Why Reliable Data Matters for Active Transportation

Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director, Washington, D.C.

The following is a guest post by Janie Nham:

It is clear that active transportation modes like bicycling and walking have gained momentum in the past several years. Yet even as acceptance of bicycling and walking as everyday transportation options spreads, the amount of standardized and accurate data necessary to support their growth still remains limited.

There are a few surveys that attempt to measure bicycling rates, with perhaps the most well-known among them being the American Community Survey (ACS) and the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS).  These surveys are meaningful, but fall short of providing an accurate snapshot of biking and walking levels in the US.  The ACS, for example, only captures trips made for work purposes.  Trips made for non-work purposes (like biking to the grocery store) or in combination with other modes (such as a connection to/from transit) are not accounted for.  This lack of comprehensive data suggests a strong likelihood that the popularity of biking and walking as transportation modes is understated.  This uncertainty very likely results in sub-optimal attention to and funding of active transportation programs and infrastructure, which would be insufficient to meet true need and demand.

In contrast, the Federal Highway Administration’s NHTS includes trip purpose, offering a more comprehensive report on travel behavior.  Unfortunately, the NHTS is administered about once every decade, and the last NHTS from 2009 had a response rate of just 20%. This creates serious questions about the accuracy of NHTS results and its relevancy to current urban planning decisions.