In mid-July, Nashville MTA celebrated a rebirth of sorts by rebranding itself as WeGo Public Transit, which included the roll-out of 31 new hybrid buses. This comes on the heels of the defeat of a mass transit referendum, which would have funded a $5.4 million infrastructure plan, including light rail and bus rapid transit corridors. We spoke with WeGo President/CEO Stephen Bland about the impact of the loss and what projects are in the works.
Discuss the referendum loss. Without doubt, it was a disappointment and a setback — not just for mass transit in Nashville, but for overall mobility and the quality of life in our region. However, as I continue to tell our staff, the fact that we won’t be getting a lot bigger in the short-term is no excuse for not getting better. The definitive direction of the referendum now allows us to focus on a number of initiatives to improve the quality of service for our region and to be more responsive to our customers. To use a sports analogy: if we can’t hit a grand slam, let’s hit more singles and take the extra base. I also have no doubt that the issue will eventually go back to the voters and we’ll be successful. This region deserves no less.
I read the New York Times article about the Koch brothers’ opposition efforts. Were you aware of those machinations?
Certainly, and we knew well before we put the issue on the ballot that they’d be involved. But, I also think the national media has severely overestimated the impact of the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity on the Nashville referendum outcome. In point of fact, the coalition promoting passage of the referendum significantly outspent the opposition on media, and the margin of defeat was too large to pin on any one factor. Nashvillians also tend to resent outsiders coming in and trying to tell them what to do, so there was obviously no overt messaging by anyone who wasn’t from Nashville against the plan. The outcome generally points to a need for us to continue the conversation in public and to be clearer about the steps we plan to take to make individual people’s lives better, and why it makes sense to spend their hard earned money on those steps.
Will you use a different approach in the future? Well, when you get beat by a 64-36 margin, it certainly suggests that something needs to change the next time around. As with the last effort, any future referendum will be the result of a much broader community effort than WeGo Public Transit or the RTA, so I’d be foolish to predict what form it might take, or even when it might happen — there will be a lot of cooks making that stew. However, for our part, I think that continuing to take an open, transparent communications approach to our services, projects, and planning will be crucial; and continuing to expand the constituencies we ask to participate will be of utmost importance. I also think that our agency will need to include itself in discussions of broader public issues in Nashville beyond mass transit and mobility. During the course of the transit debate, we saw significant discussion over other issues weighing on people’s minds such as housing affordability, gentrification, equitable treatment, and a general sense of stress about the pace and nature of growth in our region. If we think we can be successful by simply pushing a ‘transit’ measure, we’re sorely mistaken and missing a much larger opportunity to improve the quality of life for the people who live here. We’re seeing that play out currently as we discuss incorporating affordable and workforce housing components into transit oriented development.
How will this loss impact your transportation plan (nMotion) goals? Well, as I’ve told a number of the transit industry consultants and other suppliers I’ve spoken to since May 1, ‘sorry, I don’t have $6 billion to spend right now!’ However, the majority of the stated opposition I’ve heard about the referendum program of projects relates to the big ticket items like light rail and the downtown tunnel. nMotion contains dozens of other enhancements — small and large. During the week after the referendum, I heard from several of the higher-profile opponents directly and their message was simple and consistent: Just because we opposed this measure, please don’t think we’re not in favor of better transit service. nMotion remains the adopted strategic service plan of both WeGo Public Transit and The Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee. As such, we are continuing to advance a number of these initiatives within the resources we have available to make services simpler, more reliable, and more responsive to the needs of our community. Those were the overriding goals of nMotion, regardless of the level of investment we can afford.
What are some nMotion plan highlights? Again, nMotion has dozens of components and we’re moving forward on many of them as we speak.
