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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 64 · No. 6 > Moving Ahead - The American Public Speaks on Roadways and Transportation in Communities

May/June 2001
Vol. 64 · No. 6

Moving Ahead - The American Public Speaks on Roadways and Transportation in Communities

by Vincent Pearce

The customer's level of satisfaction is perhaps the single most critical measure of success of an organization or individual. This applies in both the public and the private sectors. Recognizing this, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has, for several years, incorporated various aspects of public satisfaction as key measures in its annual performance plan. In 2000, FHWA, with the assistance of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, undertook a series of three surveys of customer satisfaction around the country, receiving a total of more than 5,000 responses. The findings were released in a report made public on March 20, 2001.

The surveys covered four primary topics:

  • User satisfaction with the nation's highways.
  • User satisfaction with traffic operations.
  • Public satisfaction with the effects that transportation systems have on communities.
  • Public satisfaction with access to and within federally owned lands, including national parks and forests.

The findings can be summarized fairly simply: There's a good level of satisfaction with FHWA's traditional areas of emphasis, such as bridges and pavement. This satisfaction has grown meaningfully over the past five years. Growing concerns include congestion and how transportation impacts the quality of life in our communities.

The public wants FHWA to focus on:

  • Decreasing traffic congestion.
  • Improving the safety and effectiveness of work zones.
  • Continuing to improve pavement conditions.
  • Making community-oriented improvements.
  • Improving maintenance response times.
  • Improving road safety in national parks and forests.

The complete report, as a portable document format (pdf) file, can be found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov.

Overall Satisfaction

Each survey began with questions regarding the respondent's general level of satisfaction. Most highway travelers were satisfied with both the major highways they use and the existing transportation system and options their communities offer. At least 60 percent of the travelers surveyed indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with traveled roadways and transportation. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with major highways, and almost as many (58 percent) indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their community's transportation options. General satisfaction does not vary significantly by region of the United States. Satisfaction was relatively high regardless of the type of road - interstate highways, non-interstate highways, residential/city streets, or rural roads - about which respondents were asked. Seventy-two percent of residents of non-urban areas were satisfied with the roads on which they travel most often.

Overall satisfaction with highways, as viewed by travelers in both urban and non-urban areas, has improved by at least 10 percentage points to more than 60 percent over the last five years.

Major Highways

In 1995 and again in 2000, highway travelers were asked to rate their satisfaction with the major highways that they used most often. The 2000 survey indicated a substantial increase in satisfaction; the percentage of respondents who were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with major highways increased 15 percentage points (from 50 percent to 65 percent).

"Dissatisfaction," a term that includes both "dissatisfied" and "very dissatisfied" responses, has also increased by six percentage points.

Today, fewer travelers, compared to 1995, have a neutral attitude about the major highways that they use most often. Those providing a neutral response dropped from 34 percent in 1995 to only 12 percent last year.

Respondents in urban areas and non-urban areas seem to be almost equally satisfied with the quality of the major highways they use. About 69 percent of urban residents report being satisfied with major highways, and 64 percent of non-urban residents are satisfied.

Travelers in 2000 were also more satisfied with many attributes of the major highways that they used most often. These attributes included:

  • Visual appeal (outdoor advertisements, landscaping, appearance of sound barriers).
  • Safety (roadway lighting, shoulder width, safety barriers).
  • Bridge conditions (visual appearance, durability, smoothness).
  • Travel amenities (roadside assistance, mileage signs, availability of rest areas).
  • Pavement conditions (surface appearance, durability, quiet ride).

The improved quality of these attributes probably contributed to the general increase in overall satisfaction with major highways. Significant increases in public satisfaction with various highway attributes are a good indicator of general improvements in the overall quality of these attributes. For example, pavement and bridge conditions, both of which achieved a higher rating in public satisfaction in 2000 than in 1995, showed significant increases in their measured physical conditions. The percentage of deficient bridges (classified as structurally deficient and/or functionally obsolete) on the National Highway System (NHS) dropped from 26.3 percent to 23 percent from 1993 to 1999. Similarly, the percentage of miles on NHS with an acceptable ride quality (based on an International Roughness Index value of less than 170 inches per mile) increased from 90 percent to 93 percent from 1995 to 1999.

Visual appearance, durability, and smoothness of ride of bridges each scored high levels of satisfaction, with respective satisfaction ratings of 75 percent, 69 percent, and 68 percent. Each of these ratings is at least 11 percentage points better than five years earlier.

