Innovative Transportation All Around Florida

Innovative Transportation
Autonomous Vehicles travel five routes in Lake Nona. BEEP photo.

Self-driving Swans, Horseless Carriages, and Flying Taxis: Innovative Transportation in Florida

By Kirsten Harrington

Florida is known for its beaches and thrilling theme park attractions. But did you know that one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations is rolling out some innovative transportation–rides that have nothing to do with Harry Potter or Mickey Mouse?   It’s suddenly not all about automobiles in a car-dependent state in the U.S

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (by right door) by the SWAN shuttle. City of Orlando photo
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (by right door) by the SWAN shuttle. City of Orlando photo.

By now, you’ve certainly heard of Brightline, the new high-speed train whisking passengers between Orlando and Miami. But Florida has a few lesser known transportation options up its sleeve.

Read on to learn about self-driving shuttles, breezy catamarans, and horseless carriages.

Riding a SWAN in Orlando

I waited anxiously at the bus stop for my ride. This was my first time riding the SWAN, which stands for “shuttling with autonomous navigation.”

Basically, this meant I was about to step into an 8-passenger vehicle with no driver at the wheel. In fact, there is no steering wheel at all in this self-driving shuttle with white and orange swan-like markings.

Debuting in August, this electric vehicle travels on a fixed one-mile loop in the Creative Village area near downtown Orlando. The SWAN Shuttle is a six-month pilot program. The goal is to monitor how the shuttle enhances a thriving downtown with safe, sustainable transportation. 

SWAN Shuttles in Orlando. City of Orlando photo
SWAN Shuttles in Orlando. City of Orlando photo

“This is what we’re doing to ensure Orlando is ready for the future of transportation. It will help us create a more sustainable city for everybody,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer at a press conference in August.

The free shuttle stops at the main bus terminal, apartment buildings, student housing, offices, parks, cafes, and several higher-learning campuses. By connecting the dots of these living, learning, and working spaces, the SWAN increases accessibility and fosters community.

If it’s successful, it could be expanded to other areas of Orlando. However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for this swan, with two accidents in the first few months of operation. The city is doubling down on training and has placed two attendants on each vehicle for safety.

Author riding the horseless carriage by Mount Dora Lighthouse. Kirsten Harrington photo
Author riding the horseless carriage by Mount Dora Lighthouse. Kirsten Harrington photo

“Welcome! Make sure you fasten your seatbelt, and hold on here,” the shuttle attendant instructed as I stepped on board. As instructed, I grasped the padded handle as I read the sign warning that the shuttle may break hard.

One attendant sat in front, holding a yellow joystick console on his lap. When the SWAN encountered an obstacle on the route, like a parked bus, the attendant manually steered around it.

The SWAN chimes at every light, crosswalk, and shuttle stop to announce its presence. A second attendant sat in the back to act as another set of eyes.

The Goal: Fully Autonomous

“It’s 95 percent of the way there. That’s the goal – to be fully autonomous. We’re just here for safety reasons. Pedestrians and traffic in downtown are unpredictable,” he explained.

At the next intersection, a car entered the transit lane and headed head-on in our direction. I think having a safety attendant on board is a good idea.

The SWAN completed the loop in about 15 minutes, with the safety attendant making occasional course corrections. I hopped out, thinking the SWAN still had some growing to do, but this futuristic technology is pretty cool.

BEEP Lake Nona is Pioneering Autonomous Mobility

BEEP is the brainchild of the technology that deploys, manages, and operates autonomous shuttles, including the SWAN. The company is headquartered in Lake Nona, a planned community that lies less than 10 miles from the Orlando airport.

As part of the community design, BEEP created the largest and longest autonomous vehicle network at one location in the country. The service started in 2019 with one route, and now eight driverless shuttles cover five routes connecting nearly 10 key destinations within Lake Nona. The electric vehicles carry people to doctors’ appointments, shopping, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

But it’s not just the residents who benefit. According to Racquel Asa, BEEP’s Chief Client Engagement Officer, Lake Nona draws over a million visitors a year.

“Many of them don’t have a car. So, we end up providing them the connectivity to the key destinations within this 17- to 18-square-mile footprint. There is no need for them to rent a car,” she said. Instead of simply getting from point A to point B, transportation becomes a unique tourist experience when riding in a driverless vehicle.

In addition to providing a safe, sustainable ride, BEEP shuttle attendants in Lake Nona serve as ambassadors for the technology and the city. Not only do they answer questions like “Hey, how does this thing work?” but they also know where to find the best pizza and beer.

BEEP also launched an autonomous shuttle service in Altamonte Springs last summer. In this suburb north of Orlando, passengers are whisked around town in yellow and blue autonomous vehicles emblazoned with a white crane.  “CraneRIDES” carries residents and visitors between popular shopping and entertainment destinations around town.

