Let's play: how gamification can make transport systems work better

Zoooooooooooooooooooom. Image: Getty.

Individual users and their behaviours are critical to how transport systems work. So 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. Image: 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 per cent 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.

Rail & road

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 7.5 per cent shift from peak to off-peak hours for all commuter trips.Road safety

There are also 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 per cent of the population, but 20.5 per cent of driver deaths and 20.2 per cent of all deaths in 2014.

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

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.The Conversation

Barbara T.H. Yen is a research fellow in the Urban Research Program at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Is Manchester doing enough to fight its air pollution crisis?

Clouds over Manchester. Image: Getty.

In June 2018, think tank IPPR released a report calling Greater Manchester’s pollution levels “lethal and illegal”. The report called on mayor Andy Burnham to urgently ramp up measures to improve air quality and for central government to give him the tools to do so.

Yet one year on, the Northern Quarter Forum has had to fight tooth and nail to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours to celebrate Clean Air Week. This, coupled with the Great Ancoats Street fiasco – a multi-million pound plan to create a “European style boulevard” without any cycle infrastructure – raises red flags.

So what’s actually being done to fight Manchester’s air pollution crisis – and is it enough?

An ambitious pledge

Andy Burnham has pledged to make Manchester a leading green city in Europe. It’s an ambitious goal, considering central Manchester currently has the highest rate of emergency admissions for asthma in England – over double the national average – and Manchester is the second-worst council area in England for inhalable particulate matter. Greater Manchester is also the most congested region outside of London, with 152 roads in breach of legal NO2 levels.

The 152 roads in breach of air pollution levels. Image: TfGM.


All in all, 1,200 lives are lost each year due to air pollution. If that number is to be brought down to zero, Manchester better look for inspiration.

Oslo, European Green Capital 2019, prioritises pedestrians and cyclists in the city centre, and is transitioning to a completely car-free city centre. All public transport will run on renewable energy from 2020, and over 700 on-street parking spaces were removed, replaced with cycle lanes, pocket parks, and seating areas. Since the 1980’s Oslo has had tolled ring roads, and in 2017 introduced a further congestion charge.

The message is clear: becoming a leading green city means reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Switching to electric cars won’t be enough to save us, because worn tyres and brakes produce particulate matter, the micro plastic particles penetrating the deepest parts of our lungs and bloodstream.

What’s required, instead, is improved public transport – currently often both less convenient and more expensive than driving – as well as prioritising walking and cycling.

So with Burnham’s ambitious – and worthy – pledge in mind, let’s see what Manchester is doing.

Is enough being invested in public transport?

Last year, Burnham revealed his “Congestion Deal”, which includes a £122m Bus Priority Package (shepherding 9,000 more passengers a week) and spending £83m on 27 new trams. The deal also commits 40,000 more seats on commuter trains, and trebles the number of electric vehicle charging points in the region to 1,000.

Manchester’s Clean Air Plan also includes £116m government funded schemes for HGV’s, buses, taxis, and businesses upgrading to cleaner vehicles, as well as loans with preferential rates for those taking advantage of the funds.

While that may look like a lot of investment, it pales in comparison to the nearly £6bn being considered on road schemes. Moreover, research has repeatedly shown the benefits of road expansion are short-lived, “inducing” more car journeys leading to increased congestion and pollution overall.

The biggest cue for public transport in Manchester is Burnham’s recent proposal to franchise buses, bringing them back under public control. This will allow GMCA to develop a truly integrated public transport system and ensure all communities are served, not just those that are most profitable. It will also allow them to set the fares, bringing them in line with those in London; whereas it costs £4 in Greater Manchester for a single bus fare, the rate is currently capped at £1.50 in the capital.

That being said, there’s still a pressing need for more funding. When I asked the Clean Air Plan folk at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) what’s the one thing government could do to help, they told me this: “To agree a devolved multi-year transport funding settlement with Greater Manchester” that includes ongoing funding, “to help us to transform public transport services to meet modern expectations as people experience in other cities across Europe.”

Despite the progress being made, as long as central government doesn’t provide new funds – and the bulk of existing funding is pumped into motorways instead – Manchester won’t become a leading green city.

Is walking and cycling being prioritised?

Burnham’s Congestion Deal also outlined a “Streets for All” approach, in which streets would be designed “for all road users” to enable alternatives to driving.

