- Sponsored -
Share article

Freebee driver Bryan Pinela is heading east down Crandon Blvd. when he sees two women in beachwear looking a bit lost in front of the Galleria Shopping Center. They seem surprised when he pulls up. He assures them the ride is “gratis” – free.

The Argentine tourists say they are staying on Miami Beach but visiting Key Biscayne for the day as they get aboard the electric GEM car. The cars, often confused for golf carts, are larger, street-legal electric vehicles that can travel up to 25 mph.

Patricia Graff says in Spanish they didn’t know how to get to Crandon Beach until Freebee came along. “Fantastico,” she says, getting off with her friend and heading toward the ocean.

Freebee was born, you might say, in Key Biscayne. It was  the first municipality to place two cars in service in  2016 from what was then an upstart company that was advertiser driven. The Village just added a ninth GEM car. 

Freebee driver Bryan Pinela says the job suits him beause he likes to keep moving and talking to people. Key Biscayne was the first municipality to back Freebee in 2016, then an upstart company. It now has nearly 40 areas it services from Florida City to Kissimmee. (KBI Photo/John Pacenti)

The program costs $830,000 a year, paid from the  half-penny County sales tax and a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, said Village CFO Benjamin Nussbaum.

Freebee’s footprint stretches from Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park to Calusa Park – and everywhere in between. The Village surpassed its goal by averaging 11,000 riders per month, according to Freebee’s monthly report issued last week.

“I think we are on pace to be their biggest program,” said Roland Samimy, Key Biscayne’s Chief Resilience Officer. “Obviously, we want to get it as high as possible.”

- Sponsored -

Back in his Freebee car, Pinela uses his knowledge of  Key Biscayne’s alleyways, moving deftly through shortcuts, side streets and public beach entrances to get to his quarry – his rider. He picks up residents grocery shopping, domestic workers heading to town on chores, an elderly condo resident with appointments.

Pinela, 42, is a loquacious people-loving guy who is quick with a joke or an aside. He has worked for Freebee for six years, commuting to Key Biscayne from Little Havana.

He is also full service, quick to jump out of the driver’s seat and help someone load groceries on the GEM car or lead a senior by the hand to the sidewalk. Pinela knows his regulars, learning about their children or grandchildren, their health concerns, their triumphs in life. He takes seniors to their physical therapy.

“I get to see their recovery. It’s almost like a movie,” Pinela said. 

He turns into the Ocean Club Key Biscayne to pick up Carolina Aldana, a customer he has known for three years, to take her to the Ritz Carlton.  “I like to take it to my other job,” said Aldana, who cleans residences for a living. “It’s an excellent service. For me it works out – and it’s free.”

Source: Village of Key Biscayne Freebee presentation to CITT, Oct. 2023; GEM manufacturer web site

Freebee is now in 37 communities, accordingto its website. Besides the GEM cars, the company utilizes electric compact vehicles and even electric shuttle vans. You can find Freebee in Coral Gables, downtown Miami, Delray Beach but also as far north as Kissimmee.

A vehicle is hailed by a customer on the Freebee smartphone app.

“We’re definitely growing, launching new markets on a weekly basis, which is always a good sign, but it all started back in Key Biscayne,” said Seth Brown, Freebee’s head of marketing.

Jason Spiegel and Kris Kimball started the on-demand hailing service in 2012 thinking it would be more like a moving billboard on South Beach or Brickell by wrapping the cars in advertisements. 

The idea of using some type of free on-demand transportation for Key Biscayne started when then residents Ed and Amy Easton came back from a wedding in Jacksonville and saw a free on-demand car service there, said Melissa White, the head of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation. 

The KBCF tried out what was called Key Ride through another company for a year before it brought in Spiegel and Kimbal. “They were young entrepreneurs,” White said. 

Freebee turned out to be a huge hit, a tremendous help to seniors, young islanders trying to get to sports practice and a crucial help to domestic workers – and it has  lessened traffic, pollution and road wear, White said, although specific numbers were not available. 

“It fits our island life.” White said, adding the Village took over administration of Freebee from the foundation  in 2021. “Incubating great ideas into fruition is our mission,” she added.

Freebee works because people realize they don’t have to be stuck in “car-mode,” said Village Manager Steve Williamson.

“Every time we put a new one out, the ride numbers go up,” Williamson said. “People may want to go out and drink. They don’t want to worry about parking at the grocery store or the Community Center, so they take a Freebee.”

Back on the streets of Key Biscayne, Pinela says driving a Freebee GEM car suits him because he is fidgety by nature and you can’t beat the scenery. 

“The movement – I love it,” he said. “Plus, it’s everybody you meet, and all the stories that you get to hear.”

Invest in Local News for Your Town. Your Gift is tax-deductible

John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

- Sponsored -

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.