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Executive Summary The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) was established in the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) by the 1991 Intermodal Surface Trans- portation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The same ISTEA legislation also mandated that the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council review the statistical programs and practices of BTS to improve the relevance and quality of transportation data. Topics identified for study include the role of BTS in provid- ing statistical leadership in USDOT and its relationships with other USDOT agen- cies and other transportation data providers and users inside and outside the fed- eral government. BTS began operations in late 1992; the Panel on Statistical Programs and Practices of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began its study in January 1996. Drawing on panel members' experience in managing federal statistical agencies and other input, the panel reviewed BTS' s current operations and con- sidered its future goals in light of the characteristics and functions of an effective statistical agency and transportation data needs for policy planning and research. THE NEED FOR IMPROVED TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS Historically, the collection of data about transportation has been widely dis- persed among numerous public and private agencies, each using its own standards and focused on a particular transportation mode (highways, airlines, railroads, etc.~. The result is that considerable data are available about various aspects of transporta- tion, but often the data are not comparable and not designed to inform policy issues that require a cross-modal, system-wide perspective. Previous studies (e.g., Na- tional Research Council, 1992a) have documented such problems as the lack of 1
2 BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS: PRIORITIES FOR THE FUTURE basic data on freight and passenger flows across transportation modes and the lack of comparable data across modes with which to evaluate such key aspects of the transportation system as safety, access, efficiency, and quality of service. To bring a greater degree of coordination, comparability, and quality stan- dards to transportation data and to fill important data gaps, the 1991 ISTEA es- tablished BTS and charged it with producing a Transportation Statistics Annual Report, developing intermodal data on commodity and passenger flows, and car- rying out six functions: (1) "compiling, analyzing, and publishing a comprehensive set of transporta- tion statistics"; (2) "establishing and implementing, in cooperation with the modal adminis- trators, the States, and other Federal officials, a comprehensive, long-term pro- gram for the collection and analysis of data relating to the performance of the national transportation system"; (3) "issuing guidelines for the collection of information by the Department of Transportation . . . to ensure that such information is accurate, reliable, rel- evant, and in a form that permits systematic analysis"; (4) "coordinating the collection of information by the Department of Trans- portation . . . with . . . other Federal departments and agencies and collecting appropriate data not elsewhere gathered"; (5) "making statistics . . . readily accessible"; and (6) "identifying information that is needed . . . but which is not being col- lected . . . and making recommendations . . . concerning extramural and intramu- ral research programs to provide such information." The 1991 ISTEA explicitly established BTS as a statistical agency, not as a policy development office or an administrative unit. A statistical agency is ex- pected not only to compile, analyze, and disseminate data for policy and public use, but also to work toward continued improvement of the relevance, timeliness, and quality of those data. In addition, a statistical agency provides leadership for its parent department in such areas as setting quality standards for data release and documentation, conducting evaluations and research on methods, developing key national indicators for policy use, and coordinating data collection in order to identify and fill gaps and reduce duplication and costs. A statistical agency is characterized by a strong measure of professional independence to ensure the objectivity and credibility of its data, high standards of quality and professional- ism in all aspects of its work, and relationships of trust and openness with data providers and users (see National Research Council, 1992b). ASSESSING BTS During its short span of existence, BTS has accomplished a great deal. It has issued annual reports on the transportation system that have a strong analytical focus, produced compendia and guides to transportation data, sponsored major
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 3 surveys on intermodal commodity flows and household travel, provided access to a wide range of transportation data on the World Wide Web and CD-ROMs, sponsored symposia and conferences, worked with other federal agencies to stan- dardize geographic information systems, and initiated work with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to develop a fuller accounting of the transportation sector of the U.S. economy. BTS could not expect to accomplish all of its assigned agenda at the outset, and it has not done so. As a strategic decision, BTS has focused primarily on compiling data and making them accessible (functions 1 and 5 in the ISTEA list) and deferred most work on the other functions enumerated in ISTEA. Also, although BTS has provided extensive amounts of data to users from a wide range of sources, it has not provided correspondingly detailed information to help users understand the quality and usefulness of alternative data sets. To date, BTS has functioned primarily as a data compilation and dissemination agency. It has yet to evolve into a statistical agency that fulfills a broad mandate to improve trans- portation data to address users' information needs. The decision to concentrate on data compilation and dissemination has brought some advantages to BTS and its data users. BTS has demonstrated its capability to use the latest technologies for data delivery and to remain sensitive to its customers' expressed needs. In the panel's view, however, it is now criti- cally important for BTS to take on the leadership functions assigned to it by the 1991 ISTEA to improve the relevance and quality of transportation data. To accomplish these goals, BTS must first develop a strong statistical staff and set an example of statistical excellence in its own operations. REAUTHORIZATION The case for a statistical agency within USDOT to develop transportation data for important policy purposes, particularly those that require a cross-modal, system-wide perspective, was made clear in earlier studies of transportation data needs and recognized in the 1991 ISTEA. BTS has made a good start on its mandate. It has begun to fill such important data gaps as passenger and freight movements, and it has brought together a large volume of transportation data in formats that are accessible to a wide range of users. It is the panel's view that BTS should be reauthorized to continue to perform these valuable information functions and to develop the other functions of a statistical agency.) Such an agency is required to coordinate and improve the decentralized database in the field of transportation. *~1) We strongly recommend that the U.S. Congress reauthorize the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Recommendations that pertain specifically to the reauthorization of BTS, as part of the reauthori zation of ISTEA or such other legislative vehicle as the Congress deems appropriate, are starred (*). These are recommendations are 1, 3, 7, 9, and 10.
