I started working at LEO as an undergraduate research assistant the summer after my sophomore year at Notre Dame. I was drawn from the start to LEO’s mission of building evidence to fight poverty and to the opportunity for hands-on involvement in conducting research. Two years later, I have come to recognize that this mission is embodied not only in the evidence generated but also in the relationships built between LEO and our partners.
My early work with LEO spanned the research process, from conducting literature reviews and developing projects to processing and analyzing data. Throughout this period, I developed my research skills and enjoyed the ability to contribute substantively to work that can inform policy and improve the lives of others.
Beginning in the summer of 2020, I had the opportunity to work more closely with a partner of LEO’s—King County Metro in the Seattle area. My primary focus was on a randomized controlled trial for low-income individuals, in which the treatment group received fare-free transit passes. We wanted to know if free transportation would make it easier for them to get to locations throughout King County. I worked with the King County Metro team to link participant survey data collected by LEO to bus boarding data held by Metro. This allowed us to evaluate the impact of the fare-free passes on ridership.
In this work, I learned more about the connection between transportation access and poverty. Where a person lives is highly correlated with their economic outcomes. When people don’t have reliable, affordable transportation to get to where the jobs and other opportunities are, they have trouble accessing the education, job training, benefits, and employment that are key to a stable life. The data I worked with was more than just numbers to me. I knew that every rider under the fare-free program was someone gaining access to opportunities that could help them reach the goals they had for themselves and their families. This work also helped me more fully appreciate the way that LEO’s partnerships with service providers are genuinely geared toward making an impact in the lives of people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been disruptive to virtually every industry, but few have been impacted as much as transit providers. Ridership has plummeted, state and local budgets have been squeezed, and in King County, fare collection was halted for almost six months to reduce the risk of viral spread to drivers and passengers through the exchange of physical currency.
As a result, the focus of much of my work shifted. LEO and King County Metro began to study the impact of Covid-19 on ridership in the Seattle area—specifically to see who was still reliant on public transportation during periods of lockdown and reduced business activity. I helped analyze movement and transit passenger count data to see who was traveling the most. What we found was that low-income community members—many of whom held essential jobs like cleaning and caregiving, which couldn’t be done from home—had reduced their movement the least. They had to get to work, and they were reliant on public transit to get there. King County Metro wanted to use this information to offer services targeted to the needs of these riders.
These King County Metro projects allowed me to witness firsthand the extent to which LEO truly aims to have a positive impact through evidence. Because of the relationship LEO had built with King County, we were able to quickly shift to study new questions and build evidence that would be directly applicable to the provision of transit services during the pandemic—and most of all, benefit low-income people and families. And through my close contact with King County Metro, I came to see that LEO’s main goal is to help our partners build evidence to serve their communities with interventions that have been proven to work.