Does Riverside Need a Nighttime Trolley?

The thing about Riverside is that, for its many bar and restaurant and retail virtues, the parking sucks. The parking has always sucked, at least ever since the neighborhood became the hipster capital of Jacksonville. Since there’s no other way to get around, patrons will park at a restaurant for dinner, then move their car to a bar down the street, sometimes just a block or two away. Or sometimes they’ll just park on residents’ lawns or in their driveways.

The residents, in turn, have complained about not only being blocked in by cars left overnight, but also littering, public urination and displays of public coitus.

This isn’t a new problem. For years, area merchants have been looking for answers — some way to alleviate the crush of cars in a city with streets and arteries that aren’t particularly conducive to mass transit. And time and time again, they’ve circled around an old solution, the trolley. A century ago, a full-service trolley line ran through Riverside, which was originally designed to be a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. But in the 1930s, at the height of the Depression and with the ever-increasing popularity of cars, those trolley lines were ripped up, and in the many decades that followed, walkability became a pipe dream.

Back in 2011, rented trolleys and ran pub crawls connecting Riverside and Downtown. Over a four-month period, these trolleys averaged about 250 riders a night, which the group deemed proof that demand for these nighttime trolleys existed. Other tests have followed, some with financial support from downtown and Riverside merchants. Trolleys have been used for Luminaries night and Art Walk, and last September, Riverside Avondale Preservation convinced merchants to fund another trolley demonstration, this time focused on the restaurants and bars in Riverside and Avondale.

And now, starting this month, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority will conduct a trolley pilot program. On the first Friday and Saturday evening of each month from January to June, the JTA will run trolleys delivering patrons and revelers to the bars and restaurants of Riverside and Avondale, making stops at 5 Points, Park & King, the Shoppes of Avondale, the Brewery District, Stockton & College and the St. Johns Village area; the trolleys will not go Downtown. There will be three buses on 40-minute routes, overlapping every 13 minutes. One trolley will run until 2 a.m.

If all goes well, the merchants hope to finally convince the JTA to make these trolley runs permanent. That’s an important “if.”

The JTA estimates that the trolley will cost about $1,200 a night, or $14,400 total for the pilot program. Riders, meanwhile, will have to fork over $1.50 for a single trip or $4 for a day pass. To break even — to make even considering a permanent trolley viable — the JTA needs to average 1,600 one-way fares or 600 one-day fares, or some combination thereof.

“Clearly, they have a parking issue over there,” says Brad Thoburn, JTA’s vice president for planning and development. “Maybe it will take some folks off the road and get good ridership. That’s our hope.”

Mike Fields, an area resident and community activist, is optimistic: “There is a circulation problem in the neighborhood. There is no viable option to get around. A nighttime trolley service meets so many of the unmet alternative transportation needs of our neighborhood.”

The JTA, meanwhile, is currently analyzing all of its routes, and hopes to release new one by October. What happens during this Riverside pilot program will help the authority determine whether to add a regular nighttime bar route.

“We will evaluate [this option] against the others and make sure we optimally deploy the resources,” Thoburn says. “How does it stack up against the rest of the system? They have to show it has strong ridership and it is sustainable.”

“It’s not going to solve the parking problem,” Fields admits. “If it’s very convenient, it may be a viable option to get some of the cars off the road.”