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User-centered technology to empower children to walk/bike to school and take decisive action to live healthier and sustainable lifestyles

Adaptive Artificial Intelligence as the foundation for personalized interventions to make active travel an attractive alternative to the car

Photo of Jose Mantilla
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“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Benjamin Franklin).

Why are we doing this?

Travel behavior change interventions have had no demonstrable significant and sustained reductions in car use (and associated increase in active travel and physical activity). This is primarily due to their intrinsic inability to provide truly personalized and realistic recommendations for change.

To date, most individual-level behavior change interventions to promote active travel and physical activity have yielded mostly disappointing results for a number of reasons: (1) require people to set aside time for exercise even though lack of time is consistently identified as a barrier to physical activity across all sociodemographic groups and it is well-known that people are much more likely to be physically active if ‘exercise’ is part of the normal routine, as it requires a lower commitment threshold); (2) largely based on generic and limited information (e.g., walk 10,000 steps per day) and thus unable to provide personalized and actionable recommendations for change; (3) ignore health conditions (e.g., diabetes), physical limitations (e.g., knee osteoarthritis), general capabilities (e.g., walking speed and endurance) and individual preferences; (4) ignore daily routine and everyday travel patterns; and (5) based on unreliable systems (e.g., wearable devices [such as Fitbit] and smartphone applications) that have been developed/calibrated for healthy populations (i.e., existing devices capture only around 50-60% of steps for obese individuals and around 65-75% of steps for older people).

After decades of efforts, collective scientific knowledge amounts to promoting broad common-sense lifestyle objectives lacking true insights into the practical means to deliver change. Promoting active travel and physical activity remain as key challenges facing transportation and health researchers and practitioners.

Why children?

One of the primary reasons why we decided to develop a solution to promote walking and cycling to school is the unfortunate fact that motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of injury deaths for children between five and 14 years of age, and one of the top three causes of death overall for this age group in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2016). These statistics are even more overwhelming when considering that journeys to school for children represent only around 5-10% of all weekday trips in most cities (and that they are the primary quotidian trip for children on weekdays). What this means is that even though their level of exposure is significantly lower than that for adults, motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for them – this is in no small measure associated with the fact that over 70% of all school trips are by car. As such, given our team’s focus on sustainable travel, we have a professional and moral obligation to contribute to reducing the impact of motor vehicle travel on mortality (and injury) rates for our children – the future of our society. Within this context, trips to/from school are the ‘obvious’ target as they are the daily routine for children and since we (as parents) are taking them to the one place (other than home) where we are entrusting their care and formation as individuals and active participants of society. Furthermore, a large proportion of families live within walking distances of schools, which means we should (if at all possible) reduce their exposure (at least) for those trips where there is ‘no excuse’ to ‘put them in harm’s way’.

The second reason why we decided to focus on promoting walking and cycling to school for primary/middle school children is the equally unfortunate fact that nearly one in five school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017). Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Even though the mechanism of obesity development is not fully understood, scientific evidence shows that physical inactivity is a primary factor in the rising rates of obesity in the United States and around the world. Childhood obesity can profoundly affect children's physical health, social and emotional well-being, and self-esteem. It is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child. Many co-morbid conditions like metabolic, cardiovascular, orthopedic, neurological, hepatic, pulmonary, and renal disorders are also seen in association with childhood obesity.

Additional reasons for why we decided to develop a solution to promote walking and cycling to school for primary/middle school children are: 1) the well-documented contribution to congestion associated with child pick-up and drop-off; 2) the potential to reduce vehicle-miles-traveled and associated air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions by shifting trips from motor vehicles to active modes (e.g., walking and cycling); and 3) the role that walking and cycling (to school and other places) plays in strengthening community connections, promoting a sense of belonging and independence, and enhancing public safety.