Chris Boardman became Greater Manchester’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner in 2017 with an initial £160m earmarked to begin creating “Bee Network” safe cycle routes throughout the city – making Manchester a truly European city. That funding has now been allocated, and the first projects are coming to fruition.

However, it only accounts for 11 per cent of the £1.5bn needed to complete the Bee Network, and Boardman along with five other leading cycling commissioners are demanding government commit long-term funding to safe cycle infrastructure.

Boardman calls painted bike lanes a “waste of public money”, which encourage drivers to speed up, endangering cyclists. “Actual” bike infrastructure is needed, such as segregated cycle lanes.

He’s pointed out that government has recently agreed to spend £1.4bn on upgrading a roundabout near Bedford and building a new 10-mile dual carriageway – two projects that together may save drivers 10 minutes of travel. For the same price, Manchester could have a fully integrated cycle network that would revolutionise the way people travel around the city. Central and local government simply aren’t prioritising the measures needed to reduce air pollution.

That’s why Manchester City Council’s announcement of the £9.1m “Great Ancoats Street improvement scheme” – maintaining five lanes of motor traffic with no cycle infrastructure along one of the city’s most polluted and dangerous thoroughfares – has provoked anger and despair.

Cyclists protest on Great Ancoats Street. Image: David Saddington/author provided.

The council’s justification – “This scheme does not incorporate a segregated cycleway, as we need to balance the needs of different road users” – Illustrates a business-as-usual mindset of car dominated planning. It’s completely at odds with the scale of the challenge Manchester faces in turning around its air quality crisis.

There’s also a long way to go towards prioritising walking and cycling in the city centre. When Manchester City Council refused permission to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours for the community to celebrate Clean Air Week, Northern Quarter Forum members took matters into their own hands.

They developed a plan to reroute the 13 buses that traverse Lever Street and presented it to the Highways department (essentially having done their job for them). Then it was actually Labour party councillor Angeliki Stogia who took the reins and pushed the request through.

Apart from Stogia, this lack of support for a resident’s group advancing what should be the council’s agenda is troubling. This, along with Great Ancoats Street, suggests a council not taking a “Streets for All” approach seriously, wand lacks the will to prioritise alternatives to driving in the city centre.

Is a congestion charge being introduced?

In the past year, the main focus has been developing a “Clean Air Zone”, covering all of Greater Manchester. The scheme would charge the most polluting buses, taxis, heavy and lights goods vehicles entering the zone.

This Clean Air Zone isn’t a congestion charge because it doesn’t charge polluting private vehicles. However, congestion charges are shown to be highly effective.

When Stockholm introduced its congestion charge 11 years ago, it was dubbed “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.” The charge began with just 25 per cent public approval – but when congestion dropped by 20 per cent, public opinion changed rapidly. After a seven month trial period, a referendum made the scheme permanent, and public approval now stands near 70 per cent. Revenue from the scheme has funded new metro lines and active travel improvements.

TfGM argue that charging private cars will hurt the poorest in society. However, ONS data show that while nearly all households in the richest 10 per cent by income own a car, just a third of those in the lowest 10 per cent own one. And nearly all homeowners have at least one car, compared to less than half of households in social housing.

In reality, households on lower incomes are far more likely to rely on public transport, and are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality.

The elephant in the room: the airport

Burnham has pledged to make Greater Manchester carbon neutral by 2038.

It’s difficult to imagine how this is possible, considering that Manchester Airport – 65 per cent owned by Manchester City Council – is expanding. Over the next 20 years, it plans to double passenger numbers.

Globally, aviation emissions are growing so quickly that by 2020 they’re projected to be 70 per cent higher than in 2005 and are currently 26 per cent higher than in 2013. If it were a country, global aviation emissions would be within the top 10 emitters. Here in Manchester, Pete Abel of Manchester Friends of the Earth says the current airport expansion plans would blow “our carbon budget twice over”.

A lack of follow-through

The stakes are high, the consequences dire. Strong, decisive action is required to rid Manchester of its poisonous air.

While Burnham has the vision, he doesn’t have the power. Without buy-in and consistent action from the 10 councils as well as central government, there’s only so much that can be accomplished – and it won’t be enough.

Public transport must become convenient and cheaper than driving. All city streets must enable walking and cycling. Mancunians – as well as city dwellers around the country – must hold elected representatives to account, let them know "business as usual" is no longer acceptable, and demand action to match the rhetoric.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Manchester Confidential