WeGo Star Future Direction Strategy
Purpose of Project
The Nashville WeGo sought to develop a long-term strategy to optimize prior and future investments along the Star Commuter Rail Line to maintain state of good repair, meet changing customer service needs, provide sustainable financial structure, and offer the operational flexibility to sustain and mange service as ridership fluctuates due to external factors. Development of the long-term strategy included a multi-disciplinary approach to engage and inform stakeholders, determine how the service fits within the region’s need to mitigate traffic congestion, and how the rail line may be better utilized to offer new options for Nashville and Wilson County residents, particularly as traditional peak-commuter patterns have evolved given increased teleworking rates. The WeGo Star currently provides service from Downtown Nashville to Lebanon, about 27 miles east and roughly paralleling the I-40 corridor.
Our Role on the Project
As part of a team, Modern Mobility Partners (MMP) served as the Task 4 lead to complete a Passenger Market Assessment, including an analysis of current and future market demand for the WeGo Star Commuter Rail line. The market assessment included an understanding of how regional population and employment growth, changes in downtown industry and employment, COVID-19, and special events have impacted market demand for the commuter rail line. MMP also assessed how changes in employment, particularly in likelihood to telework, and non-work trips may shift demand for transit service throughout the day as Downtown Nashville continues to transition from a historically large employment center to an entertainment hub. Based on insights and findings gathered from the market assessment, MMP prepared high-level recommendations including identification of complementary on-demand transit services to support station accessibility and service hour modifications based on post-pandemic travel trends to support and foster ridership growth.
To identify opportunities to enhance supporting transit service and add connections to the existing rail stations, MMP completed a transit propensity analysis which assessed population and employment densities across a 5-mile buffered study area along the rail line throughout Nashville-Davidson and Wilson counties. In addition to population and employment, MMP also incorporated Social Vulnerability Index factors into the index to ensure equity remained a critical piece of the propensity analysis and market demand determination. To account for post-pandemic teleworking habits, MMP also utilized teleworking rates by industry type from the Business of Labor Statistics to adjust total employment demand based on the likelihood of workers commuting to their place of employment.
Finally, MMP also collected disaggregated travel data from a big data provider to better understand pre- and post-pandemic travel trends from 2019 to 2022. For this task, MMP developed station catchment areas based on the appropriate walking and driving travel sheds from each rail station using the existing roadway network in GIS. For the analysis, MMP assessed 2019 and 2022 weekday and weekend trips from station catchment areas to determine trip volumes and peak periods of travel between station catchment areas. MMP identified changes in travel trends and trip times between station catchment areas that ultimately supported the development of service change recommendations, including shifting outbound PM peak trips earlier by an hour.
In addition to the Passenger Market Assessment, MMP also forecasted estimated ridership demand for short- and long-term scenarios identified by WeGo staff, including schedule changes and additional infill stations. However, due to regional modeling limitations and outdated data which did not reflect post-COVID-19 travel behavior and teleworking rates, MMP determined traditional travel demand modeling would not be sufficient for transit ridership forecasting. In lieu of this, MMP staff worked with big data providers to determine regional travel trends associated with each scenario and approximate ridership demand based on more recent and updated data. Overall, this approach provided more current and reflective travel demand to inform their decision-making of the long-term strategy for the WeGo Star.