Our Solution

Our team will deploy a user-centered smartphone-based travel behavior change intervention program that will empower children to walk or bike to school and take decisive action to live healthier and more sustainable lifestyles. The primary focus of our system is to transfer trips from motor vehicles to walking and cycling for journey-to-school trips. The platform includes two primary components: (1) activity detection system; and (2) travel behavior change service. The integration of these two components will enable our team to provide children (and their families) with fully personalized recommendations for change that are commensurate with their individual capabilities and embedded into their daily routines. The importance of providing realistic recommendations (in contrast to the vague and generic nature of information provided by all exiting travel planning tools and fitness devices) is that it will truly empower people to shift trips (or portions of them) from motor vehicles to sustainable modes.

Our team has already developed, in collaboration with a leading European data science company, an adaptive AI world-class activity detection system that uses information collected from smartphone sensors (e.g., accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope and GPS) to determine when/where/how/why people travel. More specifically, our system determines (to a high level of precision): (a) origins and destinations of all trips (e.g., home and school, home and work, or work and shopping); (b) routes traveled; (c) real door-to-door travel time for all trips; and (d) travel mode(s) used (i.e., whether people walked, rode a bicycle, traveled on bus, tram or train, or drove, or used a combination of two or more modes). This fine-grain and person-level information enables the identification of true/revealed travel patterns for each individual – taking the guesswork out of travel behavior change efforts. Only by knowing (to a high level of precision) what people do today, we can understand (and begin to influence) what people may be able and willing to do tomorrow.

Our team has also developed a user-centered behavior change platform that includes gamification and peer influence elements, as well as a ‘virtual bank of positive travel behavior change transactions’ to provide support to financially disadvantaged families. More specifically, each time a child (and his/her family) switches from driving to walking/cycling to school, a credit is added to the virtual bank. Credits are accrued over time and used to provide access to transport services to help financially disadvantaged families drop-off/pick-up their child. We will do this by offering free carpooling, sponsored by our team and the Challenge funds, to financially disadvantaged families as a ‘reward’ for participants using the platform and changing their travel behavior. This feature will encourage behavior change among some participants (motivated by altruistic goals).

We will undertake a free-living conditions pilot study with 25-30 participants (i.e., families) to evaluate the system’s capability to influence a switch from motor vehicle to walking/cycling for journey-to-school trips. Upon recruitment of the study participants, we will provide each family with a smartphone with the app installed. Our system will use the algorithms in the activity detection system and the signal from smartphone sensors (e.g., GPS and accelerometer) to: (1) detect the participant’s travel mode; and (2) display in real-time the real location of the participant and of a ‘virtual person’ travelling on a realistic alternative travel mode (e.g., if the participant is travelling by motor vehicle from home to school, the ‘virtual person’ is travelling on foot or by bike). The two locations will be displayed on a screen with two parallel lines showing the start and end of each journey (e.g., home and school), as well as any important landmarks. At the end of the trip, the app will display ‘race statistics’, including total door-to-door travel time, time waiting (e.g., congestion and searching for parking), time in motion, steps walked, minutes of physical activity, calorie expenditure, emissions and energy consumption estimates, and cost (e.g., estimate of gasoline consumption or cost of public transport ticket).

The participants will be given prompts prior to leaving their home, reminding them of the outcomes of their travel choices (in terms of time and other parameters). Participants will be ‘tracked’ using smartphone sensors and the activity detection system to determine the mode of travel used. The app will include gamification and peer influence elements, enabling participants to anonymously connect to the ‘community of participants’ and compete with themselves and each other (e.g., gain points for achieving personal goals or ‘out-competing’ other participants). In addition, our system will include the ‘virtual bank of positive transactions’ to encourage positive change motivated by altruistic goals.

The behavior change program will include the following stages: 1) data collection to establish current travel patterns, including mode of travel (e.g., car or walk), route, parking location (at destination), average walking/cycling speed and true door-to-door time (i.e., home to school entrance) when travelling by motor vehicle/public transport and when walking/cycling. 2) test the potential to influence behavior change simply by providing information about outcomes achieved by switching to walking or cycling. 3) test the potential to influence behavior change through a combination of information and peer influence/gamification. 4) test the potential to influence behavior change by including altruistic incentives via the ‘virtual bank of positive transactions’. Throughout stages 2-4, walking/cycling to school ‘guides’ will be used to pick up children and accompany them on their journey to/from school. A similar vetting process to that currently used by Zing Rides for drivers of its carpooling service will be instituted, whereby ‘guides’ will be members of the local community who are interviewed face-to-face and who will go through an extensive background check and finger printing prior to appointment.

