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21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Smartphone Applications To Influence Travel Choices: Practices and Policies

Chapter 1. Introduction and Overview


a person holding a smart phone
Source: Thinkstock Photo

Over the years, smartphone applications (apps) have evolved from early basic applications to multi-platform, advanced features that we commonly see today. Mobile and smartphone adoption is strikingly pervasive. A Pew Research study found that as of April 2015, 64% of American adults owned a smartphone. This study also found that 19% of American adults either do not have broadband access at home or have relatively few options for getting online other than their mobile devices (Smith, 2015).

Demographic shifts, improvements in computing power and mapping technology, the use of cloud computing, changes in wireless communication, concerns about congestion, and increased awareness about the environment and climate change are changing the way people travel. Increasingly, mobility consumers are turning to smartphone "apps" for a wide array of transportation activities including: vehicle routing, real-time data on congestion, information regarding roadway incidents and construction, parking availability, and real-time transit arrival predictions. For example, according to that same Pew study, 74% of adults used their phones to get directions or other location-based services. Sixty-five percent of smartphone users indicated that they had received turn-by-turn navigation or directions while driving from their phones, and 15% did so regularly. As of April 2015, the study found that 25% of mobile phone users occasionally received real-time public transit information using their devices; 10% accessed public transit information from their devices regularly. The study also found that 11% of users occasionally and 4% frequently accessed a taxi or car service from their mobile devices. However, the study also found that 72% of smartphone owners have never used their devices to access a taxi or car service (Smith, 2015). Moreover, a travel survey conducted by Expedia with nearly 9,000 adults in 25 countries found that 35% of business travelers used their phones in booking transportation from one point to another (Schaal, 2014).

This high adoption rate should not come as a surprise. The increasing availability, capability, and affordability of intelligent transportation systems, global positioning system (GPS), wireless, and cloud technologies—coupled with the growth of data availability and data sharing—are causing people to increasingly use smartphone transportation apps to meet their mobility needs. Travel time savings (e.g., high occupancy vehicle lanes available to users of dynamic ridesharing); financial savings (e.g., dynamic pricing providing discounts for peak and off-peak travel and for choosing low-volume routes); incentives (e.g., offering points, discounts, or lotteries); and gamification (e.g., use of game design elements in a non-game context) are among the key factors driving end-user growth of smartphone transportation applications (Deterding et al., 2011, Marczewski, 2012).

The same Pew study found that mobile users have significant concerns about their data privacy. More than half of app users decided not to install or uninstalled an app because of privacy concerns about their personal information, and 20% turned off location tracking (Smith, 2015). This study suggests increasing concerns by smartphone users about privacy.

This primer is intended to demonstrate how vital smartphones are becoming to the transportation network and provide public agencies, transportation managers, and elected officials with a perspective and understanding the role of smartphones in identifying services and choices for individuals and influencing travel behavior. The development of this primer was made possible by 13 specialists and practitioners that conducted an expert review of this primer and participated in a one-day workshop on July 1, 2015, at the US Department of Transportation Headquarters. The workshop brought together "thought leaders" from across North America to discuss smartphone apps and how to help public agencies develop supportive policies and programs. The document is organized into seven chapters.

In this first chapter, Introduction and Overview, the document presents the project background and an overview for the state-of-the-practice chapters.

Next, Chapter 2, Background: Setting the Stage, presents background information on the history and trends affecting the growth and evolution of mobile phones, smartphone applications, and associated technologies.

Chapter 3, Smartphone Application Types Promoting Transportation Efficiency and Congestion Reduction, presents four types of transportation apps that are in widespread use today:

  • Mobility Apps: Apps that are mobility focused and include the following derivatives: business-to-consumer (B2C) sharing apps; mobility trackers; peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing apps; public transit apps; real-time information apps; ridesourcing or transportation network company (TNC) apps; taxi e-Hail apps; and trip aggregator apps.

  • Vehicle Connectivity Apps: Apps that help users to connect to their vehicles remotely; these apps can be very beneficial in case of lockouts or an accident.

  • Smart Parking Apps: Apps that make the parking process more efficient by highlighting the real-time availability and parking cost. Additionally, smart parking apps enable ease of payment. Valet parking apps allow the user to hire an experienced valet to park their vehicle after dropping it off at a convenient location.

  • Courier Network Services (CNS) Apps: Apps that are focused on efficiently delivering goods to individuals.

Additionally, this chapter discusses three categories of non-transportation apps that deploy strategies that may be useful for future transportation apps. These three categories of apps may encourage active modes (e.g., cycling and walking), increase environmental awareness, and impact the ways in which people drive. These three categories include:

  • Health Apps: Apps that assist users in monitoring their health (e.g., calories burned, heart rate, etc.); understanding the health impacts of their transportation choices; and encouraging health-conscious behavior, such as walking and biking. Outside of mobility, health apps are integrating health records, providing low-cost medical care, and creating motivational communities focused on health.

  • Environment/Energy Consumption Apps: Apps that track environmental impacts and energy consumption of travel behavior, for example greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with different modal choices. Outside of mobility, environment/energy apps are reducing material consumption, connecting consumers to the environment, and generating awareness of important environmental issues.

  • Insurance Apps: Apps that enable users to opt for pay-per-mile automobile insurance (e.g., Metromile) and other usage-based pricing and incentives related to distance, time-of-travel, and safe driving (e.g., Allstate’s usage-based insurance app). Outside of mobility, insurance apps are speeding the insurance claims process and reducing insurance fraud.

Next, in Chapter 4, Transportation Apps and Their Impact on Travel Behavior, highlights the social and behavioral aspects impacting the success of these applications. This includes cognitive impacts; actual and perceived control; privacy safeguards; the role of trust; the reframing of norms and defaults in transportation choices; price, actual value, and perceived value; information availability; social pressure; risk analysis; and the delivery of incentives.

Chapter 5, Current Challenges aims to summarize challenges app developers and public agencies confront in this space.

In Guiding Principles for Public Agencies and Policymakers (Chapter 6), some guidelines are outlined that can be adopted by public agencies as they investigate smartphone apps. Taking into account future trends in the design of smartphone apps and advances in transportation technology, this chapter highlights some best practices that can be implemented by policymakers and public agencies to maximize impact.

Through this structure, the document serves to inform future transportation policy and investment decisions by providing a holistic perspective on the state of smartphone app use among travelers.

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