Eco Miles: How to Get Free Coffee Just for Taking the Train to Work

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Why you should care

The app puts perks into your soul-sucking commute.

When Parveen Dhillon finishes a 3-mile morning walk with her dog around her San Jose, California, neighborhood, she has accumulated roughly 30 miles of “currency” in her Miles app. The marketing consultant has been using the platform to track her transit and accumulate miles — akin to credit card points or frequent flier miles — to redeem later for rewards.

Miles is a new app that tracks your daily movements and rewards you with perks. It’s like a frequent flier program but for ground transport, says Jigar Shah, Miles co-founder and CEO. But the app, which launched in 2018, has another — and quite timely — purpose: to get people excited about using public transit again. 

Shah came up with the idea in response to what he perceives as a shift in attitudes toward commuting, namely from car ownership to on-demand mobility — whether by bike sharing, carpooling or anything in between. While mobility is universal, that behavior goes unrewarded. So he looked at solving the question: “How do we incentivize people toward these newer, sustainable, more alternate modes of transportation?” His answer was Miles: the first app, he claims, to reward for every movement, no matter the type. 

miles accumulate on a scale of how eco-friendly the movement is.

Here’s how it works: Like with a Fitbit or Apple Watch, the app runs in the background with an algorithm that tracks how you move. The miles accumulate on a scale of how eco-friendly the movement is. For example: Users earn one mile for each actual mile driven, two times the miles driven in a ride-share, three times the miles for the distance of a train trip and 10 times the miles covered in a walk.

These earned miles serve as a type of currency that can be redeemed for perks like store discounts, makeup coupons, reduced coffee and car rentals, as well as exclusive experiences and services. The app also provides monthly insights into the number of hours users spend in motion, how many trips they’ve taken and how they got there.

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Screenshots from the Miles app.

Source Miles

The idea of getting value back for time and money lost in traffic is timely: American workers’ commutes are getting longer — with the number of jobs in major cities accelerating and house prices rising, people are forced to live further from their workplaces. This is a key issue on California’s West Coast, which has more sprawl and fewer (and less efficient) transit options compared to East Coast cities. (New Yorkers don’t need to be convinced to take the subway over driving, Shah says, because the habit is ingrained and often more time-efficient.) But the prospect of rewards might lure Californians to make greener choices when they otherwise wouldn’t.

To be fair, Miles doesn’t push users to lower their carbon footprint by moving less, like apps that pay utility customers to conserve water during droughts. But it does provide users with weekly challenges or “nudges.” For example, a San Francisco commuter who alternates between riding the train and driving to work might get offered the chance to earn extra rewards for taking additional train trips in a week. 

The platform still has some kinks to be ironed out. For example, it’s possible to cheat — you can edit the details of a commute, like when the app gets your mode of transport wrong. Many perks are discounts for subscription services you need to sign up for, or deals on items people might not spend on in the first place (like premium car rentals or monthly meal kits). And rewarding customers for actions they’re already taking doesn’t necessarily create social good, says Deepak Rajagopal, an associate professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

But Miles’ more ambitious goal is to change behavior — though progress is tough to measure because the team can only track patterns since the app was downloaded. Some might worry about a company tracking their every move, but Shah says Miles does not share personal user data with partners. 

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Jigar with co-founders Paresh Jain and Parin Sha.

Source Miles

With a current base of more than 100,000 users, the venture-backed company now operates with transit agencies in California’s Bay Area, Contra Costa County and Sacramento and in Washington’s Pierce County (though people can use the app worldwide). There are plans to launch at least half a dozen other pilots with city partners in 2020.

Most of us have to work (and get to work), so an app like this can at least make commuters feel productive on those bleak morning commutes — even bleary-eyed and coffee-deprived. If anything, Miles offers a little extra in return for something you need to do anyway.

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