Why our solution will work?

Our initiative is directly focused on reducing motor vehicle use for journeys to/from schools. In Pennsylvania, around 75-80% of all trips to/from school are by car. As such, the potential for positive behavior change is – at least in principle – substantial. Importantly, since parents who drive their children to/from school may be linking trips, changing behavior for the trips to/from school has the potential to reduce car use for other trips. For example, a parent who today is driving a child to school and then continuing by car to work, would be reducing up to four car trips per day (two in the morning and two in the afternoon) if he/she elected to switch modes (by adopting the recommendations provided by our platform). Overall, our platform has the potential to significantly promote walking/cycling for school trips, while providing a proven framework and model for other schools in Pennsylvania to follow.

Our team recently undertook three validation trials to determine the potential of personalized information to influence travel choices. In short, our validation trials were a resounding success. We now need to transfer this knowledge to key target beneficiaries and scale the delivery of our innovative system.

The three pilot studies included over 120 participants in Melbourne (Australia) – two studies focused on shifting trips from motor vehicles to public transport for commuting trips, and the other on shifting trips from public transport to walking for the last segment of commuting trips. Participants were provided with a smartphone-based platform that displayed in real-time their location (on their routine mode of travel) and the location of a person undertaking the same trip on an alternative mode. The platform presented race statistics at the end of each journey, providing comparisons in terms of total door-to-door travel time (including the traditionally forgotten parking element), minutes ‘stuck in traffic’, minute of physical activity, calorie expenditure, emissions and cost. Participants were given prompts before initiating their journey ‘reminding’ them of the outcome of their travel decision. We tracked participants over a period of four weeks and achieved unprecedented levels of behavior change – 45%, 54% and 68% in the respective pilots. By comparison, multi-million-dollar and multi-year travel behavior change programs are considered successful when they achieve levels of change approaching 2-3%. Importantly, the change we achieved was revealed through the technology and not simply stated by users (as is the case for most trials to date).

Our team also undertook tests for short-, medium- and long-distance trips in inner Melbourne and middle suburban areas to determine the true door-to-door time of trips by motor vehicle (including the parking and walking components), on public transport (including the walking segments at the beginning and end of the journey), by bike and on foot. The study revealed that there are a large proportion of trips (of a wide range of distances) for which public transport is highly time competitive with the car. In addition, there are a large proportion of trips (up to around 3 miles in length) for which walking and cycling are highly competitive with all motorized modes. The travel time estimated using existing tools overestimated the walking, cycling and public transport journey times (including the walking components) and underestimated the time when traveling by car (and completely ignored the parking and walking components at the end of the trip). This study demonstrates the need for providing real door-to-door time information (such as the one generated automatically by our system) to enable people to make informed decisions about their travel choices. This information alone has the potential to immediately make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive and appealing than they appear to be using current tools.  

How does our solution address the opportunity area?

Our system, focused on promoting travel behavior change, is deliberately designed to make walking and cycling an attractive and viable option for journeys to/from school for families in Miami. Our work to date around the world has revealed that (given congestion, parking and operational issues associated with public transport), walking and cycling are better (quicker) than all other travel modes for most trips in urban areas of up to 1-1.5 miles in length. Importantly, walking and cycling trips commence ‘immediately’ and take people precisely to the ultimate destination (unlike driving and public transport). The primary outcome will be a system that provides real-time travel recommendations for children to walk/bike more, while enabling them to (in all probability) arrive at their destinations even earlier (or at worst within a few minutes later than their current travel mode of choice).

Our system will promote an increase in physical activity for those children who change their behavior from driving to walking/cycling. This change will provide a tangible health benefit to children and their parents today, while also promoting the establishment of healthy habits in children, which not only have been documented to extend to other facets of life (e.g., eating and sports), but also to be important protective factors for cardiovascular disease, dementia and other diseases later in life. Importantly, physical activity increases children’s cognitive control (or ability to pay attention), which in turn results in better academic performance. Our system will deliver health benefits to children and their families, while reducing congestion and emissions associated with motor vehicle travel.

