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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 4 > Big Surprise - Not!

Jan/Feb 1998
Vol. 62· No. 4

Big Surprise - Not!

It's really no surprise to anyone who's traveled a major highway recently that more Americans are on the road. In many areas, roads are more congested (measured by an increasing number of vehicles), and they stay congested longer. No, this is no longer simply my observation, but it is supported by the results of two major surveys recently released by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In September 1997, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released the results of the National Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS). NPTS provides a detailed description of household travel in the United States, documenting the way Americans use the second largest item of a typical household's budget - transportation. NPTS is the only authoritative source of national data on the amount and nature of daily personal travel in the nation and of how travel has changed over time. Conducted periodically since 1969, and most recently in 1995, information is gathered from households of all income levels on all daily trips by all modes of transportation for all purposes in both urban and rural areas.

The results of the 1995 American Travel Survey: United States Profile were released in November by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). This survey is the first comprehensive effort since 1977 to determine where, when, and how Americans travel long distances - more than 100 miles (160 kilometers). The survey, a partnership of BTS and the Census Bureau, collected information from approximately 80,000 American households.

These reports are loaded with interesting facts. For example, Americans traveled nearly 827 billion miles (1.33 trillion km) in 1995. On trips longer than 100 miles, the average American traveled more than 3,100 miles (5,000 km), which is up from 1,800 miles (2,900 km) in 1977; the distance nearly doubled in 20 years. Americans took about 1 billion trips during 1995, but these long-distance trips represent only about 25 percent of all travel in America. Travel by car (including light trucks and vans) account for more than 80 percent of the long-distance trips, and even for those who go by airplane, 90 percent of them used a car to get to the airport.

In a typical day, Americans make more than a billion short-distance trips, traveling more than 9 billion miles (almost 15 billion km). Travel by private vehicle accounts for 86 percent of all trips and 91 percent of the distance traveled. The average driving time per day for all drivers is one hour and 13 minutes. Between the ages of 20 and 54, men drive 18,000 miles (28,970 km) annually, and women average 11,000 miles (17,700 km) per year. (See, I told you there are more cars on the road!)

As interesting as these facts are to trivia nuts like me, the real value of this information is its utility to policy-makers, planners, analysts, and researchers to assess the impact of travel behavior on major transportation issues such as mobility, congestion, air quality, and safety. It is also useful in programs such as welfare-to-work as it shows that people in low-income households do not have adequate access to employment opportunities because of limited transportation options.

These statistics paint a very clear picture of the need for additional funds for highway transportation, including intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and transportation infrastructure improvements. Increased investment in transportation goes far beyond simply making things more convenient for the American traveler; it is absolutely vital to the economic, social, and environmental health of the nation. FHWA estimates that the nation must increase its overall rate of investment by approximately 15 percent per year simply to maintain the overall condition and performance of our highways and bridges.

The situations and circumstances that result from the facts that Americans own more vehicles - the ratio of cars to licensed drivers is now 1-to-1 - and that Americans are traveling farther and more frequently are the raison d'etre of virtually every program of FHWA and all state departments of transportation. FHWA is working to accommdate an aggregate growth in highway travel of about 50 percent from now to 2010.

The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time, but the results of these surveys help us to better translate the marks on the wall.

Bob Bryant

Editor

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