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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Looking Ahead: What More Do We Need to Know?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Transportation Statistics Annual Report asks the question: what more do we need to know? Desired additional information enumerated in 1994 included:

  • A meaningful, comprehensive set of performance indicators for the transportation system as a whole to identify needs and opportunities for improvement of the system.

  • Basic information on the geography of passenger travel and goods movement to understand how the transportation system is used, who is served by the system, what portions of the system are essential, and where transportation activity exposes the population to safety and environmental risks.

  • Activities of large fleets of vehicles, such as rental cars, company vehicles, and vehicles owned by governments and utilities, which are major elements of passenger travel and the goods movement as well as the safety, economic, and environmental consequences of travel.

  • Inventory of the geographic locations and characteristics of transportation facilities, hubs, and services, particularly those involving intermodal transfers, to support management and use of the system.

  • Location, characteristics, and use of bicycle facilities to understand the role of nonmotorized, active transportation in mobility, health, and safety issues.

  • System condition across all modes to understand infrastructure investment needs.

  • Rethinking of basic measures of transportation and its consequences, such as congestion and economic productivity, including a better characterization of the product of transportation than passengermiles of travel or ton-miles for use in measures of productivity.

  • Business use of and spending on transportation services and equipment to understand the role of transportation in the economy

  • More effective representation of transportation in the national economic accounts to identify the economic consequences of changes in transportation costs.

  • Characteristics, itineraries, and expenditures of tourist activities to understand transportation’s role in supporting a vital economic activity for many areas.

  • Basic revenue and expenditure data for many segments of the transportation industry and models of the relationships between transportation and economic activity, whether by industry or geography, to understand how much transportation costs the nation and how much it contributes to economic health.

  • More uniform reporting of accident statistics throughout the Nation.

  • More accurate and detailed measures of exposure to safety risks, including better information about environmental conditions (weather, lighting, road hazards) and other potentially contributory risk factors to guide safety improvement efforts.

  • Direct measures rather than modeled estimates of emissions performance to provide accurate and credible information to guide efforts to reduce environmental consequences.

BTS and its partners have made major progress in all of these areas. The Commodity Flow Survey and the Freight Analysis Framework provide basic information on the geography of goods movement. The BTS Transportation Satellite Account and a related account for tourism by the Bureau of Economic Analysis provide an improved representation of transportation in the national economy, identifying the importance of transportation to businesses and providing a basis for analyzing economic productivity of transportation. BTS provides a comprehensive inventory of transportation facilities and links in its National Transportation Atlas Database, which is being expanded to capture non-traditional modes such as bicycle facilities. BTS and its partners are exploring new technologies to measure vehicle activity, safety exposure, and real-world emissions of vehicles. BTS publishes comparable safety data across all modes of transportation, and works with the Department’s Traffic Records Coordinating Committee to improve uniform accident reporting. BTS continues to improve and expand its online National Transportation Statistics, which is a comprehensive compilation of condition and performance statistics for the transportation system.

Many information gaps remain:

  • Long-distance travel remains poorly measured since BTS conducted the American Travel Survey in 1995.

  • Understanding of the domestic movement of international trade is based on models and assumptions more than on data from observations.

  • Basic performance measures are much improved for some modes, such as trucking, maritime vessels, and commercial aircraft, but are lacking for other modes, such as freight railroads.

  • Cost data cover most forms of passenger travel but are limited for freight movement.

  • The value of transportation to the economy and society is poorly articulated.

  • Availability of data on causation of safety problems varies by mode.

  • Integration of data on crashes, the conditions surrounding the crash, and consequences of the crash remains elusive.

Data quality is a growing problem with an increasing use of new data sources compromised by poorly understood errors, strengths, and weaknesses. Many of the statistics published in 1994 are no longer included because the source data and methods of calculation were suspect and potentially misleading. BTS has replaced some of the suspect data, such as estimates of tonmiles, with estimates that use transparent and consistent methods. Work continues to improve other questionable estimates, such as passenger-miles of travel.

The topics covered in the first Transportation Statistics Annual Report remain vital two decades later. The Bureau intends to continue making progress on providing timely and relevant information as well as data on emerging topics with the most cost-effective methods.