Can Incentives Change Mobility Patterns?

Retail stores use discounts and incentives to target higher or more frequent purchasing behaviour. Can a similar concept work for reducing congestion? In “Understanding travelers’ mobility decision in response to customer incentives”, Wang et al. studied how commuters of various demographics respond to different types of incentives. Specifically, they look at whether or not commuters can be incentivized with a discount from a nearby store to delay their trip home, thus reducing rush hour traffic and supporting local businesses.

Unlike other forms of transportation demand management (TDM) that attempts to shift automobile trips to forms of sustainable mobility like transit or biking, this study looks at commuters who have chosen to drive to work while trying to reduce the impact an automobile trip has on congestion. With a sample size of 661 respondents, 76.9% of commuters took advantage of the incentive. Not surprisingly, the redemption rate varied based on the commuter’s age, education, income, and whether they had children, and the incentive redeemed reflected impulse purchasing behaviour. In addition, 45.1% accepted the incentive because they were attracted by it, with only 16.3% accepting because they wanted to avoid congestion.

This study provides an interesting perspective on how to manage peak road congestion. While the ideal situation would involve less cars on the road, perhaps the “low hanging fruit” is to offer drivers incentives to rebalance the demand on roads. This could also act as one of small incremental changes towards a greater shift towards more sustainable commutes. To strengthen this form of TDM, aggregate consumer data can be used to better tailor and optimize the incentive for different groups. This may also be an opportunity for public-private partnerships to execute a larger-scale pilot and measure the impact.

Incentives to change mobility patterns would only be one piece of the puzzle to effectively reduce congestion. But is it counterproductive to “improve” driving commutes in this way? Will there be unintended consequences of only supporting those who have the privilege of not being on a tight schedule?

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