Co.Design

Study: Transit Apps Make Us Happier Commuters

A study of two crowdsourcing apps suggests that a better digital infrastructure for commuters could improve urban transit overall.

We know that we tend to be happiest when we’re communicating with and helping those around us. But could the same principle apply to commuting in cities?

A new study carried out jointly by the city of San Jose, Ericsson, and the nonprofit New Cities Foundation suggests that it could. As Wired reported on Friday, the two-year study analyzed data culled from two crowdsourced transit apps, Waze and Roadify, which let commuters report disturbances and chat with users nearby. The study measured metrics like how much and how often drivers and transit users connected with their peers over the apps, as well as the level of emotional satisfaction they received by doing so. Ultimately, several hundred thousand instances of sharing were collected, bolstered by focus groups with participating subjects.

[One of two smartphone apps used in the study, Waze provides social GPS and real-time traffic updates.]

Drivers who used the apps reported feeling “happy,” “content,” and “excited.” They were “less stressed,” because they were “able to predict and know” (presumably all subjects were Google Maps users). Meanwhile, connected public-transit commuters were observed as “very open to sharing (and receiving) information from people they don’t know while commuting,” say the authors. “They appreciate receiving information, and this makes them more interested in ‘giving back’ information in the future.” They reported “feeling like I’m helping the world.”

“There is one key difference between connected and unconnected commuters,” note the authors. People who didn’t use the apps—the “unconnected” commuters—tended to have negative feelings about connecting to their fellow transit goers. In fact, many of them said they mistrusted crowdsourcing, saying that they could be “intentionally misleading.” Which isn’t all that surprising: People who don’t use crowdsourced apps don’t use them.

The study suggests that the U.S. Department of Transportation could improve the experience and efficiency of commuting simply by increasing the amount of information available to drivers and riders.

“The DOT estimates that half of all congestion is due to “non-recurring” events such as accidents and road work—precisely the type of events that commuters cannot predict but could incorporate into trip planning,” the authors write. It would be a fairly small investment, compared to the amount of money the DOT spends on repairing and expanding roads.

What’s fascinating about the study is that it presents itself as an opportunity for improvement on the part of cities and app developers, providing commentary on fairly fine-grained design issues for Waze and Roadify. “On a personal level, commuting has been identified as one of the most unpleasant urban experiences and is often associated with very high levels of stress,” they conclude. “The pervasive use of smartphones presents a unique opportunity to organize improvement programs."

Back in September, Stamen published a troubling visualization showing how Silicon Valley tech companies have built their own private bus systems throughout the Bay Area, allowing thousands of residents to bypass the public transit system. But if this new study is to be believed, both private companies and public entities could benefit from working towards an improved transit infrastructure.

Check out the full, very readable study here (PDF).

[Image: Commuters via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • Mark Rose

    Great writeup Kelsey.  We're building a startup called Ridezu at http://www.ridezu.com which is addressing this problem by creating a carpool network.  What's interesting about this is that people think that the primary driver for carpooling is economics (save $) or environment (reduce c02), but most people don't carpool because the perception is that is a hassle.  The reality is that when people start carpooling they find that happiness goes up.  It's an unexpected dividend.

    Cheers, Mark