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Commentary Article December 7th, 2021
Cities • Delivery • Legitimacy • Innovation

Chillicothe’s ride to the future

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The @CityofChillicotheOH participating in @BHcityleaders focused on improving #publictransit throughout the city, with the goal of attracting new riders & leading to a new program of on-demand public transit

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"My community engagement was really bad. I was doing monthly community meetings - if nobody showed up, I’d think ‘At least I can say I did it.’ But why put time in if it’s not resulting in high-quality engagement?" @lmfeeney

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"Not everyone there had the capability to join a Zoom meeting, most probably didn’t want to take a survey - but you just had to get on the bus and ride with them and they will talk to you." Asti Powell @CityofChillicotheOH

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Partnering for Learning

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From November 2020 to August 2021, the city of Chillicothe, Ohio participated in the Bloomberg Harvard Innovation Track, a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative program delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact. During the program, 11 interdisciplinary city teams from across the U.S. developed innovative solutions to a pressing city problem while adopting cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact.

In Chillicothe, the team participating in the Bloomberg Harvard Innovation Track focused on improving public transit throughout the city. The team came into the Track with a goal of making public transit more responsive to potential users, thereby attracting new riders throughout the city and leading to a new program of on-demand public transit. Over the course of the Innovation Track, Chillicothe zeroed in on two potential transit solutions: a dual fixed-route/on-demand public transportation system and a highly popular trolley. After prototyping these ideas with an astounding 400+ residents, the city is now advancing both ideas as pilots.

The team came into the Track with a goal of making public transit more responsive to potential users, thereby attracting new riders throughout the city and leading to a new program of on-demand public transit.

The CPI team had an opportunity to talk with Mayor Luke Feeney and Transportation Director Asti Powell about their experience during the Innovation Track, what’s coming next for Chillicothe transit, and major takeaways that other cities can learn from.

The town of Chillicothe and the drive to improve transit

The town of Chillicothe, Ohio’s first (and third) capital city, sits in Southern Ohio, near the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. It is the only sizable town for quite some area, which frequently gives it the “best of both worlds” - a community small enough that elected officials are extremely connected to and a part of it, and yet sizable enough for the potential for “real impact.”  The city maintained a bus service that served most parts of the town, but it suffered from low ridership and a common perception that public transportation was underfunded and undesirable.

Mayor Luke Feeney and Transportation Director Asti Powell were a part of the team participating in the Innovation Track, and each brought unique experiences and perspectives. Both have roots in Southeast Ohio, but have lived in cities with extensive public transportation systems. Mayor Feeney has served as Chillicothe’s mayor since 2016 has a deep commitment to providing dependable city services and being responsive to the needs of the community. Director Powell was just beginning her tenure in the Transportation department and brought a commitment to making substantial improvements to the system. Over the course of the Innovation Track, Mayor Feeney’s understanding of community engagement was transformed and Director Powell learned that innovation techniques could lead to better outcomes for residents in transportation and across City Hall at large.

Initial plans and public feedback

At the start of the Innovation Track, Director Powell was determined to explore a fully on-demand transit service that would allow residents to schedule and request public transportation at will. On-demand transit seemed to be the perfect solution that would allow existing users to maintain their access while attracting new users with the promise of convenience and low cost. However, plans changed once the Chillicothe team began to gather input directly from residents. When reflecting on his longstanding approach to engaging residents, the Mayor freely admitted that “my community engagement was really bad... For a while, I was doing monthly community meetings and that sort of thing - if nobody showed up, I’d think ‘Oh well, at least I can say I did it.’ But why put the time in if it’s not resulting in high-quality engagement?” Through Innovation Training, Mayor Feeney and Director Powell learned how to deeply and meaningfully engage with residents. Rather than asking residents to show up, they removed barriers by going directly to them. Mayor Feeney and Director Powell rode the bus, conducted surveys, held community meetings, and ultimately engaged over 400 residents.

My community engagement was really bad... For a while, I was doing monthly community meetings and that sort of thing - if nobody showed up, I’d think ‘Oh well, at least I can say I did it.’ But why put the time in if it’s not resulting in high-quality engagement?

Resident engagement told them a few things about their initial plan. For starters: it made the voices of existing transit users much more prominent, and those voices weren’t particularly interested in having the entire system switch away from fixed routes and to on-demand. Rather, they wanted remedies to problems that the City hadn’t previously identified but were often relatively simple and straightforward to fix - extra door-assist buttons in more locations in the terminal, for example. Moreover, the idea of a fully on-demand system wasn’t as enticing to new potential users as the Chillicothe team anticipated. Existing users liked the fixed routes, and while many were intrigued by the idea of an on-demand option, there wasn’t an appetite for a complete overhaul. Instead, a hybrid system was proposed - keeping the fixed-route public transit system, and expanding an on-demand option that would provide a more flexible and responsive capacity-expanding service.

