Gamification of Transit: A Solution to Increase Ridership Post-Pandemic?

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: March 28, 2024

The Pandemic hit mass transit hard. From fears of getting sick on public transportation to the rise of remote work, most metro areas are still not back up to the ridership they had in the Before Times. Some transit agencies are experimenting with gamification to lure riders back.

In most of America, public transit ridership continues to remain below pre-Pandemic levels. As of September 2023, of 100 metro areas with 500,000 or more people, only nine were back to their September 2019 levels. Remote work remains high particularly in areas with some of the highest pre-pandemic public transit ridership. These workers are more likely to have college degrees or higher levels of education, take trains than buses, and tend to have higher incomes. One way to get people back onto public transit may be to gamify the experience.

Gamification is a form of nudge theory, the concept that minor changes in the way information is presented can lead to significant shifts in user behavior and decision-making. By building an attractive choice architecture, subtle nudges can help guide consumers towards making different decisions.

Research shows that loyalty points programs engage the pleasure centers in our brain by providing positive reinforcement, recognition, and inspiring commitment. From Starbucks Rewards and Amazon Prime, to frequent flyer miles and loyalty statuses, businesses and governments are clamoring for consumers’ attention. “Loyalty programs can increase customer stickiness and boost spending, with top-performing programs in this metric seeing over 50% of their members spend more with the brand,” writes consulting firm BCG.

Designing a successful loyalty program

To successfully compete for consumer engagement, there are a few tips to consider when designing a loyalty program:

  1. Make it easy. People are more likely to participate if it doesn’t take too much time and is simple to sign up.
  2. Keep it simple. Researchers at the Washington University Olin Business School found that an uncomplicated program helped patrons feel emotionally connected to the organization offering the points.
  3. Offer a variety of rewards. By offering customers tiers of points, as well as choice in how to redeem those points, it can keep them engaged, and personalize their program.

Transit Loyalty Program Examples

Transit agencies of all sizes have experimented with loyalty programs, both before and after the pandemic. Here are some current programs examples to learn from:

  • King County Metro’s Transit Go Rewards. This Seattle area transit agency launched its loyalty program in 2023 and has already had more than 30,000 active users enroll. Customers sign up by downloading the Transit Go app and earn points that can be redeemed for free future trips on public transit or private partners like Bird, Lime, Link, and Veo.
  • NJ Transit Rewards. This New Jersey commuter rail agency launched a loyalty program in 2021 that awards customers 22 points for every dollar they spend. Rewards can be redeemed through the NJ Transit app for coupons from regional merchants.
  • SW Transit Perks. SouthWest Transit, an agency that serves the Minneapolis area, introduced their loyalty program through their app in 2022. Rewards include gift cards ranging from $10-$150.


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