Getting drivers to change their commuting patterns by giving them chances to win money

Scientists have developed a new way to fight the congestion battle: if drivers change their commuting patterns, they would have a better chance of winning money.

Some urban areas, including London, Stockholm, and the capital of Singapore, have tried disincentives to discourage rush-hour driving. These congestion-pricing schemes have achieved some success, but problems persist. And implementing them is politically difficult; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg abandoned his early effort to pare traffic in the Big Apple through commuter charges. But a growing number of transportation experts believe the same technology that enables cities to track cars and charge a fee when they enter designated congestion areas can be used to implement schemes that people will accept more readily. Rather than punishing old commuting habits, they reward new ones. For participants, opting to avoid rush-hour traffic means both saving time, and boosting their odds of winning a prize.

Instead of buying lotto tickets, participants in the Singapore program shift their commutes to off-peak hours to earn credits, which can be traded for chances to win cash. Participants earn one credit per kilometer traveled by rail, and three credits per kilometer for rail trips made during the hour before or after morning rush hour (7:30 to 8:30 a.m.). They can pick one “boost day” per week, when each kilometer traveled by rail earns five credits.

At Stanford, where the project is supported by a $3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, drivers who live off-campus and shift their commutes up to one hour outside the morning and evening rush hours can earn 10 cents per off-peak trip. That’s the boring, sure-fire option. Alternatively, they can use credits to play a simple online social game that randomly doles out cash prizes from $2 to $50. Cars are tracked using a small radio-frequency identification tag mounted to the windshield.

More than 17,500 Singapore commuters have enrolled in the pilot program, while just over 1,825 have enrolled in the Stanford project. And it seems these efforts to change travel behavior using games, or carrots, rather than sticks (such as congestion pricing) are paying off. Balaji Prabhakar, a Stanford engineering professor who developed both projects, said during a recent talk at the university’s campus in Palo Alto, California, that 11-12 percent of users in Singapore have shifted off-peak. Men tend to shift later, he said, while women generally shift earlier.

Is this the “gamification” of driving? Providing positive incentives rather than “punishing” people seems like it would be more effective in the long run. This reminds me of the new programs some insurance companies are rolling out where you get rewarded for driving more safely by having your rates reduced. At the same time, who is paying for these prizes? I assume this is funded by grant money or something like that but is this sustainable in the long run?

I wonder if there would be some unintended consequences of programs like these: instead of having horrible peak driving periods, traffic will simply be congested at more hours. Is it better to compress bad traffic into a certain number of hours a day versus spreading out the more congested hours? What happens if there are too many drivers all the time and incentives (or disincentives) wouldn’t really change much? I suppose we are a ways from this in some places but techniques like this don’t get at larger issues of having too many cars altogether.

h/t Instapundit

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