Transportation Navigators


  • King County - Seattle, Washington

Focus Area

  • Self-Sufficiency

"A lot more goes into access than simply providing a service. There are barriers that can't be solved by handing someone a brochure--they require more nuanced support. We provide that personalized, one-on-one support to individuals with low incomes to increase their access to transportation, and then other opportunities like employment."

Carrie Cihak, Chief of Policy, King County Metro

The Issue

Americans collectively spend 70 billion hours every year behind the wheel of a car. Work commutes, grocery shopping, family vacations, late-night drug store runs, sports practice, lunch with friends—personal vehicles make it easy to get to work, run errands, and stay connected.

Not everyone has a family car, however. For these families, public transportation is crucial for maintaining a job and meeting family needs. To better ensure that all residents have access to opportunity, King County, WA is prioritizing improving access to public transportation for households that are low-income.

Cost can be a barrier to public transportation access—even relatively small fares can add up when one rides the bus on a regular basis—but it is not the only barrier. A 2019 transportation survey conducted by the King County Mobility Coalition found that 14.2% of respondents stated that affordability was a limitation in finding and securing transportation. However, responses to the same survey uncovered other more common limitations to transit use, like a lack of transit routes (31.7%), difficulties with trip planning (25.9%), timing of transit services (23.9%), and confusion around transit options (20.7%). Further, an existing LEO study with King County—in which study participants were provided with free fares for several months—found that the fare break increased transit use overall, but not for people who didn’t live by a bus stop. Financial assistance alone won’t help someone get around when the nearest bus stop is miles away, or when the first bus doesn’t come by until an hour after you need to be at work.  

Access to transportation fundamentally impacts life. Previous research shows that the farther away a job applicant lives from a potential employer, the less likely they are to be hired. But living wage jobs are usually located outside of and far away from low-income housing areas, creating a disconnect between stable, sustaining work and the people who need it most.

Improving access to public transit may be an option for reducing this “spatial mismatch.” A growing body of evidence suggests that subsidizing transportation can have employment benefits. However, really getting people back on the road—and into the jobs, educational opportunities, relationships, and activities that can sustain them—will take more than just reducing the cost of transit fares. It requires thinking through every step of helping people get from point A to point B, and into the opportunities that will help them thrive.

The Intervention

To improve access to public transportation, King County Metro created its Transportation Navigator program. Transportation Navigators work one-on-one with low-income households to create customized plan to help them overcome the barriers they face with accessing public transportation. Navigators help families identify available or alternative transit routes, provide information on vanpooling options, and assist with accessing parking permits.

Program services are determined based on community need as identified through focus groups, interviews, and an initial pilot rollout.

Research Question

Does access to personalized Transportation Navigator services improve transit use, mobility, employment, and other well-being outcomes for low-income families?

Intended Outcomes

  • Those who access Transportation Navigator services will demonstrate improved transit use and greater mobility than those who do not participate.
  • They will also be more likely to have improved employment, earnings, and health outcomes.

Research Study Design

The Transportation Navigator study is a randomized controlled trial. Because King County does not have the resources or staff capacity to provide Transportation Navigator services to everyone in need of them, those interested will enter a lottery to participate in the program. Those selected by the lottery will receive Transportation Navigator services. They will become members of the treatment group. Those not selected by the lottery will not receive access to Transportation Navigator services, but they will still be eligible to receive King County Metro’s “business as usual” services and will receive a list of available resources in the area.

Likely outcomes that the LEO research team will compare across both groups following the conclusion of the study include transit use and mobility, employment, earnings, emergency room visits, and hospital inpatient visits across both groups.

(Photo credit: HopeLink)

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