As bus riders all over King County face looming Metro Transit cuts, the picture of mass transit around the Seattle core and especially Capitol Hill continues to evolve. Two kinds of rail are currently under construction in the neighborhood with one, the First Hill Streetcar, set to begin operation as early as this spring. The question for these new modes of transportation is, now that we’re building it, how many people will actually use it? The Capitol Hill Times sat down with game design consultant and DigiPen Institute faculty James Portnow to talk about how Seattle could use gaming principles to encourage and enrich mass transit use.
“There are a lot of ways we can both make the experience of taking mass transit more engaging, and encourage more people to take mass transit,” Portnow said, focusing first on the existing bus system. “There are two dimensions to it: getting people on the bus and getting people to, frankly, not hate the bus-riding experience.”
Portnow’s area of expertise is in “gamification,” the study of how to apply principles of game design to elements of everyday life to incentivize behavior. He has worked with major game developers like Activision, though today his work turns more toward the mobile game market for devices like smartphones and tablets. He sees a lot of potential in the use of mobile devices to make a game of riding buses, streetcars, and light rail, but expresses some concern about how this might marginalize lower-income communities that might not have equal access to mobile technology, though that issue may be becoming less relevant.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of all Americans now have smartphones, and 44 percent have tablets. These numbers are expected to rise as fewer cell phones on the market each year are non-smartphones. There is no statistically significant difference in the prevalence of smartphone usage across racial demographics, though highest-attained level of education and income remain meaningful. Pew found that only 27 percent of people who have no high school diploma use smartphones, but that number nearly doubles for those with diplomas, and increases further for college grads. The most significant differences, though, involve age. The younger an adult is today, the more likely he or she is to have a smartphone. This is especially the case in urban areas.
Making transit-based mobile games could take many forms, according to Portnow. On the most basic level, he thinks it would be easy to implement Quick Response (QR) codes in transit.
“We could, for example, put an alternate reality game in your bus system with QR codes on the backs of seats that you can scan and that give you access to this fantastical other world to do and get different things depending on what route you’re on.”
Portnow sees more widespread potential in something the transit system already has: ORCA cards. Low-income riders will already have to use the card to receive discount rates in an upcoming Metro program. He doesn’t think the radio card program is being used to its full potential, though.
“Even with the ORCA card, we don’t even have the most basic incentives. We don’t have the equivalent of Frequent Flier Miles. This is the most basic level of gamification. Like, once you ride 1,000 miles on Seattle Metro, you level up and get 10 percent off on future rides. That’s a start.”
Looking beyond simple incentives, Portnow wants to tap into the environmental consciousness of Seattleites by showing them the impact of personally abandoning cars.
“I would love to have a little LED on the front of your ORCA card that, when you swipe it, it lets you know the amount of carbon your trip has saved. That’s easy to then post to your Facebook to display how much carbon you’re saving. We have the ORCA card that could give us metrics and we could do a lot of work with that.”
Whether organizations like Metro and Sound Transit (which is in charge of the light rail) try to innovate or decide to let new and existing mass transit options speak for themselves, Capitol Hill is serving as a sort of test market for an integrated transit system. Until the city connects the First Hill Streetcar to the South Lake Union Streetcar, Capitol Hill will be the only neighborhood in Seattle to have parallel use of all forms of transit in the city. Cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians will move along the same paths as the First Hill Streetcar and the light rail at Broadway Station. There’s certainly room for experimentation here, and what we do with transit in our own neighborhood will influence what transit looks like in the rest of Seattle.