Why Should We Gamify Transit?

Discussing the future of urban mobility and smart cities.

When was the last time you looked forward to your morning commute?

For many, transportation isn’t fun or exciting — it’s a barrier between where you are and where you need to be. That’s why it’s our job in the transportation industry to find solutions that make riders’ journeys more enjoyable. There are an infinite number of ways to do this, from improving public transit experiences to launching the ideal mobility app, but there’s one strategy that’s simply more entertaining than the rest: gamification.

The goal of gamification is to apply the benefits of game play — competition, achievement, collaboration — to ordinary, mundane tasks and activities. This combination provides users with a richer, more rewarding experience than before. We can trace this technique back to the onset of airline frequent flyer programs, but it has grown in popularity with the rise of mobile applications. Now, gamification is a valuable new frontier for the transportation industry.

Benefits of Gamification

Gamifying public transit is a two-way street that mutually benefits game-makers as well as riders.

For transit agencies and tech developers, creating gamified experiences can help achieve key business goals. At its core, gamification is a way to connect with a user and encourage engagement, whether the aim is to communicate a message, enhance an experience, or make a conversion. In the transportation industry, the most important goal is to increase ridership while keeping costs low. For transit agencies that are taking advantage of mobile technologies, there’s an opportunity to support those goals directly through a gamified app.

From a rider’s perspective, the rewards of gamification can be simple like providing education, delight, and empowerment, or tangible like awarding vouchers and free rides. A great example is when Amsterdam public transport installed monster stickers on the windows of every tram in the city. Riders were encouraged to film their journey and play with relative distance to make the monster look like it was eating people walking outside. If a rider ‘ate’ 10 people during their trip, they could publish the video and receive a prize from the transit operator. While not all gamified experiences need to have such a direct challenge and reward, the aim should be to introduce an element of fun or novelty where it didn’t previously exist.

And what if the fun could reach beyond transit and into the local community? Bonus points. That was the game plan when moovel (then GlobeSherpa) helped develop a mobile scavenger hunt to celebrate the opening of TriMet’s new Orange Line in 2015. We gamified the neighborhoods near the train route by placing Bluetooth low energy beacons in local businesses and art installations. When riders downloaded the TriMet ticketing app, they could earn points for each beacon they found. Some beacons gave away free or discounted items from nearby vendors, which doubled as an opportunity for TriMet to support local businesses. At the end of the two-week game, players with the most points were entered to win a grand prize.

Independent mobile app developers are also gamifying private modes of transportation to encourage driver or rider engagement with their app. Waze is a notable example this, as it grew from a startup to a billion dollar Google acquisition by leveraging fun and a sense of community. The app turns driving into an adventure by allowing users to take an active role in maps and navigation, earn points, and interact with friends.

Gamification Best Practices

Ready to get started? Keep these guiding principles in mind when implementing transit gamification:
– Involve users in research and development: Gamification isn’t a feature that can be dropped in haphazardly. At moovel, we user test heavily and consult with riders throughout the process to create solutions that address their challenges throughout the transit journey. User testing enables us to identify blocks and concerns riders have, as well as what aspects of the gamified experience they enjoy the most.
– Deliver fun solutions that solve riders’ problems: Aside from providing entertainment, gamification projects should enhance a user’s ability to complete a task. Be aware of the line between being helpful and being a hindrance — users will disengage if they’re required to do more work than usual for diminished results. If you can strike a balance between user enjoyment and productivity, you’ll have more success.
– Don’t lose sight of business goals: It can’t all be fun and games — make sure to keep specific business objectives in mind when gamifying an app or mode of transportation. First, determine a goal or problem that gamification can help solve. At moovel, we’re experimenting with gaming experiences that aim to convert drivers into riders. Next, establish KPIs to help measure success, whether that involves mobile app downloads and engagement, increased ridership, or positive user feedback. Finally, as you’re tracking progress, make sure to re-evaluate the gamification feature continuously. Is it helping users? Are they enjoying it? Is it directly contributing to business goals?

Gamification is a breath of fresh air for the transportation sector. It gives a routine experience new life, and can simultaneously enhance a transit rider’s journey and contribute to the success of various players in the industry. Making connections is at the core of public transit, and the opportunity to connect with riders in a creative way like gamification is one I hope to see more transit agencies and technology companies explore.