Apps, activities and travel: an conceptual exploration based on activity theory

Dick Ettema*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


With the continuous advancement of (mobile) ICT devices and applications, their impact on travel, activities and time use becomes more diverse. This holds in particular for apps developed for mobile devices (smartphones). In this paper, we argue that the effect of ICT on travel and activities should be analysed at the level of a single specific device or application, rather than for broad classes of ICT devices. We propose activity theory as a framework to analyse the impact of smartphone apps on travel and activities. Activity theory describes how subjects apply tools (such as apps) to work on an object and achieve an outcome that is in line with the subject’s motive. The application of the tool is embedded in an activity system which includes a community, formal and informal rules and in which a division of labour exists. We apply activity theory to analyse the effects of Whatsapp and travel feedback apps, based on existing literature about these apps. The analyses suggest that the activity systems of each app differ greatly in terms of object, motive, outcomes, community and rules, with implications for their use and impact. Both apps have an impact on travel, but differ with respect to whether this effect is intentional. For both apps contradictions in the activity system can be identified, which may give rise to further development of the activity system. These seem, however, to be largest for travel feedback apps. Based on our exploration, we argue that quantitative research on the impact of apps should be complemented by qualitative research based on activity theory. In particular, activity theory may help to gain a better understanding of underlying mechanism by which apps influence travel, to strengthen the theoretical underpinning and interpretation of the results of quantitative research and to explore changes in the development and use of apps and their impact on travel behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-290
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Activity theory
  • Apps
  • ICTs
  • Policy
  • Travel


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