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How ‘gamification’ can make transport systems and choices work better for us

Using incentives drawn from game play, the peak-hour crush can be reduced, or avoided altogether. Stilgherrian/flickr, CC BY

How ‘gamification’ can make transport systems and choices work better for us

Individual users and their behaviours are critical to how transport systems work. How can we better incentivise their behaviour to achieve policy goals such as shifting transport modes and reducing road trauma and traffic congestion?

Peak-hour congestion and peak loading, for example, are the twin most pressing issues for public transport agencies around the world. The search for low-cost “solutions” to such problems is a continuing challenge. By 2031, public transport patronage in many cities is expected have doubled or even tripled in 25 years.

Australian governments at all levels recognise this increasing demand, but infrastructure investments are facing long delays due to funding shortfalls. Instead of building costly new infrastructure – for example, the A$5 billion Brisbane bus and train tunnel – can we use transport capacity more efficiently to defer this investment? That is, how can we shift demand from peak to off-peak times?

How about playing a game?

A game is viewed as “an activity that is voluntary and enjoyable, and governed by rules”. Gamification incorporates elements of game play into an interactive system without having a fully fledged game as the end product.

Gamification can be defined as the “use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. It introduces competition and social activity into behavioural interventions. The participants, such as public transport passengers, become “players” who can win individual or group rewards if they adjust their behaviour.

Conceptual gamification procedure applied to transport use. Author provided

Recent evidence underlines the significance of a gamified approach to behaviour change. Currently, there are few case studies in the transport field. These may not be branded directly as gamification, but the concepts of these cases are borrowed from it.

Active travel

Gamified design has been used in the health field and can dramatically transform people’s health and physical activity levels. One example from the UK is the Beat the Street initiative. In Reading, it has encouraged thousands of residents to walk and cycle for health benefits.

Another example of such programs in Australia is Healthy Active School Travel. This is a free, tailored program proven to help primary school students, parents and teachers to leave the car at home and use sustainable travel modes to get to school. Examples include walking, cycling, riding a scooter, or taking public transport.

In participating schools in Brisbane, the program has helped to convert 35% of single-family car trips to school to an active and healthy transport mode.

For these games, leaderboards are compiled and reported at all competition levels. Peer encouragement is strong. Low-cost rewards like stickers encourage students to make positive changes in their travel behaviour or participate in events such as scooter safety skills sessions.

Engagement remains strong throughout the year as each month has a new focus and a new prize. Examples include prizes for the “most children walking to school” in March, the “most children bike riding” in April, and the “most children scootering” in May.

Public transport

Gamification schemes have just been introduced in a public transport context for the first time via Singapore’s INSINC program. This aims to shift demand from peak to off-peak shoulder times in Singapore’s public transport system.

The scheme manages peak-hour congestion by offering incentives for commuters to travel in off-peak periods. These incentives include random (raffle-like) rewards, social influence and personalised offers.

A six-month research pilot, launched in January 2012, achieved a 7.49% shift from peak to off-peak hours for all commuter trips.

Road safety

There are many gamified schemes and interventions to improve road safety, especially when it comes to young drivers. It is well established that they are over-represented in numbers of road accidents in any driver demographics.

In Australia, people in the 17-25 age group made up 12.4% of the population, but 20.5% of driver deaths and 20.2% of all deaths in 2014.

To motivate young people to drive more safely, many interventions have been developed. Car insurance companies have designed some interventions. Examples include:

S-Drive offers rewards for safe driving in Australia.

These gamified programs are designed to promote safe driving. Such programs fall into two categories: monetary rewards and a reward point scheme.

What’s next?

Gamification is based on sound psychological and social theory and has had success in the transport field.

The important questions confronting transport agencies are not if and how gamification works, but where it may be useful and how to design a successful intervention. We know most about the approach’s efficacy in schools, but less about its efficacy with adults and in the transport context.

There is ample scope to harness a gamification approach in Australia to achieve transport-system-oriented goals. Radio Frequency Identification card or app technology could be used to encourage better use of new bicycle/pedestrian path infrastructure, or local area walking and cycling.

The potential to combine games and rewards with public transport travel is significant. It could provide additional behaviour change rewards for off-peak travel, encourage walking instead of vehicle access to public transport, or reward use of alternative public transport stops to avoid congested stations.

The outcomes could be tied to business-based travel plans where businesses can show improvements in their bottom lines from encouraging mode shift from car to public transport or active travel. Some of the incentives may then be underwritten through their savings.

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