advertising for the trolley and stresses there are “a million ways” to take advantage of it. The first step is finding just one way to use it and doing so.
So where does this thing go? How does it work?
Well, it kind of goes everywhere. The trolley picks riders up at regular JTA bus stops and takes them through the King Street District, Five Points, the Shoppes of Avondale, and south Avondale near the sometimes-forgotten hotspot that is Harpoon Louie’s.
Using the MyJTA mobile app, riders can track the location of the next trolley – running every 10 to 15 minutes. Riders can pay for single rides with exact cash upon boarding or purchase the day pass from several businesses along the route or through the MyJTA app.
The trolley runs each Friday and Saturday evening from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m.