- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - While there may be no such a thing as a free lunch, there are free rides to be had on college campuses like those at Texas Tech, Auburn and Clemson.

Gotcha Ride, a company operated by Sean Flood of Charleston, has been providing free rides to students, faculty and parents in the company’s proprietary electric vehicles for five years now.

The company makes its money from advertising on the vehicles, student drivers pull in as much as $150 a night from tips and universities like the rides that provide another transportation option on crowded campuses.

Flood, a 2001 Florida State grad, got the idea in 2009 when he found himself out of a job when the real estate industry tanked during the Great Recession.

The first five Gotcha Ride vehicles began operating at Florida State that year and now more than 40 of the six-seat vehicles operate on 10 campuses in the South and the Southwest.

“The center of our business model is partnering with the university. We just don’t show up at Clemson and start giving free rides. Our contract is with the school and we want to make sure it’s vetted,” he said.

There is no exchange of money between the company and the universities. But the schools give the service permission to operate on campus and company makes sure the advertisements on its vehicles are appropriate for a campus environment.

“We’re just a piece of the puzzle. We’re finding now that with universities transportation is at the top of their minds and they are looking for solutions that are economical,” Flood said.

The rides aren’t like a bus in which the drivers make predetermined loops. When you get on board, the driver will take you wherever on campus you want to go and for as long as you want to go. Usually that’s about 5 to 10 minutes. There is no charge, but most folks, including students, end up tipping the drivers.

Paul Stoudts, the vice president for campus services at Georgia Tech, worked with Gotcha Ride first at Florida State and now at Tech.

“It’s an interesting model. Clearly because of the marketing component the price is right for campuses because it’s often difficult for universities to find the resources to do these types of things,” he said.

At Georgia Tech, while the rides go all around campus, the university asks them to stop at a dorm not served as much by campus buses and trollies. At Florida State, Gotcha Ride also helps shuttle disabled people to the football stadium for games.

There is also a safety aspect to the service. Gotcha Ride drivers will take students to their destination and, if it’s late at night and unlike campus buses, will wait until they are safely inside dorms or apartments.

Many universities do offer free rides at night or in emergencies though campus or other transit by calling a number or using a smartphone app.

Next summer Gotcha Ride plans to take campus transportation in another direction with Gotcha Bike.

Flood said the newly developed bike is chainless - they work on either belt or shaft drives - have puncture proof tires and are GPS equipped. Students will be able to download a smartphone app, go to a bike corral and unlock them with their phones.

They will be able to take the bike wherever they want and later in the day return it. If they keep it longer than a day, the university will charge a small fee per day until it’s returned, Flood said.

He said the company plans to introduce the smart bikes, which again will have advertisements, on as many as 10 campuses next summer.

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