Timely Health Messages Boost Stair Use in Boston Subway by 4.3 Percent

Improving methods for measuring stair use in public spaces

From January 2002 to October 2003, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a new automated technology for counting stair users.

They used this technology to test whether "just-in-time" health messages can motivate commuters to increase their routine physical activity by using stairs rather than escalators.

Key Results

Under the project, the researchers:

  • Developed a new computer vision algorithm that detects moving objects in public spaces and then calculates the percentages of people using either stairs or escalators.

  • Obtained approval from the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority to test the new technology and conduct just-in-time messaging experiments in three Boston commuter rail stations.

Key Findings

  • The new people-counting technology accurately calculated the percentage of stair users versus escalator users, adapted well to the difficult environment of the transit stations and was cost-effective.

  • When researchers used their new technology to project a motivational message ("Your heart needs exercise, here's your chance") in the transit stations, commuters increased their stair use by 4.3 percent, a finding consistent with prior studies.