A year-old Stanford University program to reduce rush-hour traffic in the area by rewarding its off-peak drivers with cash prizes is working well, so the university is expanding the study to compensate faculty and staff who walk or bike to work.Employees can even earn credits in the program by holding meetings while strolling the campus.

Photo: Linda Cicero / Stanford
Graduate students Chenguang Zhu, Tom Yue and Chinmoy Mandayam worked on the Capri app for handheld devices.

That last component, called "Walk 'N Talk," is a wellness effort unrelated to traffic congestion, but expansion of the original project to bikers and pedestrians enabled the crediting of walking meetings.

"Capri" (Congestion and Parking Relief Incentives) verifies drivers arriving during off-peak hours by using scanners installed at campus entry points. To credit participants who bike or walk at least a mile to campus on weekdays, the research team of investigator Balaji Prabhakar developed a smart phone application that relies on GPS. The system verifies only the distance traveled and that the trip starts or ends on campus, based on the user hitting a start/stop button.

"I'm a big fan of what Capri has done so far in reducing traffic congestion," said Stanford Provost John Etchemendy.

"Now we can leverage the commute aspect of the program with health benefits by reinforcing the behavior of those who already bike or walk to campus and get some drivers to switch to walking or biking," said Etchemendy, who began his personal "odyssey to fitness" 10 years ago and helped launch the university's wellness program in 2007.

"The road to fitness is different for everybody, but for me the key was finding a person to help motivate me to do it," said Etchemendy. "Whether that's a trainer at the gym or a colleague to meet with productively while also getting exercise, it helps to have someone else who expects you to show up."

Early results

Preliminary data from the original Capri program to reward drivers for avoiding the peak hours of 8 to 9 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. have been very encouraging.

Santa Clara County measures vehicle arrivals and departures twice annually to see if the university is exceeding the maximum number of peak commute trips allowed under a permit issued by the county. The numbers had been rising at a disconcerting rate, but in Capri's first year the tide was stemmed and the university was one trip below the limit.

"The program most certainly helped the university stay below the trip limit," said Brodie Hamilton, director of Stanford's Parking & Transportation Services, which is helping to administer the project. "Data show Capri participants are to a large extent avoiding the peak travel times."

Prabhakar, lead investigator and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, hopes to double Capri's current participation to about 5,000 people.

Faculty and staff seeking credit for biking or walking to work can get 10 credits for the first mile of walking or biking and three credits for every additional mile up to a maximum of 25 credits every morning and evening on normal workdays. Drivers who arrive or depart off peak earn 10 credits.

Prabhakar is particularly fascinated in adding the "Walk 'N Talk" meeting rewards. He was impressed by business consultant Nilofer Merchant's talk at a recent TED conference in which she said "sitting has become the smoking of our generation."

"She talked about how this is an avoidable ill with very serious consequences," Prabhakar said. "Frequent, moderate exercise has important health benefits, and your brain performs better when you are moving and getting fresh air."

"Walking meetings don't require you to go to the gym, change clothes and take a break from work, so you don't have to choose between wellness and your obligations," he added. "With the social aspect, maybe this could go a little viral on campus."

The raffle effect

The crux of Prabhakar's study is motivating people more effectively by offering a chance at a larger reward instead of a sure-fire small one.

Users spend credits in an online game of chance that pays cash prizes of $2 to $50, though participants can simply cash in their credits for a modest amount of cash. Along with the optimized monetary incentives, the idea is to make social responsibility fun and interactive.

In the United States, traffic jams waste billions of gallons of gasoline annually, resulting in millions of tons of greenhouse gases. To fight that, Capri participants receive extra credits by getting friends to join. Users are notified when friends win prizes. Also, the frequency of targeted commutes determines a user's status – from "bronze" to "platinum" – and that boosts the size of potential rewards.

Prabhakar has used these concepts in several earlier studies. The first, a Bangalore, India study sponsored by Stanford's Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, doubled the number of one company's commuters arriving before 8 a.m. In an earlier wellness study at consulting firm Accenture, the amount of exercise was strongly correlated with the number of friends a participant had in the program. A pilot study in Singapore launched in early 2012 to get public transit users to shift to off-peak hours is working so well that the government has expanded it island-wide.

"Next we are looking to partner with a utility to apply these concepts to induce conservation of energy and water," Prabhakar said.

The Capri project is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Stanford.

The parking aspect of the study, which will give credits to drivers parking at less used lots, will be launched later this year. New participants must enroll at the Capri website. Walking and biking credits require downloading the "My Beats" app by Urban Engines to an Apple iPhone or Android phone.

Recreational walks and bike rides around campus are not credited, though they are encouraged. Commutes must have only one end of the trip on campus. The study examines transit and "Walk 'N Talk" data only in the aggregate, and individual information is not being shared with anyone.


By Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy

This article was originally published May 14, 2013 in the Stanford Report.