In Tampa, you just can't live without a car.
This is the sad fact I've resigned myself to after a week of driving around a friend who totaled her car on a recent rain-drenched road trip. I reluctantly agreed to be her personal taxi, but only after checking the HART website and realizing there really wasn't another feasible way for her to leave her home in North Tampa to work at Westshore Plaza. OK, so maybe that's her fault for living so close to New Tampa, but even if she lived and worked in the city's urban corridor — say, with a bungalow in Seminole Heights and a job downtown — her options would still be terribly few.
Biking in this heat is impractical. A week's worth of taxi rides would cost her more than a day's worth of wages. And though she'd probably make many homeless friends on the way, her bus route would be anything but direct, not to mention she'd be stranded during lunchtime.
But what if there were an easier way to get to work and, as an added bonus, catch a ride to Rick's on the River for lunch?
Before this year, your only hope would have been to find a dedicated, if unemployed, friend to drive you around. But now, commuters have another option: Green Go's Inc.
Using a fleet of three electric motor carts, Green Go's will transport commuters, office workers on lunch break and tourists hitting up Channelside, serving them all while leaving only a tiny carbon footprint.
"The beauty of it is if people are riding with us, they're not bringing cars to downtown," says Chris Ireland, who formed Green Go's with his brother Tim and their two high school buddies, Orlando De Los Santos and David Gorgei. "It's ridiculous having to get in your car, only to go two miles."
Oh, did I mention it's free, too?
On a recent weekday, an enthusiastic Tim Ireland speeds down Seventh Avenue in a green and white vehicle that resembles a golf cart with four extra seats. Well, not speeding exactly — these 7-horsepower electric cars can barely break 30 miles per hour. But he is in a hurry. Two tourists from Chicago are at the Hampton Inn up the street and need a ride to the Tampa Convention Center.
As Tim passes several Ybor City restaurants, servers and diners stop and stare. As he slows for a red light, an older woman in heavy makeup flags him down.
"What kind of car are you?" she screeches. "That is soooo cute!"
Seconds later, Tim pulls into the Hampton Inn. The riders are a couple from Chicago in town for a music convention. Tim hops out and helps them with their luggage.
"This is so bizarre," the woman, Carrie, whispers.
"It's like the Popemobile," quips her beau, Ian.
In a matter of minutes, we're back on the road.
The tourists ask again if the ride is free (Chicago life has made them a little paranoid), and Tim assures them it is. Advertisements power Green Go's budget; placards and banners for local businesses line the front, back and sides of the carts.
"The drivers work off of tips only," Tim adds subtly. The free rides aren't exactly altruism; if Green Go's were to charge passengers, the city would require the company to obtain a taxi permit, which is a costly, time-consuming process.
Four minutes later, he pulls up to the Convention Center and lets out his passengers.
"We did something for the environment today," Carrie giggles before handing Tim an $8 tip.
"The tourists love it," Tim says later. "They say, 'How do we get these in our city?'"
For Chris and Tim Ireland, Green Go's was just an extension of their other business, Fast-Trac Legal Services. Fast-Trac gave rides to lawyers traveling from their offices to the courthouse, using gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
"The fuel costs is really what put the fire under our rear end," says Tim. "Just going downtown, we were spending $30 a day. It was just ridiculous."
So in April, after seeing a similar idea in Key West, the brothers bought their first electric cart. After the purchase of two more carts, they expanded their service to office workers and tourists.
"Who wants to walk several blocks to lunch, or walk to your parked car and waste 25 minutes right there?" Chris says.
Although Green Go's isn't the only electric cart service in Tampa — earlier this year, Todd Persico began Hop Tampa, a service that shuttles people between Harbour Island, Channelside and downtown — it is the only one that offers its services to Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Riverside Heights, in addition to lunch spots in Ybor City, Hyde Park, Channelside and SoHo.
Now, on an average day, Green Go's picks up about 50 people. On weekends or during special events, they can easily transport 150 people or more in a few hours.
Tim pulls into the company's hub on Florida Avenue and Oak Street to charge his "Green Machine." The cars' batteries typically last only a few hours before they need to be charged. I take a seat in a car driven by Orlando De Los Santos. He's on his way to the Tampa Convention Center.
A tired Elizabeth Erler lets out a sigh of relief when she sees us.
"Thanks so much," says the 27-year-old temp (and Bennigan's refugee). "I was waiting on a bus but apparently they don't run down here anymore."
"Not a problem," Orlando responds. "We're better than the bus anyway."