4 BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS: PRIORITIES FOR THE FUTURE FOCUSING ON QUALITY BTS to date has focused on making as much data as possible available to as broad a community of users as possible. BTS must now begin to focus on data quality, including comparability, accuracy (or bias), and variability. It should also focus on the relevance of transportation data in terms of appropriateness of concepts, the match between concepts, operational definitions, and measurements, the level of subject and geographic detail, and timeliness (see next section). BTS must help policy makers, planners, researchers, and other users distinguish use- ful, high-quality data from data that are suspect or inappropriate and identify priority areas for data improvement. To ensure the quality of transportation data and provide statistical leadership for the department, BTS needs to increase the quantitative capabilities of its staff. While highly qualified in many ways, relatively few BTS staff have extensive training and experience in such areas as statistical sampling and survey design, advanced data collection and editing methods, index construction, statistical esti- mation on complex sample surveys, and related areas. BTS should focus imme- diate attention on strengthening the statistical and technical capabilities of its staff, particularly in determining qualifications and responsibilities for its autho- rized vacancies. It should also be authorized by the department to appoint an associate director at the Senior Executive Service level with extensive statistical knowledge and experience to direct methodological research, develop and over- see the implementation of data quality standards, and oversee programs for data evaluation and improvement. Finally, it should provide opportunities for con- tinuing development of staff professional capabilities. (2) BTS should be authorized to appoint an associate director for statis- tical methods and research at the Senior Executive Service level to provide leadership in improving the quality of transportation statistics. BTS should give priority to hiring highly qualified staff with expertise in statistical meth- ods. As a high priority, BTS should address its mandate in ISTEA to develop guidelines for data quality throughout USDOT. Indeed, the Congress should underscore the importance of focusing on the quality of transportation data by mandating that BTS develop written quality standards, working with the statisti- cal units located in the other USDOT modal administrations, that will be binding throughout USDOT. BTS should also report periodically (every 2 years) on progress within USDOT to improve transportation data quality. *~3) In the reauthorization of BTS, the Congress should strengthen cur- rent law by assigning responsibility to BTS to establish data quality stan- dards, consistent with good statistical practice, that are binding throughout
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY s USDOT and available for use by transportation agencies outside USDOT and for reference by the public. The reauthorization should also: · require the secretary of transportation to appoint a departmental standards committee, chaired by the BTS director and with representatives from the USDOT statistical units, to work with BTS in developing depart- ment-wide data quality standards and · require BTS to prepare every 2 years a report to the Congress that identifies improvements achieved in data quality by BTS and the statistical units in the other USDOT modal administrations and in the provision of information about quality to data users. Another priority for BTS should be to improve the documentation of trans- portation data, not only to alert users to data errors and limitations, but also to provide the basis on which to develop in-depth evaluation and improvement pro- grams for key data sets. BTS should develop comprehensive documentation for its own surveys, including user's guides and reports that describe methods and bring together information on sources and extent of errors. It should also identify improvements that can be made immediately in describing data from other sources that are included in its compendia, CD-ROMs, and World Wide Web site, while it works with the statistical units in the other USDOT modal administrations to develop more comprehensive documentation standards for the department. (4) BTS should improve the documentation of the transportation data it makes available so that users can readily assess their quality, including accu- racy, variability, and comparability across transportation modes and over time. ENSURING RELEVANCE To serve as a statistical agency for USDOT, BTS must address not only the quality, but also the relevance of transportation data for policy making, program planning, and research use. To this end, BTS should develop a broad vision of a comprehensive transportation data system that can serve the information needs of users over the long term, by asking key constituencies such questions as: What are important national policy concerns in transportation, how are they changing, and what are the implications for data? What changes are occurring in the economy and society that suggest needs for new data or reassignment of priorities among areas? What topics and information needs are still relevant from the past? On the basis of its own vision and input from others, BTS should develop a structured implementation plan that specifies short-term, intermediate, and long- term activities and goals in each of its main programmatic areas. Such a plan is essential for BTS to cope with its large array of responsibilities and to make the most effective use of its resources.
