Travel planning apps can be used to promote and evaluate sustainable travel behaviour

Several cognitive processes that underpin travel decisions can now be delegated to ICT.  One might argue that the emergence of mobile apps renders much of the existing research on cognitive biases obsolete. However, even if all travel apps would give objectively the same advice, the way in which the information is provided remains relevant. For instance, different default settings in route planners affect the resulting route choice. Moreover, modern ICT allows policy makers to test people’s reaction to proposed policies in the field before these policies are implemented.

• The use of ICT reduces the scope for behavioural biases to affect mobility choices.

• Modern ICT enormously increases the potential for field trials of new policy proposals.

• The way information is presented (for instance, default settings) still affects mobility decisions.

• ICT now replaces human cognitive processes in several mobility choices.

The potential for ICT technologies to support travel decisions has grown enormously over the last few years, and has found its provisional culmination point in the development of the Mobility as a Service (MaaS) concept (Kamargianni et al., 2015):


Via “Mobility as a Service” systems consumers can buy mobility services that are provided by the same or different operators by using just one platform and a single payment. The platform provides an intermodal journey planner (providing combinations of different transport modes: car-sharing, car rental, underground, rail, bus, bike-sharing, taxi), a booking system, a single payment method (single payment for all transport modes), and real time information. MaaS users can use the Service either as Pay-As-You-Go or they can purchase mobility packages based on their or their family’s needs.

In practice, the actual level of cooperation within a MaaS system can vary from one situation to another. Nevertheless, several cognitive processes that underpin travel decisions are now being delegated to ICT.

If even extremely complex tasks such as multi-modal route planning can now be finalised within the blink of an eye, this raises the question whether the emergence of ICT will reduce the risk of cognitive biases in travel behaviour. After all, habitual travel and bounded rationality are usually explained by the need to economise on cognitive resources. One might thus argue that the emergence of mobile apps renders much of the existing research on cognitive biases obsolete (see for instance Gifford and Checherita, 2008). Why would people stick with sub-optimal modal and route choices if their apps advise them to take other routes and/or modes?

  • However, these new technologies also raise new research questions, and the potential for completely new approaches to travel research.
    First of all, one of the central insights of behavioural economics is that the way in which people use information depends crucially on the way the information is presented. Thus, even if all travel apps would give objectively the same advice, the way in which the information is provided could still be relevant.
    Choices are affected by a variety of different elements:

    • Route planners (especially those supplied by local authorities for recreational travel) could propose “sustainable” travel modes as the default option (while still leaving open the option of providing route advice for car trips) (Avineri, 2012) – this is one of the key insights in behavioural economics that defaults have a strong impact on the options people choose.
    • Avineri and Waygood (2013) have studied whether framing can be used to enhance the evaluation of choice attributes (including of attributes that have social costs such as CO2 emissions) and promote more sustainable choices. Their research shows that negative framing (where the information focuses on the potential of some travel options to reduce negative environmental impacts) is more likely to influence travel-related choices.
    • Arentze et al. (2012) found that the route choice of truck drivers-route planners are relatively sensitive to road pricing schemes but rather insensitive to bonuses when drivers choose routes with a smaller environmental impact.
    • ICT can play a central role in social learning, in building virtual communities and in the development of tools such as collaborative filtering such as used by Netflix and Amazon as a tool to facilitate choosing.

Moreover, modern ICT could also play a key role in setting up large scale, randomized field experiments in real life circumstances. From a methodological point of view, this could mean a revolution. Indeed, empirical evidence on transport behaviour is mainly based on either laboratory experiments or on field studies. On the one hand, laboratory experiments often suffer from the artificiality of the context, and are not always robust to small changes in the settings. On the other hand, in field studies, it is not always possible to isolate the impact of policy changes from other changes in the context that happen simultaneously.  

Randomized field trials allow the test population to be randomly assigned to subgroups that are subject to different ‘treatments’ (for instance, different default settings in the travel apps), but in a context where their choices have a ‘real impact’.

  • Arentze, T., T. Feng, H. Timmermans and J. Robroeks (2012) Context-dependent influence of road attributes and pricing policies on route choice behavior of truck drivers: results of a conjoint choice experiment, Transportation 39 (6), 1173-1188.
  • Avineri, E. (2012), On the use and potential of behavioural economics from the perspective of transport and climate change. Journal of Transport Geography 24, 512-521.
  • Avineri, E. and E.O.D. Waygood (2013), Applying valence framing to enhance the effect of information on transport-related carbon dioxide emissions, Transportation Research A 48, 31–38.
  • Gifford, J.L. and Checherita-Westphal, C.D. (2008), Boundedly- and Non-Rational Travel Behavior and Transportation Policy, mimeo, George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia, USA.
  • Kamargianni, M., Matyas, M., Li,  W. & Schäfer, A. (2015), Feasibility study for “Mobility as a Service” concept in London, Funded by DfT Transport Technology Research Innovations Grant (T-­TRIG)

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