This Smart and Connected Communities - Integrative Research Grant (SCC-IRG) Track 1 project will develop and evaluate smart, community-supported solutions for improving efficiency and equity in public microtransit systems. Poor transit service in small cities and towns around the US severely challenges the everyday lives of their many disadvantaged residents. Although public microtransit, which provides point-to-point service in small vehicles, has recently emerged as a promising solution, it remains ineffective at accommodating the rising demand without additional resources (vehicles and drivers). This project seeks to improve system performance equitably, through increased ridesharing and shifting flexible trips to off-peak periods. To this end, it will investigate techniques to motivate microtransit users to act prosocially (volunteer to shift one’s trip time to accommodate the high load of work trips, cooperate with the request to walk more to share a ride with a disabled user, reciprocate after learning that one previously benefited from another user) by evoking feelings of empathy towards other community members. Through a program dedicated to commuters, this project will also provide reliable and stress-free transportation to disadvantaged workers and students. These innovations will result in fewer unserved microtransit trip requests and cancelations and therefore lead to quality-of-life improvements, including reduced wage loss and missed medical appointments for riders. The prosocial acts motivated through this research will strengthen community membership, emotional safety, and sense of belonging. This project has the potential to benefit the thousands of small US communities that lack access to employment, health care, and other critical destinations.

The awarded research will create new paradigms for facilitating prosocial behavior in sociotechnical systems, moving away from traditional pricing mechanisms and incentives. Empathy-building messaging based on real-time user information and powered by artificial intelligence (AI), will enable and motivate prosocial behavior in microtransit at a low cognitive burden while accounting for individual needs and preferences. To increase ridesharing and operational efficiency, microtransit algorithms will be developed for the operation of a first-of-its-kind hybrid system that integrates a commuter program for work and school trips on a fixed, routine schedule with both on-demand and other trips scheduled in advance. This project will engage with both governmental and nongovernmental organizations to understand stakeholder needs and improve stakeholder acceptance of the technology and will advance our understanding of the contributions of community-based organizations and education in the success of smart and connected communities.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Eleni Bardaka
Dr. Eleni Bardaka is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) at NCSU.
Performance Period: 10/01/2023 - 09/30/2026
Institution: North Carolina State University
Award Number: 2325720