Let’s start with an item from the plan that the referendum loss leaves us with question marks about. That is how we develop high-capacity transit in some of our key congested corridors. With the loss, we won’t be developing light rail or even Gold Standard BRT in those corridors for the foreseeable future, but we are working collaboratively with TDOT (the Tennessee Department of Transportation) and Metro Nashville Public Works to begin making those corridors safer and better suited to multimodal use. On our Murfreesboro Pike Corridor, as an example, we’re partnering with Public Works on a U.S. DOT Tiger-funded project to upgrade our traffic signal infrastructure to adaptive signaling with transit priority, as well as queue jumps at key congested intersections and major pedestrian improvements in the form of expanded sidewalk and crossing infrastructure. We’re working with TDOT in the I-24 Southeast Corridor on a variety of intelligent transportation initiatives, and TDOT is examining the potential to advance “Bus on Shoulder” enhancements, which was allowed via legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly two sessions ago.
A key element of the nMotion plan was the development of a ‘frequent transit network,’ entailing more robust service in our busiest corridors. Over the past two years, we’ve added our Nolensville Pike, Jefferson Street, and Bordeaux Corridors into this mix that already included four corridors.
With respect to customer amenities, we’ve more than doubled the number of passenger waiting shelters over the past three years and we continue to add more. We know from our own experience that these amenities will draw riders from surrounding stops and the neighborhoods in which they’re located. Our new buses are also coming in with Wi-Fi and USB plug-in capabilities to further enhance the rider experience.
We are also advancing into design and real estate acquisition for several of the neighborhood transit centers called out in nMotion, including partnerships with the Metro Nashville School District on a site adjacent to a high school they’re completely rebuilding in our Green Hills neighborhood; one on the campus of Tennessee State University; and one in partnership with a mixed-use development are being advanced in North Nashville. Once in place, these centers will reduce our reliance on our primary downtown hub, and allow more direct travel by the public and fewer ‘out of direction’ movements. We are also working with neighbors of these centers to make them assets to the neighborhood, attracting other activities beyond transit use.
Finally, recognizing that most of our short-term improvements will center around our bus system, we are joining a number of other transit agencies that successfully completed bus network redesigns. We delayed this process during the months leading up to the referendum, but are now working on it full speed, with an expectation to do public outreach later this year.
Generally, all of the above projects and the nMotion plan, in general, are about improving the rider experience and enhancing connectivity in Middle Tennessee. We want our system to be simpler, more reliable, more comfortable, and more accessible. Those goals remain a constant.
How did the rebrand come about and what went into its development? Actually, the origins of it started from conversations I had with community leadership when I first arrived in Nashville, even including conversations with our board during my first interview for this job. Of course, it also included the input of thousands of folks who participated in the nMotion strategic plan, as well as a number of diverse focus groups we hosted as part of the branding strategy process.
Their message was simple and consistent. There is a perception of transit in this community that we need to change — who rides it, how it operates, and the fact that it’s viewed as a government bureaucracy. Our board was very clear in saying that we needed to change that perception to one of being part of the fabric of the community. The process was not really different than any organization’s effort to reframe itself with respect to public perception.
Beginning in the nMotion planning process, and continuing well beyond its conclusion, we asked people about their perceptions of our organization, and how they wished we could change those perceptions. Some of the aspirational words we heard back repeatedly were ‘inclusive,’ ‘approachable,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘carng,’ and ‘connected.’ All of that led us to pretty much eliminate including the word ‘Authority’ anywhere in our brand. There was also some debate as to whether or not Nashville’s overall ‘Music City’ theme should be incorporated. We concluded, though not without some healthy debate, that it had kind of reached a saturation point.
Finally, when our creative services team came up with ‘WeGo,’ after my typical over-analysis, it made perfect sense to me. ‘We’ as in ‘we’re all in this together,’ and ‘Go,’ as in let’s move forward.
Do you feel the rebrand has more meaning to it now, perhaps like a rebirth? I believe that very strongly, and I don’t think it could possibly be better timed. Keep in mind that we began planning for the rebranding well before the referendum, even though we knew it wouldn’t be rolled out until after the votes had been counted. Obviously, had we won, it would have been an awesome way to give people a visual sense of what was to come. But I think it’s even more important, symbolically, in the face of the loss. Several weeks before we announced the new branding, we did several preview events with our employees. This was after the referendum outcome was known, and our staff was feeling a bit uncertain about the future. They were genuinely excited about the new look, but also about my description of some of the initiatives we’d be pursuing despite the outcome of the vote. I think their reaction was akin to that famous WC Fields quote, ‘the news of my death is greatly exaggerated.’ Days before we were scheduled to roll out the new brand, one of our board members called me and suggested that maybe we should put a hold on it in light of the defeat. By that time, buses in our new paint scheme were literally on the road from Gillig’s plant in California. Beyond the expense and logistical nightmare of calling the whole thing off, I shared with that member the excitement that our employees demonstrated about the whole thing at our preview events. That person gave me a four-word reaction: ‘Fantastic! Forget I called.’
