Photo of a Skyway Passenger
Photo of a Skyway Passenger

PHOTO ESSAY | The Skyway in Transit

Dennis Ho spent several days photographing those who ride Downtown Jax’s enduring autonomous people mover

Published on February 16, 2022 at 11:49 am

As the pace of development in the city’s urban core continues to ramp up, Jacksonville’s Downtown is beginning to look different.

Amid the relatively new arrival of cranes and swinging steel beams, it endures: 2.5 miles of concrete track we call the Jacksonville Skyway. Opened in 1989, the automated people mover has been a point of contention for nearly as long. A recent proposal to use a percentage of revenue from the city’s gas-tax hike to replace the Skyway’s monorail trains with passenger cars that travel down to street level, and extend the system’s reach into surrounding neighborhoods, is met with familiar criticisms. The Skyway doesn’t go anywhere. No one rides it. 

Of course, both appraisals are false. With eight stations — five on the Northbank and three on the Southbank — the Skyway does go somewhere. And people ride it: 796,000 passengers in 2019 alone, according to The Florida Times-Union.

“For the relatively small area that it serves, it’s very convenient, and the price is just right,” says Jacksonville photographer Dennis Ho of the Skyway, which is free. Jacksonville Today asked Ho to spend several days riding the Skyway, disembarking and embarking from its stations and talking to passengers. 

“My expectations were a bustling transit system during short but intense rush hours, but I have to say those expectations were not fully met,” says Ho. “There were no lines or waits like you might expect to find.”

Many of those in transit are unhoused, heading from one part of Downtown to another to look for work, seek shelter or a meal. “The skyway does serve a public good, no question about it,” Ho says. “I talked to several people who were job searching. Another was on her way from the bus station Downtown to a medical appointment in San Marco.” 

And what criticisms would regular Skyway passengers level at the system? “The one consistent comment that was made to me was that the Skyway should go farther.”

I began posting up in Central Station next to Hemming Park, thinking I could see most of the traveler traffic come and go there. I was there during morning commute, lunch hours and afternoon-commute hours because that’s when I thought I would have the most opportunity to see people. I’d hang out on the platform for a spell, striking up conversations when I could, asking about people’s riding habits. Then I’d ride the train in a loop, staying downtown and not crossing the river. Jimmy Carr was at San Marco Station near the Museum of Science and History. He was hungry and was on his way Downtown after not finding anything affordable to eat in San Marco. He was asking people for money. “There are a lot of places to eat in San Marco near the train station,” he said. “But Downtown has more people.”
Photo of a Skyway passenger
I hung out at the Southbank Station, too, staying on the platforms and then looping around on the train without crossing the river. What became clear is that the Downtown portion of the skyway was used a lot more and saw more riders. The Skyway’s park-and-ride parking lot near MOSH was near empty on the days I went, and the ridership on the Southbank reflected that. The skyway in San Marco is a quiet scene. David Fretty initially did not want to answer any questions or do a photo. “I’m homeless right now,” he said. But he quickly changed his mind. “I’m just hoping for some good news.”
Photo of a Skyway passenger
Allen Dolton is a Jacksonville native who was headed to the bus station via Central Station on the Northbank’s Bay Street. “Yeah, the Skyway is alright,” he says. “I wish it went farther.”
Photo of Skyway Passenger
Jay Castillo came to Jacksonville from California. He just ended up here and never left. “Jacksonville is like a big black hole,” he says. He lives in a tent on the Southbank. He was leaving downtown to go back over the river after having had a free meal at a shelter.

author image Arts & Culture Editor Matthew Shaw is a writer, editor and musician. His writing has appeared in Folio Weekly, Edible Northeast Florida, The Surfer's Journal, and SURFER Magazine, and he's reported on national stories for The New York Times. He was previously editor in chief of the Void Magazine. author image Photographer Dennis Ho is an experienced Freelance Photographer with a demonstrated history of working in the education management industry. He is a strong arts and design professional with a M.Ed focused in Education; Adult Education from University of North Florida.
author image Arts & Culture Editor Matthew Shaw is a writer, editor and musician. His writing has appeared in Folio Weekly, Edible Northeast Florida, The Surfer's Journal, and SURFER Magazine, and he's reported on national stories for The New York Times. He was previously editor in chief of the Void Magazine. author image Photographer Dennis Ho is an experienced Freelance Photographer with a demonstrated history of working in the education management industry. He is a strong arts and design professional with a M.Ed focused in Education; Adult Education from University of North Florida.

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