Horseless Carriage in Mount Dora

As someone who has experienced an allergy attack sitting in a horse-driven carriage, I was particularly excited to try a horseless ride. Mount Dora was the first city in the US to approve such electric vehicles for commercial use. This historical gem 30 miles Northwest of Orlando draws visitors from around the world to experience a slice of “old Florida.”

The Olde Mount Dora Carriage Company rolled out its fleet of Victorian-era carriages in 2022, with a mission to provide a clean, green service that complements the city’s nature.

The charming British accent of local storyteller Louise O’Leary entertains riders on the 45-minute historical tour. Rather than live narration, there’s a recording that shares the history of Mount Dora as a driver maneuvers the electric carriage.

At the appointed time of my ride, the Dora Ann pulled up in front of the Lakeside Inn, where I was staying. Each carriage in the fleet is named after a historical person or lake in the area. White with gold trim, rich purple accents, and brass-colored lamps, this was no ordinary electric vehicle. Cushioned seats and a satiny sunshade made for a regal, comfortable ride.

I felt like a princess as we drove around town; diners at sidewalk cafes waved at me, and pedestrians stopped to snap pictures. I practiced my royal wave and smiled back as we toured the sights. There was no poop, no smell, and all the charm.

I’ll go back at Christmastime to tour the city decked out in lights; there’s also a Halloween “Scarriage Ride.” Upgrade to a premium experience to enjoy a glass of bubbly, chocolates, dinner, and wine while you ride.

SWAN shuttle nears a stop. Kirsten Harrington photo
SWAN shuttle nears a stop. Kirsten Harrington photo

Hail a Free Ride in West Palm Beach

Imagine hailing a free ride in a Tesla with just a click on your phone. In Florida’s West Palm Beach neighborhood, complimentary rides are a reality.

A newly launched service called RideWPB transports riders around town in 8-passenger electric carts, vans, and Tesla sedans. There’s a set route around town with 15 stops with rides arriving at 15-minute intervals.

The stops are convenient to Amtrak, Tri-rail commuter line, and Brightline stations, making seamless connections for incoming or outgoing travel.

Not downtown, but still need a ride? Use the on-demand feature, and a carbon-neutral ride will whisk you to your destination for free (within a limited-service area). Look for the Circuit app and select the West Palm Beach option.


Gulf Island Ferry adds to the Adventure of Visiting Anna Maria Island

Gulf islands ferry
Passengers enjoying the ride on the Gulf Islands Ferry

One thing I love about living in Florida is being close to the beach. What don’t I love? The traffic getting there and the hassle and cost of parking. Spending the day at the beach just got much easier on Florida’s west coast with the January debut of the Gulf Island Ferry to Anna Maria Island.

About 45 miles south of Tampa, Bradenton is the jumping-off point for Anna Maria Island, one of the Sunshine State’s top Gulf Coast destinations. Instead of driving over the bridge to get to the island, visitors can hop on an open-air catamaran. Just board the boat near Bradenton’s Riverwalk and spend the 35-minute crossing enjoying the view. It’s so easy and affordable ($8 one way) that it’s been popular with visitors and residents who can easily zip over for a relaxing day at the beach.

The two ferries in action operating five days a week will significantly reduce car usage. Once on Anna Maria Island, beach lovers can take the free Island Trolley to explore this 7-mile-long barrier island. The Miss Anna Maria and the Downtown Duchess are ADA-accessible and powered by renewable energy sources. There’s free parking in Bradenton near the ferry terminal.

Volocopter's Air Taxi takes a test flight in Tampa. Dalton Hoch photo
Volocopter’s Air Taxi takes a test flight in Tampa. Dalton Hoch photo

Tampa Tests Air Taxis

A larger-than-life drone quietly lifted off the ground at the Tampa International Airport late last year. The test flight was the first-ever trial of an Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft at a major US airport.

The German company Volocopter manufactures the “air taxi,” which is designed to be a safe, green, and quiet way to transport passengers on short to medium trips around town.

Initially, it will carry two people, but as technology improves, it will hold four, like a traditional taxi.

Imagine stepping into an air taxi in Tampa and flying above traffic to have dinner in St. Petersburg, 20 miles away. What would be a stressful hour of driving in rush hour traffic could turn into a relaxing 15-minute air taxi ride.

Don’t throw away your car keys just yet, though. Air taxis will require additional infrastructure, like ports and charging stations, and, like any commercial aircraft, they will require FAA approval. It will likely be 2025 before the first passengers are welcomed on board.

Next time you visit Florida, look for these new transportation options. Ditch the car and opt for a cleaner, greener, and more relaxing ride.

Kirsten HarringtonKirsten Harrington has been a freelance food and travel writer for over 12 years, chronicling adventures in the US and China. Her work has appeared in WhereTraveler, The Seattle Times, Edible Orlando, The Beijinger, and numerous other publications. When she’s not writing, you can find her scoping out new adventures, hiking, or enjoying a meal with her family in Orlando, Florida. Visit her website.

 

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