SMART Preview Ride Web
Passengers boarded a SMART train at the Rohnert Park Station this summer as part of free preview rides offered by the rail agency in hopes of encouraging more people to use the system. Photo courtesy of SMART.

When it comes to commuting, what would prompt you to change your routine?

To nudge commuters toward new options, a few public transit providers are experimenting with pricing strategies like cash rewards and free rides. Such incentives allow agencies to manage transportation demand while addressing bemoaned issues like crowding on trains or roadway congestion.

“Incentives do work — some better than others,” said Dr. Elliot Martin, assistant research engineer at UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. The key for transit operators is that incentives should encourage behavioral shifts among riders without the need for “overt” infrastructure changes, he said.

They also can complement larger policy goals for safety, reliability, and convenience, as well as minimizing environmental impacts.

While commuting is a habitual pattern that most people re-evaluate when experiencing a job change, incentives “can be structured to do a variety of things,” Martin said. “It really depends on what the operator is interested in.”

Having counseled a variety of operators, Selena Barlow reported that “most of the incentives my clients do tend to be short-term, like an incentive around Earth Day, or free rides for a day or week.” As owner and manager of Transit Marketing, LLC, she provides marketing and planning support for small to medium-sized rail and bus systems. Barlow has advised clients such as the Redding Area Bus Authority, helping the agency form a transit pass partnership with Shasta College that enables students to ride buses to class for free.

In the Bay Area, a rush-hour “Perks” program from BART and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is a recent example of using cash rewards. The six-month trial program sought to shift riders onto trains departing before or after the 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. rush hour.

Touted as “the first of its kind” in North America, Perks is modeled after a similar rewards program in Singapore introduced in 2012 by the Land Transport Authority to ease peak-hour rail ridership. Perks participants signed up at with an e-mail address and Clipper card number. They earned one point for every mile traveled via BART, and up to six times the points when starting a trip in the 60 minutes before and after rush hour.

Points earned via Perks could be bartered for cash rewards or applied to a PayPal account, amounting to nearly $3 a month on average. Or, riders could apply points and play “Spin to Win” on the Perks’ site game boards to pick up more points or snare cash prizes of $1 to $100. In general, riders that trekked via BART more often earned a higher game status and subsequent rewards. They could share results on social media.

Results of the trial, which concluded February 28, are mixed: the program experienced greater-than-expected participant sign-ups, but only a small number commuted outside of BART’s busiest 60 minutes.

As a result, BART is learning important lessons about the nature of incentivizing and connecting with transit riders. BART riders enjoyed Perks’ so-called gamification aspects, but the program needs to better target people for whom commute changes make long-term sense, said BART spokesperson Alicia Trost.

“We were surprised that a huge portion of those that signed up or were playing were never traveling in the peak,” Trost said. “They liked the idea of gamification of the commute and getting a small incentive for riding.”

Meanwhile, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is using incentives to build a base of riders for its newly launched train service. SMART, an alternative to commuters who depend on Highway 101 to move between Marin and Sonoma counties, began offering free preview rides during a soft launch in late June. Once the system is officially open, it will extend free introductory rides “for a limited period, then move into a half-price fare period until after Labor Day,” said SMART spokesperson Jeanne Mariani-Belding in an e-mail.

“This will give the community the opportunity to try our new service and experience what SMART has to offer,” Mariani-Belding said.

Yet free rides and cash rewards are only as good as riders’ desire to commit to incentive programs.

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to give you some financial reward to travel outside of peak hours’,” said Dr. Michael Visser, chair of the economics department at Sonoma State University. “You have to make sure that it works for people.”

For example, a well-designed “game” in which it’s easy to sign up and includes both virtual and physical rewards is a good first step toward making an incentives program successful for riders and transit operators, said Craig Nelson, a consultant at Steer Davies Gleave in Los Angeles, where he specializes in digital information solutions for transportation and gamification sites.

Nudging transit riders toward new options works best when “using online gamification or commuter challenge websites, supported by good old human contact and encouragement,” Nelson said. “If you just have a fancy website, without the engagement and outreach, you’ll get low participation rates.”

BART enlisted 15 employer partners to help support flexible work schedules and promote Perks to their employees. However, certain factors like BART’s decision to allow any rider to join Perks actually diluted the intended impact of the program.

Diny Huang was one of the 18,000 riders who signed up, although she didn’t alter her schedule because it “conveniently worked” with Perks.

“I was on a later schedule … and rolled into the office around 9:30 a.m., sometimes even 10 a.m.,” she said.

In the end, the Perks program incentivized 250 participants to travel away from the peak rush hour. About 2,600 participants traveled in the peak before the program began, meaning 10 percent of riders targeted by Perks actually shifted.

Since BART communicated these preliminary results in March, several transit agencies have asked to see the full evaluation summary when it’s released this fall, Trost said. That summary will help inform the approach to a second Perks testing phase next year, for which BART received a $500,000 Federal Transit Administration grant to conduct.

While incentive programs aren’t necessarily common practice among transit providers, “more are getting interested” and doing things like running regular commuter challenges for reducing car trips, Nelson said.

Commuter challenges are increasingly employed to encourage residents to find alternatives to driving alone, incentivized by prize-driven competitions. They also dovetail with other important goals — such as reducing congestion and improving air quality — shared by initiatives like the Bay Area Commuter Benefits Program. Overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, it requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer benefits such as public transit subsidies, free transit service, or the ability to deduct transit fares from pre-tax income., San Mateo County’s transportation demand management agency, ran a commuter challenge this spring. Between April 1 and May 31, 1,480 participants logged more than 53,000 “alternative” trips via bike, walking, shuttles, and public transit on the website, contributing to the elimination of 275 tons of carbon dioxide. The organization handed out $6,200 worth of prizes and giveaways.

“The participants in the commuter challenges we help to deliver really respond well to messages that focus on saving money, working as a team to solve congestion problems, and contribute to the happiness of commuters,” Nelson said.

When it comes down to it, riders just want a good reason to switch their commute habits. Otherwise, they are likely to stick with what they know.

“We work a lot with the face-to-face element of this, often knocking on doors and using ‘motivational interviewing’ to help commuters understand how giving up their car once or twice a week could improve their quality of life,” Nelson said.

For BART riders, quality of the ride is important, too. While congestion is frustrating, “the bigger issue is delays,” Huang said. “That’s driving people crazy.”

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.