Also coming out of resident engagement was a completely new idea: a trolley. Resident feedback, enthusiasm, and the relative feasibility of the addition of a (wheeled) trolley transformed the goal of the team from shifting models of public transportation to expanding existing public transportation systems. The trolley idea additionally proved to be a huge draw for new potential riders.

Current and Future Prototypes, Pilots, and Plans

Both the Mayor and Director Powell expressed surprise at the level of enthusiasm the community showed. “I truly did not expect people to get so excited about a trolley,” Mayor Feeney said. “To be honest, I’m still a little surprised by it.” The trolley prototype appeared to be the talk of the town for the few days it was in operation - residents were bringing their children along, planning when they would ride the trolley, and talking about it online. Both the Mayor and Director Powell expect some of this enthusiasm to fade over time, but were heartened by how much this single project got residents invested in and talking about public transportation.

The trolley and the on-demand service are scheduled to enter their pilot phase next year. The town will be experimenting with different trolley routes at different times, trying out four different routes over four months, including a dedicated history tour route and a downtown loop. The other key question they hope to answer is “if the excitement and ridership continues,” in the words of Director Powell - if the trolley continues to draw interest and use from Chillicothe residents and other visitors. The on-demand pilot - which is both an on-demand pilot and an update of the existing fixed routes - will take course over the place of all of 2022, separated into four 3-month segments, to determine the best method to have the on-demand and fixed routes “complement each other operationally.”

Lessons for other cities to learn from

According to Mayor Feeney, one of the most impactful and useful experiences of Innovation Training was the power of bringing community engagement to residents. “When I blocked a couple of hours on my schedule and I went and sat on the bus … the takeaways were super important.” He went on to note that his entire view of engagement has changed as a result of this project, saying “I feel more responsibility than ever to do that engagement. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but also it’s selfish in a way.. the benefit of it is to slow down and make decisions that are informed on what’s good for the public… that’s the point of my job.”

Director Powell agreed - going to sit on the bus and meet the regular users of public transit allowed them to receive a fuller, more accurate picture of what daily riders were thinking, and how they felt about the system and its proposed changes. “Not everyone there had the capability to join a Zoom meeting, most probably didn’t want to take a survey - but you just had to get on the bus and ride with them and they will talk to you.” She also mentioned that direct resident engagement was useful to shed light on what residents actually wanted. She explained that during numerous interviews and surveys the team would describe planned changes to on-demand services and residents would respond positively, but when asked if this would lead to them actually using the service, would immediately respond “probably not.” Director Powell emphasized that digging deeper, beyond surface-level answers from residents, provided unique and incredibly valuable insights that would often “totally change the message I was taking away.” This deeper engagement with residents, even when it provided answers more complicated than their initial responses, provided an invaluable service that played a deep role in how the project evolved. In her words, “If we had been content with the simple answers that people were giving us, the answers we wanted to hear, we would have created a system that didn’t have that much demand.”

Not everyone there had the capability to join a Zoom meeting, most probably didn’t want to take a survey - but you just had to get on the bus and ride with them and they will talk to you.

Another key lesson from Innovation Training was the importance of building user feedback into regular city processes. Mayor Feeney noted that there is often a disconnect between government work - even at the local level - and resident needs. “We’ve built water usage and trash pick-up into the operations of this city, now we’re working on building resident engagement into it.” All too often, this disconnect leads governments to work on making a change or creating an initiative that the residents have little say or even interest in. The Mayor is “thinking through what automatically triggers city engagement so that it continues with or without me. I want resident engagement to be second nature for my staff.” Even during our interview, the new Operations Director for the Transportation department was riding a bus, listening to resident feedback - and that was now a regular, ongoing part of the job. 

For other Mayors in particular, Mayor Feeney advises that they get involved more in the day-to-day operations of the city. He noted that his direct involvement in Innovation Training allowed staff to move quickly and decisively when making adjustments in response to what was working and what wasn’t. This allowed them to take a greater amount of resident feedback into consideration as the project progressed rather than carefully negotiating actions beforehand, which is classic of cumbersome bureaucratic models. He also advises Mayors to empower staff at all levels. He recognizes that he “can’t be involved in everything at once,” and that this new, direct approach of experimentation and responsiveness can’t be solely dependent on his involvement. He is working to encourage his staff to experiment and take the initiative and show them that it’s OK to evaluate resident feedback on their own, rather than waiting for endless series of intra-departmental meetings and approvals. “When you’re going to try something new,” he said, “at some point, you should just...do it.”

Innovation Training has been an eye-opening experience for Chillicothe, and one it hopes to continue to draw inspiration from into the future. Already, Chillicothe is working to make innovation a permanent fixture in the city as Director Powell transitions into a new role where she will bring lessons learned from Innovation Training throughout the city government. The future for innovation is bright in Chillicothe, and we’re excited to see what comes next!

Written by:

Asti Powell Transit Director, City of Chillicothe
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Luke Feeney Mayor, City of Chillicothe
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