An app that rewards commuters for their travel choices

By Chet Edelman

Everyday navigation apps such as Google Maps and Waze use real-time traffic data to help millions of people find the fastest route to work. A new app called incenTrip emulates the same model but with a twist—it incentivizes commuters to take greener, more eco-conscious trips. Developed by researchers at University of Maryland in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy, incenTrip provides individual users with a variety of travel options and modes to a destination, each of which is assigned points depending on the distance traveled and the fuel consumed. The greener the trip, the more points one is rewarded. Once enough points are accumulated, the user can redeem them for rewards such as gift cards, gas cards, or cash.

The idea is based on the concept of gamification or “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” The app’s creators believe rewarding users with points will act as an incentive to use alternative forms of transportation. For example, an individual who normally drives alone to work may be rewarded only two points through the app. However, the same trip may be worth 83 points by transit or 95 points by bike, thus giving the user added motivation to mix up their commute.

The use of gamification has been successful in implementing transportation strategies before. In 2012, the government of Singapore was able to shift 7.5 percent of all peak hour travel to off-peak hours by entering commuters who altered their travel habits into raffles for $100. Furthermore, gamification was used in Brisbane, Australia, as part of the Active School Travel program to reduce single-family car trips to school by 24.8 percent.

While not every individual user has the same access to alternative forms of transportation, the app’s artificial intelligence capabilities can adjust travel routes depending on what mode of transportation the user is likely to take. Someone who is more inclined to drive is shown routes to their destination that require less gas, or they may be encouraged to use ride sharing services such as Uber Pool. incenTrip is designed to adjust to the individual needs of the user while providing viable alternatives to the status quo.

One issue which the app may need to address going forward is how to reward users who regularly use transit, bike, or walk. If the intention of incenTrip is to encourage individuals to choose greener forms of transportation, existing bus riders, for example, will be compensated without needing to adjust their travel behaviors. In an article with CityLab, lead researcher Lei Zhang indicated that the app may begin to reduce incentives for habitual transit users and redirect them to users who mostly drive.

It is important to note, even if the base of incenTrip users were to expand rapidly, a city or region with unreliable transit or unsafe bike infrastructure and connectivity will continue to have difficulty moving commuters away from driving, regardless of the rewards offered. Therefore, incenTrip may be viewed as a tool to incentivize experimentation with other travel modes rather than a solution to invoke wholesale change.

Regardless, incenTrip currently has 35,000 users within the Baltimore-Washington, DC, metro area. How successful the app becomes depends on the uptake and frequency of use by its network. If the pilot program is successful, the app could spread to other metro areas across the United States. In the meantime, the app’s developers are letting the experiment play out and observing whether turning commuting into a game can facilitate measurable changes in travel behavior.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.