Ford-owned shuttle service Chariot is launching in Seattle today. For the time being, it will focus primarily on working with big companies and other institutions to take their employees to and from work, but eventually it will branch out into a public commuting option.
GeekWire previously reported on the company’s expansion plans in Seattle, and today we got a chance to talk to Chariot’s CEO Ali Vahabzadeh. He said the company has opened an office in a Seattle WeWork location, and will have about 10 employees on board by the end of the week as it ramps up hiring for drivers.
Vahabzadeh said the company is in talks with “half a dozen institutions” in the area to set up routes, and that it has “dozens” of shuttles already in Seattle but declined to go into further detail. Vahabzadeh also discussed the reasons for coming to Seattle, our traffic issues and the company’s relationship to mass transit. Continue reading for edited excerpts.
GeekWire: Why did you choose Seattle for expansion?
Ali Vahabzadeh: We chose Seattle for a number of reasons. Number one: there is a very progressive and strong commitment to get single-occupant vehicles off the road and drive that drive-alone ratio as far down as possible. It’s really exciting to get together and understand that commuting congestion is a serious problem that affects productivity and wellness, so we feel Seattle is going to be one of our top markets.
Reason number two: Seattle is a very high-growth area where you have new work neighborhoods and residential neighborhoods that have now become transit deserts because they’ve grown so quickly. Often times these people feel like they need to buy a car just to get to work. That’s a big red flag for the community, and it’s a big opportunity for Chariot to come in and provide our enterprise and commuter service in future.
GW: In terms of challenges and opportunities, how does Seattle compare to other markets you’re in?
AV: We feel like Seattle looks a lot like San Francisco, in that you have a fast growing workforce that doesn’t want to buy a car, and even if they do have a car, they want to leave that car in the garage Monday through Friday, and use more sustainable ways to get to work.
That’s a little bit in contrast with Austin, Texas, where you can imagine car ownership is a lot higher and there are less mass transit users there. We are really focusing on enterprise-type solutions both in San Francisco and Austin. We feel like, just like we did in Austin, enterprise is a great way to land in a new market, serve a bunch of core customers, learn about the city and meet stakeholders over the next several months prior to hopefully launching what we believe will be a very successful consumer-facing commuter service.
GW: What are your observations on Seattle traffic?
AV: Obviously Seattle is surrounded by water much like the Bay Area is in San Francisco. We’re used to evaluating choke points like bridges, and I know you guys know your bridges very well. We’ve got similar challenges in the Bay Area to contend with. Both cities are high growth areas with people moving in mostly driven by job growth. The public infrastructure hasn’t kept up with all of that mostly unanticipated growth that has come in the in last decade in both cities.
It’s really about using our technology and our routing algorithms to be one step ahead of single-occupant vehicles using transit lanes, using HOV lanes and using less stops so that we have a more express and faster service where people can compare their commute time on Chariot to driving alone and see a negligible difference. All the while they are having a much more productive commute because they’re sitting in a Chariot with their laptop open, getting some work done instead of honking their horn in bumper to bumper traffic.
GW: How does Chariot interact with public transit? Is it a competitor or a complement?
AV: We see chariot as a complement and a supplement to public transit. To me, at least, they are different. Chariot provides three use cases, the first being a first- and last-mile commuting solution to connect people from near their doorstep to transit hubs like commuter rail stations, ferry terminals, subway stations or bus terminals. In San Francisco, one in five of our users takes Chariot not to get to a final destination but rather to Caltrain or a BART station or ferry terminal.
The second use case: when there are transit deserts, where there is not enough or non-existent public transit, Chariot can be introduced or crowdsourced, almost overnight, as a pop up service and high capacity mobility solution with 14 passenger vans coming as frequently as the community needs us to be there.
Chariot first got started when we noticed people were getting passed up by the pub bus three, four, five times in row. What Chariot can do in those cases, in those corridors that are really popular but that there’s not enough supply of public transit for the amount of demand, we can provide peak time service in those areas, again overnight. We can get people out of their cars and keep them in a mass transit format whether it’s public transit or Chariot.
GW: Private shuttle services for tech companies have drawn a lot of criticism, where do you stand on the issue?
AV: I think in some ways they are warranted. The Google bus and some of these private-type shuttles don’t allow other riders on board, they are just exclusive to their employees. Chariot started out as a public-facing model, putting the commuter first, a B-to-C consumer model. We are accessible to the general public.
Most recently we added wheelchair-accessible vehicles to our fleet in order to accomplish a lofty goal that wheelchair users can get an equivalent service as other users when they demand a Chariot. That’s something we are really proud of, and that’s going to be part of our Seattle offering as well. Our average price in San Francisco and Austin is about $4 per ride. We are really proud to be able to offer a very affordable, reliable and fast commuting solution. Equity is big for us.
We also employ our drivers. Our drivers are W2 employees of the company as opposed to other ride-sharing alternatives where they are 1099 contractors. It’s really important for us because when we enter a new market like Seattle, we are investing in the city by not just hiring people for driver jobs. These drivers of ours become captains and route managers and often times become office employees and get promoted through the ranks, and that’s a really important part of our value system at Chariot.
GW: When do you plan to launch your public commuting service?
AV: We are working with local city stakeholders to make that a reality as soon as possible. Another part of the Chariot value system is to be really transparent internally and externally. We’ve told city stakeholders we think Seattleites would benefit greatly from a crowdsourced commute solution. We’re the only ones in the world that do it. San Francisco and Austin residents have embraced it with wide open arms.
We are walking in the front door because we believe Chariot and public transit can increase the mass transit pie not just redistribute the slices. We know it’s not a fixed pie, we know Seattleites want to use mass transit, but perhaps because there’s not enough supply, or they live in a transit desert, they have to resort to suboptimal choices like driving alone. We are excited about the progress we are having with our conversations, and we can’t wait to be part of a broader part of the mobility solution in Seattle by introducing our consumer product in the near future.