This article discusses two things I love: transportation and healthy behaviors!
Here’s the idea: a person living in London uses the “re:route” app designed by Recyclebank to map their route to a given destination. Re:route provides them with a number of alternatives for getting there, all of which include walking, bicycling, or using public transit, and exclude using their car. They decide on their route, make the journey, and get rewarded at the end of their trip with Recyclebank “points”, which they can ultimately redeem for an array of goodies. Sounds pretty great, right?
Now, I don’t live in London, where re:route is being launched, and even if I could use it, as a graduate student living in a relatively small city, a smart phone app that provides several “alternative” (i.e., not in your car) options for traveling isn’t that relevant to me; if I want to get somewhere within my town, I usually just ride my bike. However, having lived in large metropolitan areas in the past, where travel routes tend to be more congested and over longer distances, I think this idea is totally genius and could absolutely be useful.
That said, I’m an active person who studies alternative transportation and health. It’s my passion. If I can avoid driving my car to get somewhere, you better believe I’m going to do it. So, what interests me most about this concept is the idea of using financial incentives to potentially get other individuals, individuals who would normally drive, to choose the more active option, such as biking, walking, and/or using transit, instead. Obviously, this would involve a pretty major change in a habitual behavior (commuting style), which, anyone who has ever tried to break a habit can appreciate, is a difficult thing to do! That’s why I wonder, will incentives such as those offered by Recyclebank really affect individuals’ travel behaviors in the long-run?
In an small effort to get a better understanding of the mechanics of incentives and behavior change, and how it might work with a program like this one, I did a little cursory research and found some interesting (and, of course, not totally conclusive) findings.
For instance, in BMJ (an open-access, peer-reviewed medical journal), I found research showing that financial disincentives, like taxes on drugs and alcohol, are known to deter unhealthy behaviors, while the affect of financial incentives, like monetary rewards, on encouraging healthy behaviors is less clear. In the short-term, it appears that incentives take advantage of “present bias”, or the idea that humans tend to pursue smaller, more immediate rewards, even if larger, more long-term rewards are more highly valued. What’s wrong with that? Well, research (such as this work in the Journal of Economic Perspectives) also shows that rewards for performing certain behaviors actually undermine the likelihood that individuals will continue doing said-behaviors once the rewards stop. This is because our motivation for performing the behavior shifts from a potentially intrinsic reasoning (motivation due to interest in the task itself) to an extrinsic reasoning (where a task is performed to attain a certain outcome). And when the financial carrot is taken away, motivation dies, too. In this case, perhaps increasing gasoline taxes or tolling roadways would have a more direct, long-term effect on travel behavior.
That’s why, in terms of re:route, I can’t help but wonder who is actually going to use this app. (Btw, I’m not dissing it, I love it.) I imagine it would automatically be appealing to people like me, i.e. people who already like the idea of traveling “alternatively”. But will it actually cause long-term change in travel behaviors for people who almost exclusively travel by car? Now, that’s research I’d like to see.