Similarly, pavement conditions received an overall positive response. The satisfaction ratings for quiet ride (66 percent), surface appearance (58 percent), durability (56 percent), and smoothness of ride (53 percent) reflect five-year increases ranging from four to 16 percentage points.

When asked about highway safety, respondents gave high marks to many elements, topped by highway hazard signs (84 percent), lane width (80 percent), pavement markings (76 percent), and safety barriers (74 percent). Ranked lowest was the availability of emergency information (51 percent), which was a new item added to the 2000 survey. Items repeated from the 1995 survey had an average increase of 15 percentage points.

Similarly, decreasing trends in satisfaction can be an indicator of potential areas for quality improvement. Traffic flow, which decreased in public satisfaction from 1995 to 2000, showed negative trends in related physical measurements. The estimated percentage of daily travel occurring under congested conditions increased from 32 percent to 32.8 percent from 1996 to 1999, and the estimated average annual number of hours of travel delay increased from 28 hours in 1996 to 32 hours in 1999.

The two lowest rated highway attributes in the 2000 survey were maintenance response time and traffic flow. Satisfaction with maintenance response time increased slightly, while satisfaction with traffic flow decreased. Fewer than half of the highway travelers said that they were satisfied with traffic flow, and only slightly more than half said that they were satisfied with maintenance response time.

photo of bridge
Visual appearance is an important factor in the public's level of satisfaction with bridges.

Growth in Dissatisfaction

Because traffic flow received the lowest satisfaction rating and was the only item whose rating decreased in comparison with the 1995 survey, several follow-up questions were asked about this topic. During the past five years, dissatisfaction with all elements of traffic flow on major highways increased by an average of 20 percent. In 2000, 43 percent of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with traffic flow, compared to 23 percent in 1995. This may explain some of the overall 6-percent increase in dissatisfaction with highways.

Thirty-two percent of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with work zones. This was the second highest indicator of dissatisfaction among the attributes of major highways.

Additional analysis was conducted examining all of the factors measured in the survey that could have contributed to changes in satisfaction since 1995. This analysis suggested that concerns about pavement durability and smoothness also might have contributed to the 6-percent increase in dissatisfaction with major highways. However, it is important to note that these factors explain only 20 percent of the reasons for dissatisfaction, indicating that other, unmeasured factors have greater impact than those measured in this survey.

Travelers who reported trip delays were asked to name the main reason for those delays. Heavy traffic, which received the nod of 53 percent of the queried travelers, was perceived to be the most important reason for travel delays. This is twice the percentage for road work and five times the percentage for either accidents or traffic signals. Regardless of the type of roads, including rural roads, on which they drive most often, respondents ranked heavy traffic first, road work second, accidents third, and traffic signals fourth.

Three out of four respondents were generally satisfied with their ability to predict travel time. Almost as many were generally satisfied with the traffic information that they received regarding traffic flow. However, fewer than 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that they were satisfied with the level of congestion that they experienced.

Travelers were asked how much (as a percentage of time) are their trips delayed due to traffic congestion or other problems. Responses varied from little or no delay to more than an 80-percent delay in their usual travel time. Travelers who are delayed frequently are more likely to be dissatisfied with the roads that they travel than are those who are seldom delayed.

This finding is not surprising. Over the last two decades, traffic congestion has been growing in both large metropolitan areas and in small urban areas with fewer than 500,000 people. In fact, smaller urban areas have seen peak-period congestion grow more rapidly than large metropolitan areas. In 1982, only one-third of peak-period travel was congested in smaller urban areas; in 1997, two-thirds of such travel was congested. During the same years, the percentage of travel in the small urban areas increased from 14 percent to 36 percent during congested peak periods.

From the infrastructure perspective, the number of miles driven is increasing faster than road capacity. Nationally, there was a 10.8-percent increase in licensed drivers from 1990 to 1998 and a 22.4-percent increase in vehicle-miles traveled. During the same period, there was a 1-percent increase in the number of lane miles on roadways.

Respondents were asked about numerous transportation improvements that could be used to combat travel delay. The three improvements that were rated most highly were: "more durable paving materials" (67 percent), "repairs during non-rush hours" (66 percent), and "reducing repair time" (52 percent). All relate to the public's pain of delay caused by road repairs. These statistics indicate that the public recognizes the necessity of road repairs but encourages smarter road-management practices.

