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This app wants to reward you for smart commuting choices

A pedestrian crosses above rush-hour traffic last year in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Would you switch your solo ride to a carpool to earn points toward a $25 Amazon gift card? Or take Metro to score even more points that could be used for a gift card to one of your favorite eateries?

Lei Zhang is betting that you will, and he and his colleagues at the University of Maryland have developed an app to make commuting easier, faster and cheaper by encouraging commuters to make smart choices — and reward them when they do.

Their IncenTrip app uses real-time data to predict travel times on multiple modes of transportation, offering commuters options for getting where they want to go. Over time, IncenTrip also will use artificial intelligence to analyze users’ travel habits and identify strategies to help improve their commutes. And it does it all in a fun way, offering users points that can be redeemed for prizes.

Zhang knows that trying to influence travel choices is not a new concept. But he hopes the information and rewards offered by IncenTrip will nudge individuals to make subtle changes in their commuting behavior in ways that traditional carpool and transit incentive programs haven’t.

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“We know that we can never build our way out of congestion,” said Zhang, director of U-Md.’s National Transportation Center and the Herbert Rabin distinguished professor of civil engineering. “There is no way we can build enough highways. Transit is good but we don’t have enough money to build all we need.”

That’s why he and his team are focusing on individuals.

Zhang cautions that developers are still tweaking the free app, which was released for Android near the end of last year and for iOS this spring. It has 35,000 registered users, and while he is eager to expand that pool, right now it is only designed for use in the Washington and Baltimore regions.

“This can really be a game changer in terms of what’s out there,” said Nicholas W. Ramfos, director of transportation operations programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which has partnered with the Maryland team. “It’s one more tool in the toolbox.”

Ramfos sees potential in the app’s ability to harness the power of Big Data to make commuting fun, borrowing elements from the world of gaming — points, rewards, the ability to “level up” — to encourage participation.

The app is fairly straightforward. After registering, users enter their destination and time of departure and are then taken to a screen that offers them a menu of options, each with a different point value. Also included: the distance to the destination, the amount of gas expected to be used and an estimate for how long the trip would take.

On a recent Thursday, the app showed that a seven-mile trip from downtown Washington to downtown Bethesda by car would earn a user three points, take 26 minutes and use 0.35 gallons of gas; via Metro the trip would earn 78 points, take 36 minutes and use 0.07 gallons of gas; ride hailing 94 points, 0.175 gallons of gas and 26 minutes. (One note on the ride-hailing option: both the driver and the passenger must be registered on IncenTrip to earn points.)

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Because the goal is to decrease congestion, commuters who travel by public transportation, ride hailing, walk or bike earn more points, but the app doesn’t neglect solo drivers. They are given advice on the best routes and times to travel. IncenTrip’s “Eco Driving” mode offers drivers weekly fuel efficiency scores (and points).

For example, an “A” grade earns 200 points; a “D” only 50. It also analyzes car trips, offering information on the average speed and fuel efficiency. A “Highly Variable Speed” trip will earn this advice: “Your trip was fuel efficient compared to similar trips by other drivers due to frequent changes in speed. Try to spend more time cruising at a constant speed when possible to save fuel.” An “Excellent” trip earns this comment: “Outstanding driving behavior, very fuel efficient, keep it up!”

A key component of the app is the reward system, which Zhang said developers are still fine-tuning. Recent offerings included a $25 Amazon gift card, but Zhang said users have asked whether incentives such as E-ZPass credits or SmarTrip credits also could be offered.

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Zhang said that developers have built in protections for users concerned about privacy: data is not shared with others or used to provide advertisement. Steps are also taken to protect individual users’ identities.

“We take privacy very seriously,” Zhang said.

The Council of Governments isn’t the only agency that sees potential in IncenTrip.

The app has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), which provided nearly $4 million in funding to Zhang’s team.

Commuters may not realize it, but the transportation sector accounts for about 25 percent of total energy use in the United States.

ARPA-E focuses on providing research-and-development funding for early-stage projects and technology with the potential to change the way Americans get, use and store energy.

Patrick McGrath, deputy director for technology and a program director at ARPA-E, said officials were impressed by the work of Zhang’s team members — particularly because they have created a model that is able to predict the behavior of a significant number of people across a vast network.

“Being able to do that in any manner that’s trackable is an impressive feat,” McGrath said.

Ultimately, though, the success of IncenTrip will depend on its network of users, McGrath and others say.

Zhang is optimistic that users will see a benefit not only for themselves but for the entire region.

“Individuals get a reward for making a wise decision for themselves,” he said. “Which is also good for the system.”