Saturday, 10 March 2012

Rebuilding social capital by gamifying ridesharing

Rebuilding social capital by gamifying ridesharing
Word count: 2100
China's roads are about to get much busier. Many city dwellers in China now own washing machines, televisions and refrigerators, but few own cars [1]. That will soon change according to projections from the IMF. In the last ten years, vehicle ownership rates have increased by 2000% in China [2] and show no signs of slowing. Per capita income in China has exceeded a critical threshold of $4500 per annum which marks the 'tipping point' of car ownership [1]. As other countries reach this income threshold, they will be likely to experience this same explosion in car ownership. By 2050, there may be close to three billion cars on the roads globally [1] compared to one billion in 2011 [3]. Two billion of these cars will be owned by people in developing countries [1]. 
This dramatic increase in car ownership presents many challenges to policy makers. In this essay, I argue that the impacts on social capital are an unrecognised risk that will come from greater car ownership. I also present a proposal to take advantage of this trend in private mobility by encouraging ridesharing using a behavioural change strategy based on 'gamification'. The 'Connect Up Your City' game is being trialled in Melbourne, Australia and if successful could be rolled out to other countries. 

Environmental risks
A future with three billion cars is troubling news for the environment. Already, the stereotypical image of a Chinese city features a dark, gloomy skyline with a thick layer of smog clogging the lungs of the few remaining cyclists. Indeed, respiratory illnesses are one of the leading causes of death in developing countries – 1.5 million people die every year [4]. As well as the public health impacts, soot from vehicle exhaust is now seen as one the strongest drivers of climate change, due to its effects on Arctic ice [5]. 
If it's this bad already, what will happen when another two billion cars join the roads? Pauliuk et al. have predicted that China's CO2e emissions from transport could increase by 500% by 2050 if current trends in car ownership continue [6]. Under this scenario, dangerous climate change beyond the 2oC limit proposed by the IPCC is almost inevitable [6].

However, hope is in sight. China and other countries are pumping billions of dollars into research and development for electric vehicles [7]. Jacobson et al. present evidence showing that it is technically feasible that the new fleet of vehicles could be powered by 100% renewable electricity [8]. Under this scenario, the environmental risks of three billion cars would be negligible. 

Social impact 
Much attention has been paid to the environmental risks of an increase in car ownership. However, there is little research into the social impact that three billion cars would have on the world. In Robert Putnam's seminal work, “Bowling alone”, he charts the precipitous decline in social capital in the United States and shows that a key driver for the decline was a rise in rates of solo commuting [9]. With another two billion cars worldwide, it is possible that this same pattern will repeat itself in other countries.

What is social capital?
According to Bordieu, social capital is the value of the resources available through a social network [10]. Social capital increases with the size of a social network, the strength of the ties between members and the individual resources accessed by each member. Communities with high social capital are characterised by high levels of trust and reciprocity, which in turn leads to collective action for public good.
An example of collective action reliant on social capital is ridesharing. Ridesharing involves people driving to a common destination together. Passengers give up almost all control of the situation and are potentially putting themselves at risk of a car accident or even violent crime at the hands of the driver. As such, ridesharing depends on trust and therefore on social capital. Indeed, numerous studies have found a link between higher social capital and ridesharing [11–13].

Social capital improves quality of life

In recent years, policy makers have begun to question the value of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress. Stiglitz et al. argue that quality of life is far more meaningful than GDP [14]. Following that report, France and the UK have begun tracking quality of life using a 'National Happiness Index' and other countries are following suit [15]. Interestingly, there is now evidence that social capital has a causal relationship with quality of life [16–18].
Solo commuting reduces social capital
Given that social capital improves quality of life, anything that threatens social capital is worthy of attention from policy makers. One of those threats is solo commuting. Time use studies by Putnam's research team in the US revealed that “every ten minutes of [solo] commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections” [9]. This conclusion has been backed up by numerous other studies [19–25]. Solo commuting would reduce social capital in two ways: decreased time for social interaction and spillover commuting stress.
Time cost of commuting
Solo commuting and community participation are almost mutually exclusive [9]. Travelling alone leaves less time to mix with neighbours, volunteer or serve on the school’s parent teacher association. 
Emotional cost of commuting
Although many commuters claim to enjoy the solitude of solo commuting [26], research shows that commuting is one of the largest causes of stress in people’s lives [27–29]. The IBM Global Commuter Pain survey shows that drivers are experiencing ever more stress from traffic congestion [30]. Tempers flare as traffic stops and starts: 50% of Australians surveyed admitted to committing road rage in 2011 [31]. What’s more, this emotional pain is contagious: studies have found ‘spillover’ from commuting stress into the workplace and the home [32], [29], [33]. Compellingly, Novaco et al. found that commuting stress was lower in rideshare drivers than solo drivers [34] presumably due to the effect of social buffering [28].

What can we do about it?
The damaging effects of solo commuting on social capital are not likely to magically fix themselves. Commuter behaviour change is necessary. In this essay, I advocate one such change: a move away from ‘solo commuting’ to ‘ridesharing’. 
Using ridesharing to improve social capital
Interestingly, while one study has looked at ridesharing as a way of measuring social capital [36], no studies have examined whether ridesharing can build social capital within a community. 
As part of my PhD, I propose to develop CoCoRide (short for collaborative consumption ride) a ridesharing project focused primarily on building social capital. CoCoRide currently caters to niche sporting groups. For example, in January 2012, we partnered with a running event that was inaccessible by public transport and helped runners form rideshare relationships.

