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Google Ventures-Backed Startup Develops Mobile Games to Ease Urban Congestion

Can big data and simple games alleviate crowded city streets, buses and trains?

Composite image by Re/code

People are pouring into cities as the world continues to shift away from an agrarian economy, putting ever greater strains on transportation systems, including roads, highways, buses and trains.

It’s a familiar problem for anyone commuting along Highway 101 in Silicon Valley or waiting on buses in San Francisco, but the region doesn’t even rate among the most congested metropolitan areas worldwide.

A startup emerging from stealth mode on Thursday aims to ease these urban growing pains using a combination of big data, behavioral economics, gamification techniques and good old lotteries.

Urban Engines of Los Altos, Calif., created an online and mobile game that resembles Snakes and Ladders, a virtual version of an Indian board game on which (the suddenly wimpier sounding) Chutes and Ladders was modeled. Commuters can earn points for shifting their travel to off-peak hours, which in turn can add up to real dollars and prizes.

“Essentially we’re attacking congestion through a combination of spatial insights and behavior incentives,” said Shiva Shivakumar, chief executive of the company.

Urban Engines has raised an undisclosed amount of money in a round led by Google Ventures. Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel, Greylock, Samsung Ventures, early Google investor Ram Shriram and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt also participated.

Shivakumar, a Google search and AdSense veteran, co-founded the company with Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Societal Networks.

 Urban Engines CEO Shiva Shivakumar (left) and CTO Balaji Prabhakar
Urban Engines CEO Shiva Shivakumar (left) and CTO Balaji Prabhakar
Paul Sakuma Photography

For the past two-and-a-half years, they’ve conducted pilot research studies of their system in Singapore, Bangalore and at Stanford. With the official launch on Thursday, the company is announcing they’re also working with Washington, D.C., and Sao Paulo, Brazil, in partnership with the World Bank.

Urban Engines’ products break down into two sets of tools. The first, focused on the demand side of the commuter equation, is the game.

Generally, it’s designed to encourage people to commute on mass transit during off-peak hours. Participants earn extra points every time they avoid rush hours, based on the timestamp data on their commuter card.

Those points earn spins in the game, played online or through an app, that allow players to move around the virtual board, climbing up ladders or slipping down snakes depending on their luck. A handful of people win cash that lands back on their commuter card or other assorted prizes. The top cash prize at Stanford was $50, but some would probably argue the best prize was a ticket to the Rose Bowl.

In effect, it’s a raffle or lottery — because that’s a reliable way to make a small pot of money look like a big pot of money, under the theories of behavioral economics.

Divide the same amount across every rider and it adds up to little money and no real incentives. But since hope springs eternal, the chance for any one person to win a chunk of cash encourages many people to alter their habits.

Not everyone will want to participate in such a system and not everyone has the luxury to shift their commute times. But in a six-month trial in Bangalore involving 14,000 people (which relied on a lottery without the virtual board game), 17 percent of overall daily trips shifted from peak to off-peak. In Singapore, it reached 7 percent to 13 percent, depending on the commuter population segments. And at Stanford, where the system required adding RFID tags to cars, it topped out at 15 percent.

Of course, whether these results translate across entire commuting populations and over extended periods remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the “Urban Engines insights solution” also taps into commuter cards, but in this case to track activity throughout the transit system. The timestamps show which stations or stops people are entering or exiting at any given time.

The data flows through the company’s algorithms and generates detailed maps, highlighting where commuters are piling up, which trains are packed or when buses are running too close to one another. It has the potential to provide transit systems with insights that can help them deploy their vehicles and operators in the most effective ways at any given moment.

A critical advantage of Urban Engines is that it allows cash-strapped cities to do more with what they already have. They don’t need to install camera systems to monitor stations. They don’t have to work complex plans through tedious city approval processes. And they’re not required to buy more buses and trains.

That said, long-term population trends eventually make those bigger investments inevitable for most urban areas.

As of 2010, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities, up from just two in 10 a century ago, according to the World Health Organization. By 2050, it’s expected to reach seven out of 10.

Long commute times are more than an annoyance. They’ve been linked to higher cholesterol, elevated blood sugar levels and greater stress. Moreover, congestion cost the United States more than $120 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel in 2011, according to the latest urban mobility report from Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“There are more of us moving into cities, but cities aren’t growing any bigger,” said Prabhakar, who serves as chief technology officer at Urban Engines. “And it’s just getting worse.”

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