2 min read July 2022 — WeGo Public Transit has reemerged from the very difficult period of the pandemic. In an interview with Invest:, CEO Steve Bland said that not only are service levels back to 107% of pre-pandemic levels, but the agency also went through a complete rebranding exercise beginning in 2018.
What was behind your recent rebranding process?
A lot of what was driving us was our most recent strategic plan. We talked to about 20,000 folks throughout the Middle Tennessee region and one of the things we heard consistently was that we needed to make it simple, make it consistent. The perception of the old brand, which was Metro Transit Authority, was that it was governmental and bureaucratic. People wanted something more human.
I think even more noteworthy than the color scheme or all the things associated with the brand is the fact that now it’s a unified regional brand. Previously, our regional services were differentiated. We have our one commuter rail line that runs between Nashville and Wilson County and we have the commuter bus in six corridors to the outer counties. That was completely separated from the city bus system or Metro Transit Authority. Even though there are two separate organizational entities (the Regional Transportation Authority and the Metro Transit Authority), to the customer it’s seamless as WeGo Public Transit. That allowed us to have a unified website with schedules and alerts, a unified social media presence, and consolidated real-time travel information and fare payment to simplify moving from one service to another. All of our platforms are branded as WeGo and the public is identifying with that name.
What have been the highlights or milestones for your organization over the last year?
First, the 800-pound gorilla for a lot of businesses and for public transportation in any market is the post-pandemic impact, both short and long term. When the pandemic hit, our ridership decreased and at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, our city bus ridership had fallen to about 36% of pre-pandemic levels. Our regional service is primarily geared toward Downtown office commuters and they all but disappeared. Since then, we’ve certainly seen a steady return of riders. Our city system is now back up to nearly 80% of pre-pandemic ridership, which is outperforming most of the rest of the country. The regional ridership, which is still very much commuter oriented, is only back to about 40% but it continues to grow.
Is public transportation a service that tends to be used mainly by those in a lower income bracket?
Historically, people have said that those with higher incomes aren’t going to use public transit, that it was mainly for lower-income people. I would strongly disagree with that notion. Excellent public transportation is crucial from a social equity perspective so those who don’t have the means or ability to drive their own car can participate in life’s activities. This couldn’t be more true in Nashville than it is today with general inflation, major increases in gasoline prices and a lack of affordable housing options.
You need to see it as a travel opportunity. We have many riders who are jumping on the train to get down to a Titans game or jumping on a bus to get to a Nashville SC soccer game. You’re going to get folks traveling by transit to a special event and it might be a lower-wage service worker going there to sell beer or it might be the season ticket holder because they don’t want to pay for parking, or they don’t want to worry about having to drive. We need to serve everyone.
Why did the 2018 referendum show some hesitation about public investment in public transit?
I think that initiative was just a collision of challenging events. Some of the biggest advocates for public transportation were opposed to the referendum, primarily because of the increase in sales tax and intrusive construction, such as tunnels downtown. The public here wants more public transit, but it has to be in practical terms. We certainly learned a lot of lessons from that experience.
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