The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) was established within the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) by the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). A strategic planning initiative by USDOT in the late 1980s had led the Office of the Secretary and others to conclude that, for policy purposes, there were major gaps and deficiencies in available transportation data. These data did not readily support cross-modal, systemwide analyses; definitions and quality standards varied; and there were no up-to-date nationwide data on household travel and the shipment of goods across modes (TRB 1992; Citro and Norwood 1997). The creation of a statistical agency within USDOT was intended to establish a focal point for the activities necessary to provide high-quality, systemwide transportation data for policy making, planning, and research purposes. In particular, the establishment of BTS was intended to bring greater coordination and comparability to transportation data, to improve quality standards, and to fill data gaps.
In this report, the role of BTS’s major survey programs in providing transportation data to fulfill the needs of a broad spectrum of users is addressed, and opportunities for improving these surveys in the future are identified.
PEER REVIEW OF BTS
Experience suggests that it takes many years to develop the capabilities, stature, and credibility required for an effective statistical agency in a cabinet department (Citro and Norwood 1997). Recognizing that external peer review can be a valuable mechanism in guiding this development process, ISTEA mandated two review processes to assist the new
BTS. First, it required the agency’s director to establish a standing committee of external advisors (the Advisory Council on Transportation Statistics) to advise BTS on transportation statistics and analyses. Second, ISTEA called for the National Academy of Sciences [National Research Council (NRC)] to conduct a study of the adequacy of USDOT’s data collection procedures and capabilities.
Previous NRC Review
BTS’s start-up operations and achievements during its first 4 years are reviewed in the 1997 NRC report, The Bureau of Transportation Statistics: Priorities for the Future (Citro and Norwood 1997). The study committee found that BTS had achieved a great deal, even though, as expected, the agency had not accomplished all its assigned agenda in such a short period. The committee urged BTS to focus its future efforts on data quality issues and to address the relevance of transportation data for policy making, program planning, and research use. The committee also strongly recommended that the U.S. Congress reauthorize BTS for another 6 years. This recommendation was fulfilled in the 1997 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which authorized BTS at an annual funding level of $31 million for the 6-year period from 1998 through 2003.
Charge to the Committee
The present review of BTS’s survey programs was requested by the agency in 2001, against the backdrop of the impending reauthorization of TEA-21. The study committee was asked to review BTS’s current survey programs in light of
Transportation data needs for policy planning and research and
Characteristics and functions of an effective statistical agency.
For each of the agency’s three major surveys—the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), the Commodity Flow Survey (CFS), and the Omnibus Survey Program—the committee was asked to comment on priority transportation data needs and recommend approaches that BTS can use to meet the needs of the variety of data users over time. The committee was also asked to provide guidance and suggest procedures BTS
can use to ensure sound methodology and improved timeliness. The study request anticipated that the guidance offered would differ for the specific surveys but that certain key themes would be important across the board. Specific guidance on each survey would be provided in letter reports, and major themes and crosscutting guidance would be offered in a final report.
At the request of BTS, the committee reviewed the NHTS first, followed by the Omnibus Survey Program, and finally the CFS. The committee conducted its reviews of the NHTS and the CFS while the latest editions of these surveys were in the field.1 As a result, the committee’s conclusions about the uses of survey data are based primarily on information relating to earlier editions of the NHTS and CFS. The committee’s letter reports on the individual surveys are reproduced in Appendixes A, B, and C. In the present report, the committee draws on the outcomes of its reviews of individual surveys to identify major themes and crosscutting issues and to offer advice to BTS on ways of making its surveys more effective.
FRAMEWORK FOR EVALUATION
To inform its review of BTS’s current survey programs, the committee sought to (a) understand the scope and nature of transportation data needs for policy planning and research and (b) identify the characteristics and functions of an effective statistical agency.
Transportation Data Needs
BTS’s mandate (49 U.S.C. 111) charges the agency with
Compiling and analyzing a comprehensive set of transportation statistics;
Establishing and implementing a comprehensive, long-term program for the collection and analysis of data relating to the performance of the transportation systems of the United States;
Making the statistics it compiles readily accessible;
Providing statistics to support transportation decision making by all levels of government, transportation-related associations, private businesses, and consumers;
Issuing guidelines for the collection of information by USDOT to ensure that such information is accurate, reliable, relevant, and in a form that permits systematic analysis; and
Developing an intermodal transportation database.2
The committee used the above mandate as a basis for identifying the scope of the transportation data needs to be met by BTS’s surveys. Input from members and from the technical experts and policy analysts who participated in the committee meetings (see Appendix D) provided further information on the users (and potential users) of BTS’s statistics and the kinds of transportation data they require to inform their analyses, planning, and research. Articles in the technical literature also were valuable in identifying needs for and uses of transportation data, particularly for research.
An Effective Statistical Agency
As discussed in the earlier NRC review of BTS, Congress could have chosen an organizational structure other than a separate statistical agency by which to remedy the gaps and deficiencies in transportation data (Citro and Norwood 1997, 19). However, the ISTEA mandate clearly identifies BTS as a statistical agency with responsibilities extending beyond the largely administrative tasks of data compilation and dissemination. Thus, BTS is responsible for functions such as establishing and maintaining statistical standards, and long-range planning to identify and meet evolving user needs for transportation information.
The previous review (Citro and Norwood 1997) found that BTS had not evolved into a statistical agency fulfilling a broad mandate to improve the quality and relevance of transportation data to address users’ information needs. Rather, during its first 4 years, BTS operated primarily
as a data compilation and dissemination agency. In reaching this conclusion, the review committee evaluated BTS’s performance against the expectations for a federal statistical agency defined in the report Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency. The 3 principles and 11 practices enumerated in Box 1-1 are taken from the latest edition of the same report (Martin et al. 2001).
During the course of the present review, the committee made frequent reference to the principles and practices and to the report from which they are taken. No attempt was made to grade BTS systematically on all the criteria listed in Box 1-1, but the committee drew on these principles and practices to guide its evaluation and develop its recommendations to BTS for improving the agency’s survey programs.
Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency
Source: Martin et al. 2001.
ORGANIZATION OF REPORT
The three major BTS surveys that the committee reviewed—the NHTS, the CFS, and the Omnibus Survey Program—are described briefly in Chapter 2, and the committee’s assessments of each of these surveys are summarized. The detailed findings and recommendations are given in the letter reports reproduced in Appendixes A, B, and C. The committee’s conclusions on major themes and crosscutting issues relevant to BTS’s current survey programs are presented in Chapter 3. The committee’s recommendations for making these surveys more effective in meeting the needs of a broad spectrum of data users are presented in Chapter 4.
TRB Transportation Research Board
Citro, C. F., and J. L. Norwood (eds.). 1997. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics: Priorities for the Future. Panel on Statistical Programs and Practices of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.
Martin, M. E., M. L. Straf, and C. F. Citro (eds.). 2001. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency, 2nd ed. Committee on National Statistics, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.
TRB. 1992. Special Report 234: Data for Decisions: Requirements for National Transportation Policy Making. National Research Council, Washington, D.C.