Road work should be planned and executed effectively to minimize traffic disruptions, and the focus should be on using quality construction practices and high-performance materials to minimize the need for recurring road work. These results correspond well with recent research completed by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and FHWA on using better construction-management methods to minimize the effects of construction work on the traveling public. A recent report, Get In - Get Out - Stay Out, focuses on innovative ways to better manage and execute construction projects and to improve the quality and durability of the resulting products.

Travelers sent several messages about their opinions on work zones. Overall satisfaction with work zones is nearly 60 percent. Satisfaction ratings are high for the conventional aspects of work zones, including signs (78 percent), detours (74 percent), and safety features (72 percent). However, the scores for speed of road repair, traffic congestion, and time delay indicate the public's irritation with mobility impairment caused by work zones. Only 36 percent of the respondents were positive about the subject of time delay.

When asked about closing roads to make long-lasting repairs, nearly 70 percent of the respondents would support closing roads for one week. However, this level of support dropped off quickly for longer closures. Only 37 percent would support closing roads for one month; 16 percent would support a three-month closing; and 10 percent or fewer would support even longer closings of six months to a year.

Satisfaction With the Transportation System and Options in Communities

The survey in 2000 asked a series of questions about each respondent's community transportation system - about roads, public transportation, bikeways and pathways, and how well the system supports desirable lifestyles. These questions were not asked in 1995; therefore, the results from the 2000 survey cannot be compared with previous results.

Nearly three out of four participants responded positively about how the transportation system supports important community characteristics, such as making the community a better place to live and contributing to both economic and environmental well-being.

To further explore satisfaction with the transportation system and its options in communities, two other questions were asked. One dealt with the respondent's personal satisfaction with the community transportation systems and options. The second focused on how well community transportation met the needs of most people, people with disabilities, and children/young adults. About six out of 10 respondents, including those living in urban areas and those in non-urban areas, were satisfied with their community's transportation system and options. Meanwhile, 20 percent of both the urban and the non-urban respondents were dissatisfied with the community transportation system and options.

For "community transportation concerns," two of the three most common responses were "delays caused by traffic congestion" and "not enough highway capacity to meet public demands." "Alternatives to driving alone" was also an important issue. Underutilization of transit ranked second and will be seen later in the recommended solutions.

Congestion was not as highly ranked as a concern by passengers and retired persons. Air quality and noise ranked higher than congestion among passengers.

Most respondents think their community's transportation system could be improved to meet the needs of "most people, people with disabilities, and children and young adults who do not drive":

  • About 60 percent rated their community's transportation system as fair or poor in meeting the needs of most people; 27 percent rated it as poor.
  • Just 11 percent indicated that the community's transportation system is excellent for most people, and only 30 percent said that it is good. This pertains specifically to transportation in the community and not to overall transportation, which was previously discussed.
  • Of the respondents who had people with disabilities living in their households, 60 percent rated the community transportation system as fair or poor in meeting the needs of people with disabilities. Also, 56 percent of the respondents with children and/or young adults in their household gave fair or poor ratings to the system for meeting the needs of school children and young adults who do not drive.

The amount of traffic has not only affected decisions about when to travel and which roads to use but also where to live, where to work, and which hours to work. Two out of three participants responded that the amount of traffic affected their decisions on when to travel and which roads to use. About 20 percent of the respondents indicated that traffic affected their decisions about where to work and which hours to work, and 30 percent said that traffic affected their decision about where they live now. All of these choices affect the growth, livability, and prosperity of communities.

A variety of factors influence a person's decision on where to live. This study focused on only one set of transportation-related factors. All survey participants were asked how these factors influenced their decision about where to live. The most important transportation-related factor in deciding where to live is ease of driving (selected as important by 39 percent). Bikeways, paths, and sidewalks (selected by 26 percent) and the availability of good public transportation (selected by 23 percent) were also important considerations. Those who live in urban metropolitan areas were most likely to rate the availability of good public transportation as very important (selected by 49 percent of urban dwellers).

The availability of sidewalks and paths for pedestrians and bikes was most likely to be rated as very important by those without access to a car (selected by 55 percent of those without access to a car).

Satisfaction With National Parks and Forests

FHWA's Federal Lands Highway Office conducted a survey of visitors to national parks and forests. The participants had a high level of satisfaction with a variety of roadway characteristics and features in national parks and forests.

The participants were also asked about the relative importance of various roadway features in national parks and forests. They were most concerned about safe driving conditions, especially because they may be driving larger, unfamiliar vehicles on roads not built to interstate standards. They seemed particularly interested in how signs and markings can assist them to safely navigate their routes.

