An app from University of Maryland researchers awards commuters for choosing "smarter" and more eco-friendly routes. Incentrip/Screenshot

Incentrip rewards users for finding greener, more efficient ways to get to work. But can it get people to change their habits?

Humans are creatures of habit, and that’s certainly true when it comes to commuting. But University of Maryland researchers behind a new app are betting that with the right incentives, commuters might switch to “smarter” routes—ones that are better for the environment, for the user, and for all the other people trying to move around.

The app, called Incentrip, is part of a $4.5 million research project funded by the Department of Energy to predict traffic and ease congestion. Currently being piloted in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, it essentially turns the commuting experience into a game. When users put their destination into the app, they’re shown a handful of options—car, bus, subway, biking, and ride-sharing—with information about the length, time, and amount of fuel consumed for each mode.

The app awards points based on how a user chooses to get around, giving more points for greener and more efficient methods. For drivers who aren’t ready to pivot to public transit just yet, the app awards a few points for choosing a more “eco-friendly” driving route.

For my own commute—from Silver Spring, Maryland, to CityLab’s office in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood—I have a few options. I can do a 28-minute drive, using half a gallon of gasoline, for three points. An hour-long metro ride, meanwhile, uses just a tenth of a gallon and is worth 87 points. If I wanted to bike the entire eight miles, I’d get a hefty 117 points.

Those points, calculated through AI based on the user’s behavioral patterns, can then go toward prizes like gift cards to Amazon, Apple, and Google. A $50 gift card to Google or Apple costs 5,000 points.

My options going from the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to Chinatown. (Screenshot/Incentrip)

“The goal is to minimize energy use across the entire transit system,” said lead researcher Lei Zhang, who heads the university’s National Transportation Center. That’s why biking and walking will generally get you more points. Incentrip’s incentives are dynamic, he added, “calculated for every trip based on real-time information and on our prediction of future traffic conditions, and they’re based on what we have learned about the users.”

The app has about 35,000 trial users on both Android and iOS, and Zhang says his team is working on non-monetary incentives as well, including a way to show how one user’s decisions can help other travelers. (The research group gets the bulk of its traffic and transit data through its partnership with D.C.’s and Maryland’s transportation departments.)

Curiously, to earn the maximum 126 points on my commute, I would would have to take the metro into D.C., walk to Arlington, Virginia, then circle back to my office via a car. That’s obviously not efficient or sensible. When I asked Zhang about it, he assured me that AI would adjust what I see. “If we suggest transit options that we never see you take, then we realize [you won’t] take them even with incentives,” he said. “So on the underlying behavior model, which is based on AI, we’re learning what options might work better for you. Over time it may encourage you to do Uber pool or ride-sharing, or a different departure time.”

Turning a commute into a point-based game can bring a new dynamic to getting around town, and can also make people consider their choices more actively. In 2012, for example, the Singapore government doled out incentives to commuters who travel during off-peak hours. Those who did so were entered into raffles to win as much as $100, and were offered points and other perks for inviting friends to do the same. The six-month pilot program shifted nearly 7.5 percent of all peak commutes to off-peak hours.

That success certainly makes a case for gamifying transit, but long-term change is more complicated than enticing people to try out a new commute. Kari Watkins, who studies the use of technology in transportation and in commuter decision making at Georgia Tech, says the way people value their time will always be a prime factor.

“If it takes you twice as long on transit than when you’re driving yourself somewhere, then that adds up to a lot of money if you value your time at, say, $20 an hour,” she says. “Nothing about gamification is going to change that part of the equation.”

While that may prevent dramatic changes on a large scale, she says it can still make a meaningful difference on the margins. Some people will face similar commute times through different options, or will be motivated by saving a few dollars or cutting down on stress from traffic. Apps like Incentrip can be more successful, she adds, if they make choosing transit a seamless decision by providing more real-time information.

At some point, Zhang’s app will learn if its users become habitual riders who regularly take the bus or metro. In that case, “we may reduce the amount of incentives for you to use transit because maybe it’s better to use these incentives to encourage the people who drive,” he says.

Steven Higashide, director of research at the non-profit Transit Center, said he’s seen different versions of these incentive-based initiatives before—transit agencies have been testing them for decades. Yet he notes that even if new habits are formed, in the long run, people won’t stick with transit if the service isn’t reliable. And as CityLab recently reported, many U.S. cities don’t exactly have a good track record of providing quality service.

At the end of the day, “eco-points will not get people to continue to ride a rail system that routinely breaks down,” Higashide says.

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