I can also share personal experiences that make me smile. When I wear my purple WeGo Public Transit golf shirt to a restaurant or other public space, it’s become quite common for complete strangers to approach me and ask about it — keeping in mind, they have no idea I’m the CEO. After the ‘why WeGo’ question, the conversation typically turns to thoughts about the referendum outcome, and our plans to pursue improvements in the future. I have yet to speak with anyone, regardless of how they tell me they voted, and yes, they always tell me how they voted, who has said we should just drop this whole transit thing in Nashville. It’s gotten to the point that, if my wife and I are looking for a quiet evening out, I make sure I don’t wear that shirt.
What are the region’s current mobility challenges? The same challenges you would typically associate with a rapidly growing southern city that was designed around single-occupant auto use. The Greater Nashville region has very sprawling development patterns, and with the exception of the downtown core and certain neighborhoods, is not very walkable. People drive much more here than in similarly-sized cities, and that makes alternate mobility modes challenging. As such, I’d say the overriding challenges are two-fold. First, where and how can we retrofit and adapt our infrastructure in order for more traditional forms of mass transit to emerge and succeed? Second, how can we adapt our service models, for instance, more mobility on demand options, to address a need where it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the built environment?
Besides funding, what other challenges are you faced with? Generally speaking, the same challenges we all talk about at any gathering of transit professionals.
Attracting and retaining talent is tough, whether we’re talking about bus operators, maintenance technicians, or support staff. I’ve only been here for about four years, and over half of our employees have started since then. Beyond the issues of absorbing all those people is one of maintaining a certain culture in the organization and making sure everyone’s moving in the same direction.
Integrating new technologies in a way that makes sense for our customers is also challenging. In this regard, we have an advantage over a lot of transit agencies our size. While we have a core IT staff that manages most of our core enterprise functions, we also partner with Metro Nashville’s broader IT Department, who has state-of-the-art knowledge on issues ranging from mobile data communication to cybersecurity.
Finally, I’d say that safety and security on our system will always be something worth worrying about. While our system is very safe, the sheer numbers of people who use it, coupled with the general anxiety of our times, create challenges. In this regard, I’d highlight two T’s as our way of focusing — teams and technology. With respect to teams, under our security manager, the work of our operations staff with respect to security is supplemented by contracted private security personnel and an outstanding working relationship with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. With respect to technology, digital video surveillance has been a godsend. Hundreds of cameras throughout our system supplement the work of operations and security/policing staff to assure the system isn’t just safe, but feels that way.
What are your agency’s strengths? I’d sum it up in one word — people.
First and foremost, and I challenge anyone in the industry coming to Nashville for the APTA Annual Meeting to disagree with me on this point: we have the friendliest bus operators in North America — bar none. Our city generally has a reputation for being ‘Nashville Nice,’ but our operators take it to another level. I wish I possessed their patience and innate kindness.
Second, even though I did mention talent attraction as a challenge, I do think the fact that we have a lot of new and very diverse folks coming in to work for us is a strength. When I first started here, I’d ask our staff why we did things in certain ways. They learned very quickly that ‘because we’ve always done it that way’ was always the wrong answer, even if there were very good reasons to keep doing things the same way. We’ve got operators and other operations staff who have experiences with dozens of other transit agencies, as well as a broad variety of public and private sector companies; an attorney from Vanderbilt University; engineers from private development firms who live by “on-time/on-budget” project; and the list goes on. They’ve all brought a fresh approach to the way we look at things and they aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.
