Recyclebank's iPhone app aims to ease London traffic congestion

In an era of rising congestion and shrinking budgets, big cities face a major challenge making the most out of aging transportation networks. Some, such as London and Singapore, have opted to use a stick: congestion fees to nudge commuters out of their cars, onto subways, buses, bikes or even their feet. Yet congestion fees can be politically unpopular. Similar efforts in New York City have failed.

But what if city planners could use a carrot, instead, to induce different commuting behaviors? That’s the vision behind re:route, a new program being rolled out by Transport for London (TfL) and developed by New York-based Recyclebank, a pioneer in the field of using incentives to spur greener behaviors.

Announced this week, re:route is an iPhone-based app that encourages Londoners to walk and cycle more by awarding points for each trip they re-route away from conventional alternatives. The credits can be redeemed for valuable rewards, from food perks to products, at participating retailers. Recyclebank iPhone app

For London, the goal is to reward switches that improve public health, reduce pollution and ease congestion. “By virtue of human nature, people tend to respond more immediately to a positive signal than they do to a negative one based on penalties,” said Ian Yolles, chief sustainability officer at Recyclebank, in a phone interview last week.

Part of a broader effort by TfL known as Get Ahead of the Games, the launch of re:route is timed in advance of the summer Olympics. (Read more about the greening of the Games here.) With 350,000 visitors inbound, TfL hopes to lure Londoners out of the city’s overtaxed subways and taxis and onto bicycles and footpaths. Last week, the city’s taxi organization announced that 40 percent of drivers would quit the streets during the Olympics in anticipation of potentially paralyzing gridlock. Many city streets will be closed for official use only.

TfL’s goals with re:route reach past the Olympics though. As part of a multidecadal, city-wide effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health, TfL has set out a long-term goal of boosting cycling by 400 percent by 2025, compared with 2000. TfL also wants to boost the share of trips done on foot above its 24 percent share.

For Recyclebank, re:route is a first step into the urban transportation market, a bid to help cities devise new solutions to help ease the large and growing problem of congestion, spur the use of public transport and enhance public health.

By marrying available technology -- mobile phones, apps, GPS, transport schedules and online maps -- "we can create greater efficiencies in cities, catalyze citizen engagement and drive behavior change for public benefit," Yolles said. "We’re launching this in London, but it would be easy to reskin the front end to use in New York, Chicago, Washington or San Francisco."