U-Ride: Transforming Transit for College Students in Southeast Florida

U-Ride, Transportation App, College, College Students

U-ride is the first app that allows users to easily compare and track the environmental and health impacts of their trip. (Photo credit: Daruma Tech)

By gisele galoustian | 6/27/2024

Florida Atlantic University is leading a first-time transportation collaboration with the Kresge Foundation, Daruma Tech, Broward College, Palm Beach State College, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (Tri-Rail), Palm Tran, and Broward County Transit to improve Southeast Florida’s transit ecosystem for college students and ultimately student success and retention. 

In 2022, FAU in partnership with Daruma Tech – located in the Research Park at FAU in Boca Raton – launched “U-Ride,” which is available on Apple’s App Store and Android’s Play Store. The novel app calculates optimal routes in real-time from the three public transportation agencies, along with information from rideshare providers and walking and biking routes.  

U-Ride is the first app that allows users to easily compare and track the environmental and health impacts of their trip. Users can see their carbon savings in pounds of CO2 and calories burned as an individual and as a community. Universities interested in tracking the carbon footprint of their students, faculty and staff can use U-Ride to set, track and incentivize carbon reduction goals at the individual, departmental and university-wide scales. Incentives and rewards can be given to individuals or groups to encourage overall collective behavior towards achieving a carbon reduction strategy.

“The data we collect from U-Ride can help us to improve the transit system over time and ensure that major transportation investments made by universities as well as government agencies are benefitting the greatest number of students,” said John Renne, Ph.D., principal investigator and an associate professor in FAU’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning within FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “U-Ride not only provides insight on students’ transportation needs and preferences while making commuting easier, but also helps them develop a more strategic mindset about their transportation options to achieve the optimal carbon reduction goals for the collective community.”

U-Ride was developed as part of a research grant awarded to FAU by the Kresge Foundation, which identified transportation challenges as a major impediment to retention in commuting college students. Data collected from the app helps FAU researchers study public transportation usage and its impacts on college students.

As part of the project, FAU conducted a study with students who lived off-campus and those who attend FAU, Broward College and Palm Beach State College and used information and marketing to shape their mode choice to campus across these three colleges and four campuses. Of the 140,000 students at the three participating institutions, more than 40 percent receive Pell grants and more than 50 percent are students of color.

For the study, informational messages were delivered through a Mobility-as-a-Service app, a tool to enable the intervention group to plan non-auto trips to campus more readily. Researchers clustered students by residential address and stratified the randomization by college and by full-time versus part-time enrollment status.

Tracking environmental and health benefits provided the basis for a limited rewards system, and gamification elements were integrated into the app. Monthly rewards, such as transit passes and e-gift cards, were distributed to top-performing app users. Promotional giveaways occurred within the app itself, across social media platforms, including the Improve Your Commute Instagram channel, and through collaborative marketing efforts with partners.

Students were asked about their travel behaviors. More than 80% commuted to campus at least once per week and the mean commute time was about 40 minutes. Obstacles to alternative modes included the length, unreliability or lack of information about transit options. Unsurprisingly, obstacles to walking or biking were most often distance, weather or the need to carry materials.

Findings showed that students were more likely to open the app if they had less experience riding transit, they had a longer commute (in minutes) to campus, and if they help take care of an adult at home. The app appeared to be most helpful to those looking for transportation alternatives but have less experience with them. In examining the students’ responses about mental health and vehicular crashes,researchers noticed a relationship.

“While we cannot assert causation, whether poor mental health precedes vehicular crashes or if being in a vehicular crash results in poorer mental health, evidence from our study suggests the former,” said Renne. “Similar to national studies, poor mental health was prevalent among our student population, whereas crashes were relatively rare. Vehicle crashes can be devasting to the college student population and their academic performance.” 

Given these threats to student outcomes, researchers offer several suggestions such as building more housing near campus; directing students to housing near campus or on major transit lines; and offering high-quality, accessible mental health support services.

“The focus of U-Ride is to reduce carbon emissions with greener, healthier and more affordable campus transportation options to promote local businesses and to contribute to a more eco-friendly and connected community,” said Rob Kennedy, co-founder and CEO of Daruma Tech. “Daruma Tech is committed to developing high-quality products like U-Ride, which improves and enhances trip planning, provides positive user experiences and ensures the long-term success of this innovative app.”

U-Ride was initially released only to students participating in the FAU study. However, the project team hopes to expand to other key markets that could pave the way for national distribution.