Social Benefits of Ridesharing
The CoCoRide project could extend beyond car-based ridesharing to all transport modes. The primary objective is to link up CoCoRide users to encourage conversations between strangers and thus build 'bridging' social capital (connections between people with different backgrounds). 
As well as this intangible effect, ridesharing could reduce commuter stress. Ridesharing has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety felt during traffic congestion for car drivers [34]. In a study comparing solo drivers with ridesharing drivers, solo drivers had significantly higher blood pressure readings after their commute [34]. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same phenomenon applies for public transport passengers [37]. The likely explanation for this is ‘social buffering’. A large body of psychological research shows that when someone experiences a stressful situation (e.g. experimentally induced pain [38] or bullying [39]) with a supportive stranger nearby, their physiological stress response is far lower than for someone on their own [35].

Roadblocks to ridesharing
There are some obvious barriers to ridesharing that have prevented mass participation in ridesharing schemes.
Stranger danger
One of the most immediate barriers to car-based ridesharing is trust between strangers. After the Ivan Milat backpacker murders in the 80s, hitch-hiking has all but disappeared in Australia [40]. Given the strong resemblances between hitch-hiking and ridesharing (the only difference being that ridesharing is generally pre-arranged and a match is made through a ridesharing organisation), many people have fears around ‘stranger danger’ [41]. Results from the CoCoRide pilot study show that although some people (early adopters) are willing to share a car ride regardless of this danger, ridesharing will never become a mainstream transport method while this fear persists.

To address this fear, CoCoRide users could begin with the lower risk option of ridesharing on public transport. By sharing a train, tram or bus ride together, users still have the opportunity to have a conversation while retaining far greater control over the situation. At the same time, early adopters who are sharing car rides would kick-start a reputation economy within the CoCoRide network. After each ride, users would leave feedback for their fellow ridesharers. Survey results from a CoCoRide pilot project indicate that users would feel safer if they could see positive feedback from other users. This correlates with research examining the effectiveness of reputation systems in generating trust [39].

Although not quite as acute a fear as ‘stranger danger’, many people have an aversion to talking to strangers [43]. This aversion is understandable given the social norms around avoiding social interaction on public transport. Even dating back to 1860, transport etiquette advised against conversing with strangers on the train [44]. Bucking this trend would require significant courage. 
Overcoming shyness using Gamification
As such, CoCoRide has designed a strategy to facilitate social interaction between commuters. This strategy is based on gamification. Gamification is a behavioural change methodology, which involves using principles from games to motivate behaviours [45]. The methodology is attracting attention from businesses and government: Deloitte consulting named gamification as one of the top ten technology trends for 2012 [46]. An example of an effective gamification strategy is the speed camera lottery in Sweden [47]. Rather than simply penalising motorists for exceeding the speed limit, the new speed cameras reward positive driving habits: motorists who drive under the speed limit are entered into a lottery to win the proceeds from speeding fines. The results of a three day trial showed a 22% reduction in average speed [47].

CoCoRide aims to use the same principles to facilitate conversations between strangers and thus boost social capital. The CoCoRide project invites players to play a social game: ‘Connect up your city'.

Connect Up Your City game play
Connect Up Your City (CUYC) casts players as heroes working together to create a vibrant social network in their city. It encourages players to overcome their own fears around talking to strangers and boost their conversational skills and self confidence in the process.
Players download a mobile application, which they use to find other players at train, bus or tram stations. They wear distinctive name badges to find each other. When they spot another player, they ‘check in’ using the mobile app and are given an icebreaker question to help start the conversation. During the train ride, they carry on the conversation, choosing another icebreaker question if they hit a conversational dead-spot. At the end of the conversation, players give each other anonymous feedback on four criteria: ‘listening skills’, ‘humour’, ‘voice tone’ and ‘body language’. The feedback allows players to continuously improve their conversational skills, motivating them to keep playing.

In essence, CUYC incentivises players to start conversations and keeps them interested through ongoing challenges. Given that most people find conversation intrinsically pleasurable once they are in conversational flow [48], the CoCoRide game is only necessary at the conversation initiation stage. As such, the game avoids the trap of ‘pointsification’ [49], whereby marketers package an unrewarding experience (e.g. filling out surveys) with game elements in an attempt to make an uninteresting activity ‘fun’. 
Three billion ridesharers?
In this essay, I have argued that solo commuting poses significant risks to social capital and thus to subjective well-being. If car ownership trends continue, developing countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China will soon have tens of millions of new solo drivers on their roads who will be increasingly isolated from their communities. However, this risk can be averted through ridesharing schemes like CoCoRide that encourage people to travel together and have conversations along the way. In such a manner, the risk of uncontrolled car ownership could be transformed into an opportunity to build social capital.
'Connect Up Your City', the gamified ridesharing project mentioned in this essay, is being launched in Melbourne, Australia in July 2012 and if successful, could be rolled out to other cities around the world.

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