A new app-operated transportation service became available to the Austin public last week.

But unlike Uber- and Lyft-style ride-sharing, Chariot's drivers are employees of the company and operate 14-passenger vans that shuttle through routes.

The first routes have been established in the South Lamar Boulevard and Riverside Drive corridors. Each makes several stops before reaching its farthest point in downtown Austin. Where the company's next routes are set up will be determined on which area receives the most signups.

Chariot is beginning its Austin-area launch with commuter service (the aforementioned South Lamar and Riverside routes run in the morning and again in the late afternoon) as well as providing a last- and first-mile transit solution for workers at Whole Foods Market and the GSD&M advertising agency downtown.

Chariot CEO/Founder Ali Vahbzadeh Chariot founder and CEO Ali Vahbzadeh[/caption]

The company expects to begin a new service soon, a late-night shuttle taking downtown revelers from nightlife district to nightlife district. Members of the West Sixth Business Association said they are working with Chariot on a proposed route from the West Sixth Street district to the Rainey Street district.

Chariot founder and CEO Ali Vahbzadeh did not confirm the possible route but said the organization was in discussions with several business operators about rolling out a late-night shuttle service.

Vahbzadeh, who also noted the company has secured a downtown office and is hiring drivers in Austin, touched on several other subjects in an interview with Community Impact Newspaper:

Did the departure of Uber and Lyft inspire Chariot to launch in Austin?

It actually didn’t. We were invited through a [request for proposals] of a couple of large employers downtown to see how we can improve their first- and last-mile commuting solutions for their employees. We recently launched the Market Mover, which is a route between the MetroRail station downtown and the West Sixth business corridor. For the moment we are serving Whole Foods and GSD&M. The more the leadership in Austin has learned about Chariot, it became clearly evident that there was a need for alternative commuting solutions in order to reduce congestion, reduce single-occupancy vehicles [like cars] especially during commuter hours.

How does Chariot work?

Before we even get to riding the service, our future riders register on our website where they download the app and sign up. In addition to their name, they’re providing us with where they commute from and where they commute to. That registration acts as a virtual vote. ... Those commuter corridors among signups are the first ones to get launched.

So a rider opens up their app in the morning, which provides a menu of Chariots in order of [estimated time of arrival] whereby the rider can reserve a seat by checking in. They direct you to which stop is closest to you. You can track the Chariot live on the map, and the Chariot arrives. You show the boarding pass to the driver, and you hop in and you have a really comfortable ride in a brand-new 14-passenger transit wagon.

What can you tell me about the discussions that are being held with entertainment districts like West Sixth?

Nothing’s been signed, but we know the same issues that plague commuters in Austin are the same ones that challenge other people for other kinds of cases, like going out downtown—whether it’s the West Sixth corridor or anywhere else. The added element in nightlife being, of course, the drunk driving [problem]. Those are all challenges that a different type of Chariot service can address. We’re working with a number of associations around the city and business associations, [and] folks in the mayor’s office to really see where the biggest pain points are and how Chariot can provide alternative transportation to driving in those cases.

Is the goal to be more of a supplemental service to public transit or serve as an alternative to public transit?

We think of ourselves as a mass transit provider. What we know we’re doing is expanding the pie of people using mass transit. There’s a number of people using public mass transit right now. As Chariot grows, there is going to be a whole other group of people out there who, for one reason or another, will choose Chariot as their mass transit solution. It’s not about zero-sum game or one person taking a piece of the pie from the other but rather expanding the pie of people using mass transit altogether, and that’s always a good thing.

How do local regulations affect Chariot—if at all?

All of Chariot’s drivers from Day One are W-2 employees. … Everything we are doing—from permitting to vehicles to driver licensing—is above board and according to the city and state’s regulations. We believe it’s really important we gain the trust of the city and its residents and not try to skirt any rules. Our drivers are locals who are now Chariot employees. They are excited to be part of a really neat transit solution for Austinites.