Nashville WeGo Reimagines Transit Through a Geographic Approach
WeGo Public Transit has combined geographic information system (GIS)-supported online surveys and dashboards to gain a profound understanding of how best to shape postpandemic and future public transit services.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed many transit agencies to substantially revise the services they provide. Dramatic drops in ridership numbers during lockdown resulted in many transit providers scaling back their services and reconfiguring their routes.
As ridership begins to rebound and restrictions are eased, many public transit agencies are looking at how best to build back services while increasing efficiencies and effectiveness, reducing costs, and maintaining or improving the quality of passenger experiences. The key to success is greater public input.
A challenge for many transit agencies is to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information in a timely manner, and that means finding ways to access their most frequent transit users. That is often much easier said than done—public meetings and workshops can struggle in terms of attendance. Meanwhile, the pandemic has severely limited the opportunities for face-to-face engagement between survey teams and travelers.
To address this, WeGo Public Transit decided to combine up-to-date electronic surveying methods with traditional ones. Specifically, the agency turned to Esri's ArcGIS Story Maps to communicate the changes, and used ArcGIS Survey123 to conduct electronic public input and data acquisition. The result was that the agency got a significantly greater number of responses from the public and gained valuable insights into designing future services.
Prioritizing Safety, Maintaining Service
WeGo is a public transit agency headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee's capital city. It provides bus and paratransit services, and it effectively consists of two agencies. The Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) serves Nashville and the surrounding Davidson County, a total area of about 500 square miles. Prior to the pandemic, MTA also provided express routes out to the limits of the region. These in many ways echoed the services provided by the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee (RTA), a 10-county regional service with park-and-ride schemes that radiate into towns. Together, these two agencies comprise WeGo, a collaborative commitment to exceptional service, friendliness, integrity, and honesty as we connect riders to their community and one another."
During the pandemic, staff at WeGo used ArcGIS to perform detailed analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on travel habits; engage the public in terms of the shape of future services; and thoroughly analyze and easily present the service-related information gathered from multiple sources, according to transit planner Hannah Schaefer.
WeGo's primary concern, Schaefer says, was to "make sure operators and travelers were safe, distributing resources to make sure that they best serve essential riders—those who have to get to work and to medical appointments and who don't have any option but to use our services."
Schaefer continues, "In the midst of [COVID-19], we saw overall ridership decline by 60 percent and commuter-based routes decline by approximately 90 percent. We used trending route-level data to identify where and when to reallocate resources."
As a result, the RTA reduced services on the radial routes by one or two trips per morning and evening rush hour. Meanwhile, the MTA stopped its express services and increased local-area services to provide 10-minute frequencies on the most heavily used routes. This was to encourage social distancing and maintain public safety.
"Our essential workers were still riding throughout the pandemic," Schaefer says. "We actually did a GIS analysis to look at declines in ridership by stop, using automatic passenger count [APC] data to see which stops saw less decline. Services tended to hold up around low-income housing, grocery stores, and public services such as unemployment offices."
"The changes during [COVID-19] were very fast-paced and our team had to quickly adapt," Schaefer continues, "so, with service reinstatement for the fall of 2021, we wanted community input as to whether what we had done had best served them."
The public meetings went from being held in person to online in order to adhere to safety guidelines.
Schaefer says, "Most of our service changes in the past were specific to regions or pockets within regions, but this was system-wide—improving frequency, extending the span of service, even adding a new route. All of this affected everyone across the service area. We had a lot to communicate, and we wanted to gauge commuters' feelings and to know who we could reach in our online meetings."
As a result, WeGo created a public-facing ArcGIS StoryMaps story that contained maps of all the proposed route and schedule changes, along with the Survey123 forms to elicit customers' responses to the changes.
"Survey123 enabled us to pick up, by ZIP code, the numbers of respondents. We could then allocate staff resources to areas of low response," Schaefer says.
Recognizing that many people do not have access to a smart device, some paper-based surveys were still carried out. This helped address the digital/social equity gaps in the community.
WeGo eventually received 270 responses to its outreach effort. This, says Schaefer, was unlike anything before, when 20–50 responses might have been expected.
"In our industry, we won't be completely paperless, but digital platforms allow for more flexibility," Schaefer comments.
Finding the Road to Normality
A notable trend in Nashville has been the movement of transit-dependent customers to the far reaches of the city, pushed out by gentrification of downtown areas.
Schaefer says, "Nashville is booming, with several large corporations having built or about to build headquarters here. Lots of tall skinnies are being built on subdivided lots. That increases housing densities. That's good for transit, but the properties are not priced for those who use transit."
This displacement of economically disadvantaged customers takes them farther and farther from reliable, fixed-route services. WeGo is looking at a Mobility on Demand (MoD) service—WeGo Link—to address this. The emphasis is on smaller, more agile vehicles and consolidation of the fixed routes.
"Fixed-route transit is expensive to run, and [COVID-19] demonstrated to us those services were not cost-effective," Schaefer explains. "Land use and building density play a big part in where we plan to run services, and we've created an ArcGIS solution for that too."
The pilot MoD service is a first-mile/last-mile model that, Schaefer notes, was originally identified in a 2016 strategic plan but never implemented.
"Those living within the pilot zone can call an Uber or a local provider, Mobility Solutions, which provides wheelchair-accessible transportation," Schaefer says. "The service takes riders from their front doors to bus stops on those routes which have 10-minute frequencies."
Data from the 2020 Census will allow yet more detailed identification of where need is greatest. It will enable WeGo to score transit propensities and implement more MoD zones.
Visualizing the Data
WeGo's efforts are particularly distinguished by the use of dashboards both for planning purposes and to illustrate the work that the agency has been doing.
Schaefer says, "I assembled a dashboard to gauge which service changes were the most popular or preferred, and which destinations were most needed on the new proposed route. It was created for planning purposes, but we discovered it was a great visual tool when we presented the model to our CEO."
The initial experience has opened the way to a series of dashboards as their utility has become more and more apparent.
Schaefer stops short of predicting the end of PowerPoint but notes the ease and flexibility of dashboard solutions.
"Our leadership highly encourages being concise and to the point, and to effectively tell the story," she says. "In the days of PowerPoint, it was a case of, 'You've got 17 slides? Get it down to 3.' Dashboards, by contrast, enable easy consolidation and are a very quick way to show progress.
"It applies elsewhere too," she continues. "For example, we've been interviewing for a business intelligence analyst, and when asked how they would describe their job to someone who doesn't work with data, the responses were largely, "Use a visualization such as a dashboard." I think that the ability to present information concisely and the ability to readily drill down, all in one place, means that anyone who uses data has a use for dashboards."
The combination of ArcGIS Survey123 and dashboards has proved to be a strong ally to WeGo Public Transit as it looks to shape its future customer service offerings. How it has developed the ability to gather, understand, and communicate information provides a blueprint for other transit agencies as they too look to provide efficient, high-quality services in the postpandemic era and, in the longer term, address the increasingly important issues of smart mobility and sustainability in our cities.