6 BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS: PRIORITIES FOR THE FUTURE (5) BTS should develop a long-term strategy for implementing fully all of the areas in its mandate in order to evolve as a statistical agency that ensures the relevance, as well as the quality, of transportation data. The implementation plan should set priorities within the context of a vision of a comprehensive system of transportation data. The development of key national indicators examples are monthly and quarterly estimates of gross domestic product, monthly unemployment rates, an- nual high school dropout rates is an important means by which statistical agen- cies provide highly relevant data for the policy debate and general public aware- ness. Some indicators have direct effects on the economy and public- and private-sector decision making. As it is mandated to do in the 1991 ISTEA, BTS should move quickly to become the focal point for the development of key national indicators on trans- portation that can serve policy makers and the general public. In working with other agencies inside and outside USDOT to develop appropriate indicators, BTS must pay careful attention to the concepts to be reflected in the new data series and take steps to ensure their accuracy, timeliness, and objectivity. Development of key indicators will also help BTS identify data sources that are needed for indicators that should receive priority attention for evaluation and improvement. (6) BTS should develop key national statistical indicators for the trans- portation system for example, multimodal series in the areas of safety, travel patterns, and the condition of the transportation infrastructure in consultation with the statistical and analysis units in the other USDOT modal administrations and the transportation community. Two other ways in which a statistical agency ensures data relevance are to coordinate data collection in its subject area to the extent feasible and to identify user needs. The 1991 ISTEA assigns BTS these responsibilities, which require interaction with other USDOT modal administrations and with public and private agencies outside USDOT. As a means to facilitate the cost-effectiveness of data collection programs within USDOT, BTS should be authorized to compile a statistical budget for use by the secretary in making budget decisions. A compilation of the budget for all USDOT statistical activities and programs will help clarify what the individual modal administrations see as priorities and help the secretary determine how well those priorities accord with department-wide data needs. Looking outside USDOT, state transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) play vital roles in transportation policy planning and investment and associated data collection and use and hence are important constituencies for BTS to learn from about user needs. BTS should develop regular channels of communication with states and MPOs, by building on the efforts it has already made to obtain input and feedback from them. BTS should
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 7 also move forward with its plans to develop technical assistance programs for states and MPOs to help them apply transportation data for example, the Com- modity Flow Survey for such purposes as economic development analysis and planning. *~7) In the reauthorization of BTS, the Congress should require BTS to compile, analyze, and provide to the secretary of transportation a depart- ment-wide statistical program budget for the secretary's use in making deci- sions during the budget process. (8) BTS should regularly meet with representatives from states and met- ropolitan planning organizations to help determine priorities for key national statistical indicators, other data, analyses, products and services, and im- provements in data concepts and measurements. BTS should also provide technical advice to states and metropolitan planning organizations to help them make more effective use of BTS and other transportation data. BUILDING AN AGENCY Statistical agencies must have a large measure of professional independence in order to ensure the credibility of the data they provide and to prevent any possibility of manipulation of statistics to serve particular political or policy pur- poses. The 1991 ISTEA includes several provisions that are intended to protect the independence of BTS; they should be extended and strengthened. *~9) The reauthorization of BTS should continue the provisions of cur- rent law that the director of BTS be a presidential appointee with a fixed term of 4 years, who reports directly to the secretary of transportation and is a qualified professional with relevant training and experience. The reautho- rization should underscore the professional independence of BTS by statuto- rily confirming its authority to release statistical information without prior clearance by political officials outside BTS. Statistical agencies must also have a relationship of trust with the respon- dents, both individuals and organizations, that provide them with data. Key to maintaining this relationship are procedures and practices that provide a firm guarantee of confidentiality of responses. The reauthorization of BTS should extend the provision in current law that BTS may not release data that could identify an individual or a business respondent. Two programs that were recently transferred to BTS, the Office of Airline Information and the Motor Carrier Statistics Program, currently operate under regulations that provide for the release of data about individual businesses. BTS should review these programs to determine their compatibility with its mission as a statistical agency, which is to provide data for statistical purposes (not for pro
8 BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS: PRIORITIES FOR THE FUTURE gram operation or regulation), and the advisability of transferring one or both programs elsewhere within USDOT. *~10) The reauthorization of BTS should continue to require that BTS not release data that could identify individual or business respondents. (11) BTS should review the Office of Airline Information and Motor Carrier Statistics programs, which provide for the release of individually identifiable data, for their compatibility with the BTS mission as a statistical agency that is committed to confidentiality protection. To the extent that data from these programs need to be available in identifiable form to serve important policy purposes, BTS should recommend to the secretary that the programs be lodged elsewhere in USDOT. Finally, statistical agencies should exercise and be expected to exercise a leadership role in their departments in such areas as the development of data quality standards and coordination of data collection. In addition to providing BTS with greater statutory authority, as recommended earlier, BTS will need strong support from the department on a day-to-day basis to develop a leadership role. Over time, as BTS builds its staff capabilities (as recommended earlier) and gains a reputation for excellence in its own operations, it will be better able to work effectively with the other modal administrations in USDOT to improve the quality and relevance of transportation data for the department and the entire transportation community.