Third, our boards of directors. For WeGo Public Transit, it’s a five-member board who genuinely care about the organization and, more important, the people we serve. For such a small board, they are diverse in both their professional backgrounds and their spheres of influence. Yet, there are remarkably cohesive and congenial. This is reflected in the direction they set, and the questions they ask our staff. On the RTA side, it’s a 39-member board, largely composed of the regional city and county mayors in our 10-county service area. The fact that high-level policy officials, ranging from the Mayor of Nashville to mayors of some of our smallest municipalities can come together and talk about common challenges makes us stronger.
Discuss how recent/planned tech implementations have/will help your operation? About three years ago we rolled out our real-time transit technology — something our riders had been demanding for quite some time. Beyond the obvious customer service advantage of knowing when your bus will arrive, the data this system generates has been a gold mine for our service planners, and we’re continually asked for access to this data by other entities who are trying to get a handle on issues like regional traffic congestion, for instance. Through this data, we’ve seen significant improvements in our on-time performance over the past two years despite increasing traffic congestion in Nashville.
Two years ago we started operating fully electric buses on our Music City Circuit Downtown Circulator. The buses have been well received by our customers, the community at large, and our employees. The limited deployment — we operate nine electric buses now, with two more on order — has allowed us to assess the longer term potential for this technology in a measured way.
Earlier, I mentioned the signal project we are constructing in the Murfreesboro Road corridor. When it’s fully operational next year, we’ll begin to evaluate its impact both on travel speed in the corridor and service reliability, with a hope of expanding it to our other frequent service corridors. We, along with City government, will also be able to assess the impact of pedestrian improvements on safety along the corridor.
Finally, I’ll mention our account-based fare payment system. We are currently in the design and early implementation stage of an account-based fare collection system that is based on an open architecture that will enable mobile payment, as well as our own smart card system. Beyond the benefit to WeGo customers, we are doing it in collaboration with the RTA and other regional transit providers in Franklin and Murfeesboro in an effort to create a truly seamless system. In parallel, we are revamping our fare structure to simplify fare payment and provide best value pricing to our customers in a manner that is invisible to them. Apart from mass transit, we are working with Metro Nashville IT to assure the technology is adaptable to broader uses such as city parking facilities and other mobility services. Our overall goal is to make sure that anyone who is in close proximity to our services already has exact change in their pockets, whether they know it or not.
Discuss a current project and how it will benefit customers? We are in the midst of a major renovation to our WeGo Central Downtown Transit hub. This year, the facility marks its 10th anniversary. On a daily basis, about 17,000 people visit this facility, and we have about 2,200 bus movements in and out. It is the front door for our organization. The renovation will provide necessary structural rehabilitation to extend its life, but from a customer perspective, we’ll have enhanced restrooms, expanded customer service capacity to reduce waiting lines, and improved wayfinding. We will also ‘freshen up’ the place, with new paint, resurfaced sidewalk and drive surfaces, and brightened up LED lighting. I will add, however, that our future depends on us continuing to evolve our service model in a way that reduces our reliance on this facility. We are serving about 25% more people in the building than it was designed for, and it is reaching its upper limits for capacity, even after the renovation. As a result, we are in the early planning stages of advancing a secondary downtown hub with the City of Nashville South of Broadway, as well as advancing planning, real estate activities, and design for a number of neighborhood transit centers throughout our service area to relieve the pressure on this building.
Finally, a project I am personally extremely excited about, we are also piloting ‘Access-on-Demand,’ a premium service for our WeGo Access customers. WeGo Access, our paratransit system, carries about 450,000 trips per year and is noteworthy in that it exceeds ADA requirements by providing service county-wide, well beyond the bounds of ADA requirements. With Access-on-Demand, for a higher fare, customers can receive same day service. Although still in early stages of deployment, the service has been a rousing success with our customers, who tend to mix their use of the higher priced Access-on-Demand service and traditional paratransit. Recently, we awarded additional contracts to broaden the provider pool for this service, and are implementing technology improvements to move toward a more ‘app-based’ platform that will also likely form the backbone of a broader Mobility on Demand service model.