Good travel data are essential to support critical policy choices and multimillion dollar investments facing decision makers. Unfortunately, the travel data available today are inadequate to meet this demand. To address the needs for public and private transportation policy analysis and decision making, the committee that authored Special Report 304: How We Travel: A Sustainable National Program for Travel Data recommends the organization of a National Travel Data Program built on a core of essential travel data sponsored at the federal level and well integrated with travel data collected by states, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), transit and other local agencies, and the private sector.
The U.S. transportation system serves hundreds of millions of travelers and handles millions of tons of freight each day to help ensure the efficient movement of people and goods in support of personal goals and domestic and international commerce. A well-functioning transportation system is essential for business travel and tourism, yet no national data have been collected on long-distance, intercity passenger travel by surface transportation modes since 1995. A strong economy depends on state and regional investments in freight corridors to keep freight moving, but industry-based data on freight shipments, focused on supply chain linkages and local goods movement, are not collected. Only coarse national-level data are available on intercity commodity flows. Increased energy efficiency and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicular travel are being sought to reduce the transportation sector’s adverse environmental impacts, but the data on vehicle use necessary to monitor progress are no longer being collected. As these illustrations demonstrate, the travel data available today are inadequate to support policy and decision-making requirements. The most comprehensive data are collected by the federal government in periodic surveys. However, coverage of these surveys is incomplete, sample sizes frequently are insufficient to support meaningful analyses, and the results often are not timely. Moreover, funding for these surveys is subject to shifting political priorities that not infrequently put them at risk for cancellation
The Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) requested this study, with funding provided by TRB, the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) and the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials through the National Highway Cooperative Research Program.
The expert committee formed by TRB and the Committee on National Statistics to conduct the study was charged with assessing the current state of travel data at the federal, state, and local levels and defining an achievable and sustainable travel data system that could support public and private transportation decision making. The primary goal was to develop a strategy for structuring, conducting, and funding the collection of critical travel data. The study is national in scope, recognizing that travel data are collected and used at multiple geographic levels and by multiple sectors. It covers all travel modes, with a focus on measuring the performance of the transportation system as a whole.
To support the wise use of public resources for transportation, particularly in a time of slow growth and massive budget deficits, a National Travel Data Program should be organized and sustained, built on a core of essential travel data whose collection is sponsored at the federal level and well coordinated with travel data collected by states, MPOs, transit and other local agencies, and the private sector. To manage and track the development and implementation of the program, a multiyear plan should be designed to assure Congress, the USDOT’s data partners, and constituents that the National Travel Data Program is moving ahead.
The report recommends that the responsibility for leading this effort should reside with the USDOT because these data are essential to its mission. The Secretary of Transportation should assume a strong leadership role, with program design and coordination being carried out by RITA and its Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), the federal statistical agency for transportation, which already has a data collection and coordination mandate.
A National Travel Data Program Advisory Council, broadly representing major travel data constituencies, should be formed to provide strategic advice directly to the Secretary of Transportation. RITA, in collaboration with its data partners, should invest aggressively in research and testing of new methods for data collection, integration, management, and dissemination. These new methods should include continuous data collection and greater use of technology. The additional cost of collecting the data required is estimated to be in the range of $9–$14 million annually, and additional funds would be needed for BTS’s coordination role.