We turned a borough of London into a game to make fewer people travel by car – here’s what happened

In England, only 37% of adults aged 16 and over actively travel (on foot, bicycle, scooter or wheel to get from one place to another) at least twice a month. We need to find exciting ways to encourage more people to actively travel for the good of people and the health of the planet.

Active travel can help reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and climate change. However, in the UK – as in many countries around the world – car travel remains the dominant social norm.

Our research shows that gamification – offering points, badges, prizes, or places on a leaderboard in return for participating in specific non-gaming activities – can encourage people to actively attend school or college. job.

To test this, we set up a gamification initiative called Beat the Street to see if it could encourage people in London’s Hounslow district to actively travel.

During our game, which ran from September 18 to October 30, 2019, residents and visitors of Hounslow could earn points by tapping a card on physical boxes placed throughout the borough. Players were awarded 10 points each time they touched two squares consecutively with a card, indicating that they had actively traveled between them. And yes, we’ve made sure to remove all obvious cheats from the game.

At the end of the six-week game, the top performing individuals and teams (schools, community groups, and workplaces) were awarded prizes, such as vouchers for sports equipment, craft materials, or books. .

Three people walk along a street
Many participants said they walked a lot more than they usually would during the game.
Author provided

We studied the impact of this game on active travel by looking at when people played, comparing how active people said they were before and after the game, and using a traffic camera to look for a reduction. the number of motor vehicles traveling on a frequently congested local road. .

Methods

I walked a lot more than I would have walked normally: about five times more. I have visited roads that I had never taken or even that I did not know existed and I have lived in the borough all my life!

(Male participant, 60-69 years old)

During the game, 28,219 people participated (9.6% of Hounslow’s population). Together they have covered 96,849 miles.

In total, the participants recorded 638,697 taps on the 161 “beat boxes” distributed in the borough. More than half of all these taps were done between 8:00 a.m. to 8:59 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 3:59 p.m., which are typical times of commuting between home and school or work.

A box mounted on a pole
An example of a beat box, which the participants typed with a card.
Author provided

To take a closer look at specific physical activity outcomes, we asked 346 adults to complete a physical activity questionnaire before and after participating in play.

These results showed that the proportion of participants who reported being physically inactive (defined as taking part in less than 30 minutes of activity per week) decreased from 25% before the game to 18% after the game. And the proportion of participants who reported meeting the World Health Organization’s goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week rose from 62% before the game to 75% after the game.

It was definitely motivating for the kids, which then motivated me! Once inside, they wanted to walk everywhere and started refusing to drive to school. So we only walk to school now!

(Participant, aged 30 to 39)

Next, to provide an objective measure of the behavior change achieved through gaming, we observed local traffic using a surveillance camera. We estimated the number of vehicles traveling in both directions along the often congested Cambridge road between 7:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. and between 2:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

A person on a bicycle reads a map
Overall, the game participants engaged in more physical activity than usual.
Author provided

The data we collected showed that between the week before and the week after Beat the Street, 1,199 fewer cars (a 53% reduction) and 130 fewer vans (also a 53% reduction) traveled on Cambridge Road between 7:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. , and 705 fewer cars (a 34% reduction) and 36 fewer vans (a 20% reduction) were on the road between 2:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

These results suggest that turning an entire area of ​​a city or town into an interactive game could be a promising approach to get people moving on foot, by bicycle or in wheelchairs.

Implications

It was a great way to motivate people to walk and also to build a team. Every day it gave you the enthusiasm to stand up and walk to raise money for charity.

(Participant, aged 70 to 79)

One of the main problems encountered when trying to steer people away from car use and towards sustainable transportation options is the fact that cars indicate high social status, which makes many reluctant to s ‘get rid of it.

Another issue is the ingrained nature of using the car for short trips, where many people instinctively choose to drive for convenience or just habit. This means that many of the suggested ways to reduce car use, such as increasing fuel taxes or congestion, are generally not supported by policymakers, who may fear negative reactions by interfering with the mode. favorite life of many people.

I would choose to scooter or walk instead of a car ride and take longer trips to get home so I could add points.

(Participant, aged 30 to 39)

In light of this, gamification can be used to create an environment in which behaviors such as walking, cycling, or going to school or work are viewed more positively than car use. . The mass appeal of community-level competitions like these, which reward active travel with points, badges and a higher position in a leaderboard, may be more effective in changing the social norms of the communities in which they take place. unfold.

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