Pilot Program

We propose to work closely with the City of Pittsburgh and the City of Tomorrow team to develop an appropriate pilot program as follows:

  • Recruitment of program participants from a school to be selected with the City of Pittsburgh
  • Funds to be allocated towards travel behavior change platform licensing costs (at a discounted rate), participant recruitment, outreach and credits for the virtual bank of positive transactions (to benefit disadvantaged families – potential beneficiaries to be selected with the City of Pittsburgh)
  • Pilot period of three to six months

We have a strategic alliance with a Pennsylvania-based transportation engineering firm that will support the program as appropriate.

The platform licensing for the City of Pittsburgh includes the following:

  • A world-class travel behavior change intervention program
  • An adaptive Artificial Intelligence activity detection system
  • A peer influence, gamification and altruistic platform
  • Cloud-based architecture and easy integration with third-party travel planning tools, school apps and health insurance incentive program apps

Describe who will use your solution (1,000 characters)

The target beneficiaries of this initiative are primary school children and their families. For this particular Challenge, we will work with the City of Pittsburgh to select a school. The inclusion criteria for families will be: (1) home within 1.25 miles of the school; (2) parents/children who self-report as healthy enough to walk 15-20 minutes; (3) families who generally travel by car or public transport to/from school (self-reported and validated with our activity detection system); and (4) families who self-report as not carrying heavy loads (e.g., items limited to a bag or backpack). Family ‘recruitment’ will be undertaken in close collaboration with the school. Recruitment/liaison with the school will be led by Candice Saffer (Zing Rides), leveraging her track record with school communities. Importantly, the framework/system to be piloted as part of this Challenge will be widely applicable and replicable in schools across Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the US and internationally.

Describe your solution's stage of development

  • Prototype - you have built a prototype and tested it with potential users

Tell us about your team or organization (500 characters)

Our team includes movendo (an Australian consultancy) and Zing Rides (a US business providing ride-sharing solutions for children). movendo’s director, Jose Mantilla (M.Sc. Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT), has over 20 years of international experience in government/consulting. Zing Rides will provide expertise on the user experience for families. The Challenge will bring together organizations from distant places with a common goal – a partnership that would not be possible otherwise.

Size of your team or organization

  • 2-10

Funding Request

  • $100,000

Describe how you would pilot your idea (1000 characters)

Challenge funds will be used to help cover the costs of running the proposed pilot, including platform licensing costs (at a discounted rate), participant recruitment, outreach and the ‘virtual bank of positive travel behavior change transactions’ to benefit disadvantaged families. Importantly, the technology components are fully developed and ready to be deployed (after minor necessary adjustments to meet local conditions) – no Challenge funds will be used for technology development. A successful pilot will result in significant commercialization opportunities. The primary channels will be: 1) post-pilot licensing and/or intervention programs for the City of Pittsburgh; 2) licensing and/or intervention programs for schools in Pennsylvania, the US and internationally; 3) licensing for health insurance/wellness organizations to guide the provision of physical activity incentives; and 4) walking/cycling guided trips sold to parents (following Zing Rides’ proven model for carpooling).

Describe how you would measure the success of your pilot (1000 characters)

Vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) and distance/steps/time walked/biked will be the primary success metrics. Our activity detection system automatically measures both, enabling us to readily determine the success of our pilot. VMT changes will be combined with data about the vehicles used by each family to estimate reductions in emissions and fuel consumption. VMT changes will also be used to estimate personalized reductions in road crash exposure. Increases in walking/cycling will be used to estimate personalized physical activity statistics (i.e., calorie expenditure and reductions in cardiovascular risks – using CDC data). The individual benefits will be aggregated to determine the pilot’s impact. Estimates of potential city-wide impacts will be calculated. In collaboration with the school, surveys will be undertaken during/after the study to determine factors that motivate and/or inhibit travel behavior change. This is critical to expand the reach and replicability of the initiative.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Diana Avart

Hi Jose,

Thanks so much for submitting this idea! You did a great job of backing up your project with helpful research and context.

- Diana, Facilitator

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