Case Study

North Carolina Central University (NCCU)


North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is a public, historically black university (HBCU) located south of downtown Durham with an enrollment of about 8,300 students (as of 2018). Though the heart of campus is categorized by WalkScore as “Very Walkable” and “Somewhat Bikeable,” the area surrounding the university where many commuter students reside is categorized as “Car Dependent.”


With recent growth in enrollment and staff, NCCU is facing numerous parking challenges and high congestion. Among commuting students, the drive alone rate is about 80%. In Fall 2020, campus policies were scheduled to change so that sophomores will be required to live on campus and freshmen will no longer be allowed to bring their cars to campus. The goal of this study was to make students comfortable and familiar with alternative transportation modes before these changes go into effect.

Exploration and Prototyping

While based on our first personalized route study—see here—the development and iteration of this personalized route tool (SmartTrip) was informed by two preliminary surveys of students, interviews with transportation, behavioral science, and design experts as well as user testing with students. Only students living off campus (commuter students) were included in the study.

Some of the most well received iterative features of the SmartTrip email message included:

  •   Framing the benefits around financial savings and the pain of parking on campus 
  •   Favoring the map and clickable buttons over textual elements of the email
  •   Optimizing the design for mobile devices
  •   Adding color and animation, as well as creating bright and engaging buttons 

Figure 1.  Iterations of the SmartTrip email created and tested during the prototyping phase.


Experimental Design

The team tested two hypotheses:

  • Receiving an invite to explore a personalized route reduces the share of drive-alone commute trips a student makes to campus.
  • Enhancing the personalized route and sending follow-up emails offering eligible students additional transportation-related services (incentives to track trips, carpooling options, transportation consultations) further reduces the share of drive-alone commute trips a student makes.

To test the hypotheses, students were randomized into one of three conditions:

  • Control  – received only surveys on commuting behavior (n= 1,262)
  • SmartTrip – received the SmartTrip email twice and surveys on commuting behavior (n= 1,264)
  • SmartTrip Plus – received the SmartTrip email twice plus two additional transportation-related communications (one related to parking pains and one to additional available incentives) and surveys on commuting behavior (n= 1,271)

The study ran for 12 weeks, kicking off the week before fall semester classes began.


In conjunction with gathering behavioral data, students in all conditions received four biweekly pulse surveys (self-report of their commute modes for the previous week) and one final survey (with additional questions regarding parking permitting and commute satisfaction). 

Figure 2.  Average commute behavior as a percentage of total commutes throughout the study period.

Across the entire study period, sustainable mode use rate (walk, bike, bus, carpool, and scooter trips as a percentage of trips taken) was highest in the Plus group at 21.3%. 

The groups’ commuting behavior appeared to differentiate in the final three surveys, (after the additional communications were sent to the Plus group), showing 25.6% sustainable mode use in the Plus group.

Figure 3.  Average commute behavior as a percentage of total commutes in pulse surveys 1 & 2 and pulse surveys 3, 4 & 5.

The results of this study indicate a statistically significant decrease in drive alone commute rate and a significant increase in sustainable mode commute rate associated with the Plus intervention. The team plans to continue exploring and testing these follow-up communications to determine whether the influential mechanism is related to the message content, the frequency of communication, or the timing of delivery.