Gamification, Technology, and Improving Transit Rider Satisfaction


What’s the current state of the rider experience? Are transportation systems meeting the demands and expectations of the general public?

These questions were posed to a panel of speakers at a plenary session of the Mobility Lab-sponsored Innovation in Public Policy Summit. Technology – in particular the power of information – was shown to be a good start to positively impact the rider experience.

Kari Edison Watkins, assistant professor of engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, began by acknowledging that riders avoid certain transportation modes due to perceptions regarding comfort and safety.

Watkins’ research at Georgia Tech demonstrated how providing real-time information about transit arrival times can positively affect both riders’ perceived and actual wait times, and increase rider satisfaction levels. Systems such as the open-source OneBusAway, which operators can implement on the back end, have the potential to get more people to use transit.

Kari Edison Watkins

Kari Edison Watkins of Georgia Tech University

But technology, contends Watkins, is not enough. At its most basic level, getting consumers to choose one form of transportation over another involves making that option more attractive than the others. If a ride is uncomfortable, or the infrastructure poor, then riders probably won’t choose it no matter how much real-time information they are given. Transportation policies need to ensure that these vital systems are properly funded and maintained.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst and program director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, discussed how generational differences affect rider expectations.

USPIRG has performed a number of studies regarding transit ridership, particularly with respect to Millennials. Those studies portray this population, born roughly between 1982 and 2001, as making a conscious decision to reduce driving. The generation’s student-loan debt exacerbates the trend. Millennials prefer walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods more than their older cohorts.

Most important, according to Baxandall, is the fact that the car no longer represents freedom for this population cohort. To Millennials, “freedom is spontaneity, he said. The concept of spontaneously taking a trip is no longer contingent on owning an automobile. In fact, Baxandall contends that shared-use mobility increases the ability to act spontaneously, in the way that bikeshares and carshares avoid both the responsibilities (automobile maintenance) and fixed costs associated with owned vehicles.

Millennials, in other words, are inherently biased in favor of transit, biking, and walking. It may follow, then, that their expectations regarding these transportation choices are lower, or at least different.

Darren Buck, bicycle program specialist with the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), discussed Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) use in the District, focusing on how CaBi responds to rider demand.


As background, Buck described how CaBi users in D.C. are demographically similar to bikeshare users nationwide: they are generally cash poor but education rich, largely Millennials, and mostly males.

Capital Bikeshare, said Buck, “does exactly what it’s intended to do.” It increases capacity on rail in the urban core, and acts as a connection between the suburbs and urban employment centers. It is a complementary mode that works holistically with the rest of the D.C. transit system.

D.C.’s successful bikesharing system isn’t without its challenges, however. The system is in need of near-constant “rebalancing.” This is the cost-heavy practice of moving bikes from full stations to empty ones, based on real-time usage data.

Buck proffered the intriguing idea of the use of gamification (“the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems,” according to Wikipedia) to incentivize users in assisting with the expensive but important task of CaBi bike rebalancing. By awarding virtual points or statuses via an app, users can be engaged to move bikes from full to empty stations. Gamification is an intriguing idea that’s been used successfully by Waze and Foursquare, for example, to enhance customer loyalty.

Gamification is also a way to innovatively deal with a supply-and-demand disparity that’s more efficient than simply adding to the supply of bikes at every station. Like transportation demand management, it is more effective, inexpensive, and sustainable than the supply-based approach.

As Timothy Papandreou of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency stated, also at the summit: “We’re not Shanghai, we can’t build a new metro every year.”

Photo of Shanghai Metro by Eduardo M.C.

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