Chasing Free Ride: Electric Cars Take People to the Beach and Back

Catch the Hamptons Free Ride
Catch the Hamptons Free Ride! Photo: Steph Jensen Photography

Free Ride is an electric car that has eight seats, operates in several towns out here, and shuttles people between the center of town and the beach for free. It’s privately owned, and it makes money by selling advertising space on panels that affix to the side of the vehicle. They also give out literature about their advertisers if you are interested. It’s been in existence four summers and its attraction is that it is a way to get to beaches without having to pay for parking or hassle where to put your car if the lots are full.

I’ve never ridden it because I’m a local and have a beach sticker. I thought to do so today and report upon it, however, even though the summer is almost over. It’s time I got around on it.

According to what I’ve read about Free Ride, you can get it to stop by hailing it anywhere along the way. It also makes specific stops. Its “anchor” stop in East Hampton is the parking lot up by the East Hampton Y near the railroad station. From there, it goes down Newtown Lane, turns right on Main Street, heads down past the library and ends up at the beach. It then goes back the other way. The round trip takes about 20 minutes.

Where should I get it? I thought to go up to the parking lot. I’d get the whole trip, all the way down and all the way back. But then I remembered I had to drop a book off at the library. I could park out front of the library. And there is a bench under a tree there. That would be nice. There’s no seating at the Y.

So at the library I sat on the bench, which at that hour was in the sun, and looked out at the oncoming traffic for the Free Ride. Free Ride is rather festive, really. You see the advertising panels, and up on the roof there is a large wooden basket in which is what looks like a pile of grapefruits. It’s a very Caribbean. You can’t miss it.

I got there at 9:50 a.m. and I sat on the bench and I waited. And I waited. I am a Type A personality and I am not used to waiting. Why wait? My car was there. I stared at it. Why don’t you just DRIVE there, it asked. I told it I was doing this to report on it for the paper.

It’s really not so much fun staring down Main Street continuously in anticipation of raising your arm if something with grapefruit on the roof appears. You can’t do anything else while you are doing that. If you do anything else, like look away for an instant, you could miss it. Well, I could make phone calls. No, I usually pace when I am on the cell phone. I am also equipped, however, with an iPod. I could listen to music. That would work. And so I did that. All the traffic was now whizzing by me to music.

But a half an hour went by and there was no Free Ride. And so I got up and headed over to the car, and at that moment I saw it in the distance, tootling along heading toward me, and so I went out in the street and began waving frantically at it. But it went right by, and, as it did, I saw why. It was full. The people in it stared at me. Look, what’s that guy doing? Well, I thought, that is that. I’ve got a sticker. I’ll go to the beach in my car.

No, I thought stubbornly, I’ve got to write this story.

And so I got an idea. Because it is morning, it will be empty coming back through. I should run across the street—a dangerous journey across six lanes—and sit in front of Guild Hall on the bench there, and catch it going the other way. I could then get the whole round trip. I’d go up to the railroad station, stay on, then come back to the library and get off. This was not about going to the beach, after all. It was about doing the Free Ride.

But what if, I asked myself, getting comfortable on the bench in front of Guild Hall, there were a long line of people waiting to get on Free Ride by the Y to go to the beach? Wouldn’t they want me to get off and go to the back of the line? I might be dragged off. Well, that would be too bad.

Crossing the street to Guild Hall, I found that sitting on that bench was a young woman in full spandex gear, holding a 10-speed upright, looking out. Why, I did not know. Anyway, I sat down.

The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” ended. Beethoven’s Fifth started. I have eclectic tastes. I took my earphones out of my ears.

“You waiting for the Free Ride?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine where she might put her bicycle.

“No,” she said.

I put my earphones back in.

And so I waited and waited and waited. And no Free Ride appeared. After 20 minutes, another woman in spandex pulled up with her bike and the two bikers greeted each other and pedaled off together.

After waiting another 10 minutes, I re-crossed the street, got in my car and, undaunted, drove to the beach. I figured the Free Ride vehicle would be there, and it was. It was parked in the 15-minute drop-off area facing the beach, empty, but waiting for someone, anyone, to get in. The driver was there behind the wheel, though, eating some food from a Styrofoam container with a plastic fork. I parked nearby and walked over.

“When do you go back to the Y?” I asked her.

“In a few minutes. Weren’t you the guy waving your arms at me as I passed the library?”

“Yes I was.”

“I was full,” she said.

“Yes, I saw that. Weren’t you supposed to turn around and come right back?”

“I did.”

“So you’re here from a second trip?”


“I was waiting for you in front of Guild Hall the other way.”

“I didn’t see you. And Guild Hall is not a stop.”

“I thought it was.”

“And the library is not a stop either, though I did see you hailing me. Sorry.”

“What are the stops?”

“In town? Just one. It’s in the Reutershan Parking Lot in front of Khanh Sports. There. The beach. And the Y parking lot.”

“Didn’t there used to be four or five stops? I saw signs at the bus stops.”

“It’s just the one stop now.”

I complained further about her not seeing me in front of Guild Hall. We talked more about Free Ride. They have them in Montauk, Amagansett and Southampton as well as in East Hampton. It’s a big success. In the winter they are in Palm Beach, Florida.

Well, in sum, I have to report that had I taken the Free Ride, I think I would have had a lot of fun. It’s open-air, you see the downtown from a whole different perspective. I suspect people talk to one another cheerfully about things during the ride. Everybody is in wraps over bathing suits. But you need to be someone willing to wait.

On the other hand, we have Dan’s Papers trucks that drive around with big signs on the side that say Dan’s Papers. So that’s advertising. But we don’t give rides for free. That’s the Free Ride deal.

And that’s the story.

Come on and take a free ride!
Come on and take a free ride! Photo: Steph Jensen Photography

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