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Improving Transit Options for Underserved Youth in Kansas City

Based on data that underrepresented youth have better education and employment outcomes when they have reliable access to “out of school time” activities, a project in Kansas City seeks to address transit barriers.

A bus pulling up to a curb.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. In a special series, the Innovation of the Month is currently focusing on the award-winning and innovative projects championed by MetroLab’s member universities and civic partners that advanced to Stage 2 of the NSF Civic Innovation Challenge. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the CIVIC Stage 2 Innovation of the Month series, we highlight the Connecting Underrepresented Youth with Employment Opportunities project from Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. This project addresses accessibility barriers that underrepresented youths experience when attending out-of-school-time (OST) learning opportunities due to limited transportation options available to them.

MetroLab Network’s Elias Gbadamosi spoke with the team’s civic and academic partners about their implementation plan as they advance to Stage 2 of NSF CIVIC.

Elias Gbadamosi: What is the overarching challenge that the team is addressing, and what is the motivation?

Kiley Larson: The overarching challenge that the team will address is the lack of awareness and access to regional learning opportunities for youth, as well as the impact that transportation has on their ability to take advantage of those opportunities.

Like many U.S. cities, Kansas City is diverse but deeply divided. Inequitable access to out-of-school-time (OST) opportunities that support youth in developing workforce readiness and cultivating occupational identities creates two fundamentally different experiences: Youth from affluent homes and school districts, who are disproportionately white, have greater access than youth from lower-income homes and schools, who are disproportionately Black and Latino. In sprawling low-density metro areas like Kansas City, a substantial physical disconnect and spatial mismatch between residential areas, jobs and OST opportunities combined with a lack of reliable transportation services disproportionately impacts youth from these same families.

Andrea Ellis: Addressing this challenge is important to the continued prosperity of the region. It is imperative to future growth that students from all backgrounds are prepared to participate in the economy. Having access to quality OST opportunities can enhance and expand their learning experiences, strengthen their connection to the community, and support the creation of a diverse and skilled workforce.

NSF Civic Challenge, The Connect KC

Gbadamosi: How do out-of-school-time opportunities for youth impact their success and the development of their communities?

Jomella Watson-Thompson: OST opportunities for youth are critical to their healthy and positive development, which impacts their success as individuals and contributors to their communities. Generally, OST opportunities provide experiences for youth through structured activities supported in the community, which may also provide a safe environment for kids to learn, engage and develop. Through OST activities, support is provided to youth during periods when school is not in session such as after school hours, on weekends, and during school breaks. OST activities offer safe learning opportunities and facilitate healthy behaviors such as engaging in physical activity during leisure time; provide opportunities for work and learning experiences; and support the positive engagement of youth in safe and supervised recreational activities. There are multiple positive impacts for engagement of youth in OST opportunities, including:

  • reducing the likelihood for engagement in risky behaviors of youth during leisure time,
  • reducing the time that youth are involved in unsupervised activities,
  • increasing access of youth to enrichment activities and experiences that may support their academic and professional development and reduce learning loss,
  • improving knowledge and skills by engaging in experiential learning (e.g., internships) or skill development programs (e.g., social-emotional learning programs), and
  • increasing access to positive peer and adult networks, which supports positive individual and community connections. Youth participation in OST opportunities offers protective factors and addresses some common risk factors associated with youth violence, adolescent substance abuse, and other adolescent problem behaviors at the individual, peer and community levels.

Gbadamosi: Who are the other stakeholders and partners on this project, and what role do they play?

Alexandra Kondyli: This project is a collaboration between the University of Kansas, the Kansas City Public Library, KC Digital Drive, ThrYve, Keystone Innovations and numerous community organizations, such as schools, mobility providers and local governments. The university brings in the technical and research perspective on mobility and app development. The Kansas City Public Library and ThrYve connect with the youth and ensure their voice is heard. KC Digital Drive and Keystone Innovations support with pilot implementation and with identifying a sustainable path for our proposed solutions.

Gbadamosi: Which groups did the team engage with to identify and develop the specific proposed solutions and policies that the project is championing?

Kondyli: We engaged with multiple mobility providers in the Kansas City area to understand their willingness to identify and implement mobility solutions and business models that are acceptable to youth and their parents, as well as their support in accessing and sharing any data. Fortunately, several mobility providers accepted the challenge and were very excited to work with us, such as zTrip (a micro-transit company), the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority – KCATA (transit agency in the Kansas City metro area), RideKC Bike (regional shared-bike and e-bike service), Unified Government Transit (transit agency in Kansas City, Kan.), and Kansas City Streetcar (transit service).

We also teamed up with several schools in the area that will help with recruiting youth for our pilot implementation. We are working closely with two of these schools (Wyandotte High School in Kansas and Central High School in Missouri), to develop a semester-long program where students will assist the research team with the development and testing of the mobile application.

Lastly, we’re engaging with several local agencies and nonprofits to align with ongoing regional efforts.

KU CIVIC Project Chart.png

Gbadamosi: Your project has a huge accessibility and equity component; how does the team define accessibility and equity?

Kiley and Ellis: In this work, the team defines accessibility and equity as the ability for all teenagers to know about, and attend, quality OST experiences that are inclusive, engaging and that support students in leveling up both professionally and personally.

We are building from the work of our civic partners, which identified through community-based research six learning equity gaps — awareness, access, attendance, engagement, pathway and opportunity — that create barriers to OST participation. Improved OST-opportunity awareness and access will provide students a broad range of educational and workforce-development benefits, including increased opportunities for youth to explore occupational identities and increased workforce readiness.

Gbadamosi: How will equity and accessibility be measured as the project advances?

Lisa Koch: This project is using youth travel surveys to understand accessibility challenges related to particular travel modes, which could be caused by location, time of day, cost, age or understanding of the service. This information will guide our implementation strategy. We will then use three treatment groups to understand how knowledge of transportation availability, trip planning support and reduced costs for travel impact mobility and choice of travel mode. This information can then be used to identify structural impediments to travel for this age group and will identify solutions to these structural impediments.

Gbadamosi: Does your project’s modeling approach and framework have the potential to be transferred or scaled for use across other U.S. communities and with other demographic groups?

Koch: This project will develop quantitative and computational approaches to evaluate and maximize the capabilities of the transportation system, including public transit and mobility-sharing services, to connect local youth with OST opportunities. We will develop a unifying, data-driven framework and related tools to determine the effects of different transportation modes, routes and availability, along with other key factors, including perception of safety, travel times, energy consumption and economic costs, on the accessibility of various spatially distributed opportunities. The framework will further identify optimal ways to motivate students to participate in OST activities and resources. Our approaches will usher in necessary and innovative scientific methodologies to uncover and improve the relationship between mobility and societal equity. This framework, including the development of mobility equity metrics, scenario analysis and mobility optimization, is a methodology that can be adapted and applied to different population subgroups, mobility types and geographies.
Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization's communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.