Gamifying cycling to create a healthier city

October 15, 2020

Deepak makes barely enough from his job at a restaurant in Kathmandu. Cycling is thus the cheapest way for him to commute to work every day.

Rajiv is a manager at a company. He uses his private car to get to office every day, but he is willing to cycle to work at least 10 days a month.

While Deepak cycles for economic reasons, Rajiv does so for his health. Whatever the reason, cycling provides a win-win solution for many of us. If we are to consider the perils of emissions, traffic congestion, and pollution–all of which are exacerbated by rapid, often unregulated urbanization across the globe–cycling offers a way out. 

What is lacking is the trigger that will make cycling the new normal for urban transportation.  The ongoing Covid-19 situation could prove to be just that trigger–for turning cycling from a marginal, fringe commuting mode, or a leisurely pursuit for a few, to a cost-effective, clean, healthy mode of transport used by a large population set.  

But there is perhaps a practical way to get the wheels in motion towards meeting this objective.

Incentives, payoffs

Picture this: an interesting game kicks off as Covid-19 unfolds. In this game, Deepak gets awarded NRs 10 for every 10 km he pedals. A smart app on his phone gamifies his cycling, pushing him to reach higher levels to win special badges, stars, and shields every month. 

Rajiv also takes part in the game, and he too is motivated to reach higher levels every month. He has the option to voluntarily donate his credits to pay for the very operation of this game and for other green initiatives in his city. 

These are but a few types of incentives the game offers its players and the payoffs that can be derived by the society they live in. 

For those who already cycle, the incentives and payoffs will be another reason to continue their cycle-centric lifestyle. For others, this game could offer a good reason to start cycling and remain motivated. And with the lengthening Covid-19 crisis stalling public transport, cycling makes for an appealing commuting alternative for many. 

Such a model is not a new thing, however. That’s why there are numerous apps that can, with some tweaks, serve our purpose too: Tootle, Pathao, Ride, Walkman, MoveSpring, Lympo, Strava, and so on. Some have done very well, and others have failed to attract people. Ensuring the game’s success, therefore, goes beyond just building an app. It’s about nudging people to change aspects of their lifestyle. 

The main challenge has to do with getting people to switch from cars to cycles, or to any other cleaner forms of commuting. It’s about making the option both practicable and commercially viable. This requires support from a good number of dedicated people, especially of the new generation, who are fully convinced about the virtues of eco living, as opposed to wasteful living, with its attendant high carbon footprint. It’s about their eschewing a lavish lifestyle, and buying into the new norm around a more satisfying and responsible lifestyle. 

Cycling credits

We can start the game with, say, 1,000 regular cyclists who are committed to cycling at least 10 days a month. This initiative alone would cut a whopping 120,000 litres of fossil-fuel consumption a year (one litre of fuel per day per cyclist) and also save the cyclists quite a bit of money. If managed well, the game would also help collect, at a minimum, NRs 1.8 million a year (if one km credit is sold for NRs 1) to finance a clean initiative. And we can also run special campaigns to appeal to more people to join in. 

But who will pay for these credits? 

We all agree that cycling is not just going to help cut the carbon footprint of the players but also contribute to improving their health, generate income for green initiatives, and provide a reliable investment opportunity for companies who seek to offset their carbon emissions and become sustainable.

Cycling is already gaining popularity in Kathmandu for various reasons, including increasing health concerns, traffic congestion, and lately, Covid-19. But there hasn’t been any effort to capitalize on this lifestyle choice in a more sustainable manner, which could motivate a bigger crowd and include policymakers and the private sector. The idea is to bring about a movement that will reach critical mass while motivating both smart companies and polluters to pay. 

Because this initiative will directly engage and benefit a large number of people and touch their hearts and minds, it provides a great opportunity for private-sector entities to reach out to a bigger crowd that is willing to support/promote environment friendly businesses. This would allow them to satisfy their corporate social responsibility while also winning over the hearts and minds of informed customers. 

The bigger picture 

With the advanced technology available today, the cycling game could potentially be developed into a local carbon-trading solution that could add new particulars to the game, such as the provision of extra credits for those who recycle their household waste; for those who plant and grow trees; for businesses that switch to solar power; and for those who go the extra mile to align their businesses with more ambitious targets, such as meeting some of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Either way, the game could motivate all kinds of people to pedal their way into a greener lifestyle and a greener city. UNDP, in partnership with the Government of Nepal, and cycle associations, and some environment-friendly businesses is preparing to launch this game as a movement in the Kathmandu vally and few other cities outside the valley. We hope this will help promote healthy lifestyle for the people living in cities that are reeling under increasing traffic congestion and air pollution. Let's all join hands to make this movement a success. 

(A version of this article was published in The Record)

About the author:

Kamal Raj Sigdel is Head of Communications with the United Nations Development Programme in Nepal. He can be reached at @Kamalraj99.