Although the safety of roadways on federal lands was the highest rated characteristic in the category of overall importance, it received the lowest satisfaction rating. These findings give clear direction for opportunities and priorities for improvement in national parks and forests.

Suggested Improvements

Respondents were asked whether their local communities would be better served if various transportation improvements were made. The survey question did not ask about cost considerations, whether or not the improvements would help the respondents personally, or whether or not they would use them.

When considering transportation system improvements for their community, the respondents selected the availability or expansion of existing public transit (70 percent) and the construction of new bikeways and sidewalks (69 percent) as their top two priorities. Following closely behind were the availability of quality traffic information (68 percent), the addition of new public transit services (64 percent), and the expansion of existing highways (64 percent).

According to the survey findings, the public is much more likely to want to expand existing highways and to have better quality traffic information than to build new highways. Similarly, with regard to improving public transit, respondents preferred expanding existing services (55 percent) to adding new services (37 percent).

Respondents were asked which highway characteristic should receive the most attention and resources for improvement. They chose improvements to traffic flow (28 percent), safety (26 percent), and pavement conditions (21 percent).

Travelers were then asked to rate how a series of more detailed possible highway improvements might help them overcome the delay that they experience on roadways. As previously mentioned, the three improvements mentioned most frequently as a "great help" to overcoming delay problems were more durable paving materials, repairs made during non-rush hours, and reducing repair time. Other important improvements were traffic signal timing (50 percent), clearing accidents quickly (43 percent), and adding travel lanes (42 percent).

Conclusions

Most travelers are satisfied with the major highways and other roadways on which they travel most often. Satisfaction with major highways, which was measured in both 1995 and 2000, has increased substantially. The greatest strengths appear to be in facility design and maintenance, including safety, bridge conditions, travel amenities, and visual appeal.

A small but growing segment of the traveling public is dissatisfied with major highways. Both travel delays, which are due to traffic congestion and road work, and pavement conditions may contribute to this growing dissatisfaction.

Not only does congestion contribute to dissatisfaction with roadways, but it also affects decisions about where to live and work. These decisions, in turn, affect patterns of community growth and development. The placement, design, and operation of highways can affect how people perceive the quality of life in their communities.

The study results suggest that the public would find the following helpful:

  • Improve traffic flow by expanding existing highways and public transit and by providing better information to travelers about traffic congestion so that they can avoid it. This could involve using intelligent transportation systems and other innovations. Building more highways is a lower priority.
  • Encourage smarter road management and operation. For example, adopt a strategy of "get in, get out, stay out" for both road work and for clearing accidents. Plan and execute effectively so that the work is done correctly and expeditiously the first time, resulting in less traffic disruption. Also focus on quality improvements and high-performance materials to minimize the need for recurring road work.
  • Encourage greater understanding and awareness of how the placement and design of highway projects can affect the quality of life in the nation's communities. Expand community-focused alternatives such as pedestrian walkways, bikeways, and transit.
  • Focus on road safety in national parks and forests.

A matrix that considers the combination of the public's relative level of satisfaction with a road characteristic/feature and its importance to the public provides insight and guidance for programmatic improvements:

  • Focus improvements on the characteristics/features that are high in importance and low in satisfaction level. Improvements in traffic flow, pavement conditions, and work zones may result in the greatest rise in traveler satisfaction. Work zones are especially critical as travelers view road repair as a major reason for traffic delay. A stronger community focus on the placement, design, and operation of transportation projects can enhance community quality of life and satisfaction.
  • Communicate the system's strengths - the characteristics/features that are high in both importance and satisfaction. The public rated highly the safety attributes of major highways. Information on this strength will reinforce this positive perception and will help to increase overall satisfaction.
  • Monitor the characteristics/features that are low in both importance and satisfaction. Maintenance response time, which is a state and local responsibility, is a potential issue that should be monitored closely.
  • Stay the course on characteristics/features that are low in importance and already high in satisfaction. Bridge conditions, travel amenities, and visual appeal should be maintained as areas of strength.

Vincent Pearce works in the Office of Travel Management within FHWA's Operations Core Business Unit. He is responsible for arterial management. When he joined FHWA last year, he came with 22 years of experience in the private sector, and during the last 12 of those years, he planned, designed, implemented, and provided operations support to intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in the United States and around the world. His specialty was designing transportation management centers. He has been an active member and committee leader in the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Transportation Research Board, and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America). He served on the founding boards of two state chapters of ITS America. For six years, he was a U.S. delegate to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee 204, which is developing international ITS standards. Pearce has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard Business School.

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