It was an offer they couldn't refuse.
Waiting on a recent weekend at the Long Island Rail Road station in East Hampton for a taxi ride to the beach, five friends were pleasantly surprised when a vehicle resembling an elongated golf cart pulled up. The driver offered them a free ride.
As the open-sided, electric-powered car traversed the nearly 2-mile trip through the village to Main Beach, it drew curious stares and approving smiles. Hamptons Free Ride is the talk of the town, a new summer service launched Memorial Day weekend that ferries residents and visitors to the beach, stores and restaurants at no cost.
Village officials and residents have long recognized the need for alternative transportation that would ease parking problems in the popular hot spot, especially during the summer. But previous efforts, such as a village-sponsored free bus, failed to catch on.
In the fall of 2009, Alex Esposito and James Mirras, former classmates at East Hampton High School, conceived the idea to offer daily free rides using environmentally friendly electric cars, and simultaneously create a business running advertisements -- which would support the free rides -- on the vehicles.
"We saw a need for the service and an opportunity for a business," Mirras said.
"Everyone always said there should be a shuttle that takes people around, but with the cost of gas being so high, nobody could justify doing it," Esposito said. "Not only do we not have to pay for gas, it's also a step in the right direction for the environment. It frees up tight parking lots and lowers the number of cars on the roads. The entire village benefits."
A hit in town
The inaugural season runs through September, on weekends only the last two weeks of the month. So far it's a hit with beachgoers and businesses alike.
"I think it's a great thing they did for the town," said James Palesa, a hairdresser. "It helps us get to the beach. They're safe, and they're always there."
Alayah Hewie, an assistant in a Jamaican food shop, thinks it's a great way to combat the area's parking crunch.
"Parking here is crazy," she said. "The fact it was free surprised me, because this is the Hamptons, and everything is kind of pricey. I can see it doing very well."
Mirras and Esposito, both 24, have backgrounds in finance and marketing. They haven't quit their day jobs, though they are thrilled about the venture's maiden voyage.
"It's very exciting to see the idea come to life," said Esposito, a business analysis consultant who lives in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan just blocks from Mirras.
He handles advertising, sales and marketing for Hamptons Free Ride and noted ridership has "exceeded our expectations by about 30 percent. We have almost 200 passengers a day on the weekends. For the most part, people using the service are going to the beach. Before they'd have to park [in the village center] and take a cab or walk roughly two miles to the beach, or face the difficulty of finding parking near the beach," where parking is by permit only.
Mirras works in the financial industry and handles operations and finance for the Hamptons service. Two trained drivers, former schoolmates of Esposito and Mirras, operate the five-passenger fleet of four cars along a designated route. Stops are at key locations, including the municipal parking lot, the train station and the east- and westbound Hampton Jitney stops.
Riders hop on and off, and there is room for beach chairs and bags. An advertiser supplies complimentary water and potato chips. Commercials for local and foreign businesses run on a video monitor, and sales brochures are handy. Kevin Flaherty, another classmate, provides surf reports.
The quiet, low-speed, 15-foot-long cars -- each sporting the colorful message of a single advertiser for the season -- run every 15 minutes from "9ish to 6ish," according to white signs along the route with blue and green lettering and a leaf motif. The cars must be recharged about every three hours. Next year, the partners plan to run 30 in East Hampton and expand into Amagansett and Montauk.
To get the business going, Esposito and Mirras invested about $100,000. As budding entrepreneurs, they said the experience has been challenging. But some things have helped.
For starters, they have mentors. One is Khanh Ngo, 60, proprietor of a sports and eyewear store where Esposito had a summer job when he was 14. They also have what Esposito calls "home-field advantage. Growing up in a seasonal tourism-based economy, you understand the predicament local businesses are in to support the tourist industry."
Their vision, Esposito said, "is Tokyo Free Rides, a bigger global thing."
CAPACITY: 5 per car
RUNS: Every 15 minutes
HOURS: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
STOPS: Main Beach, municipal parking lot, LIRR station, Hampton Jitney stops
ROUTES: East Hampton
Source: Hamptons Free Ride