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2005 Traveler Opinion and Perception (TOP) Survey, November 2005


Project Overview

Led by the FHWA Office of Professional and Corporate Development, the 2005 Traveler Opinion and Perception (TOP) Survey represents collaboration between the five program offices of the FHWA - Safety, Infrastructure, Operations, Planning, Environment, and Realty, and Federal Lands. This comprehensive survey effort was developed as a nationwide probability sample of nearly 2,600 adults, 18 years of age and older, with the overarching objective of understanding the needs and expectations of users of the nation's comprehensive transportation system and the extent to which the existing transportation system meets those needs. Results from the research will be used to identify possible areas where improvements can be made to increase traveler satisfaction. The survey was conducted by telephone; the margin of error associated with surveys of this size is about plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The TOP Survey questionnaire is partially based on previous surveys, providing the capability to compare results from this survey with the 1995 and 2000 surveys. Moreover, the questionnaire was modified to address issues that have emerged over the years.

Modifications to the survey are based in part on a comprehensive scan of other research. The focus of the environmental scan was to review existing national, state, regional, and local surveys of the public regarding their experiences with the transportation system. Additionally, the environmental scan sought to review related perspectives on community, environmental issues, institutional, and intergovernmental issues that affect transportation leading to some understanding of the context of public perceptions towards transportation. This scan includes demographic studies, travel behavior research, awareness and attitude surveys, among others. More than 50 studies were reviewed. Results from this environmental scan are documented in a separate report. The results and, where available, copies of the study reports are posted in a web-based database.

In addition, focus groups were conducted in selected cities across the country. The primary purpose of these groups was to obtain an in-depth understanding of how travelers think and talk about the nation's highway system. Results were used to develop specific and meaningful measurement questions, while ensuring that no potentially important area of questioning was overlooked in the subsequent quantitative research.

Key Findings

The United States is a nation on the move. Virtually all (95%) adults travel using some part of the nation's transportation system - driving, walking, bicycling, and public transportation. While U.S. travelers use alternative transportation modes, they remain a nation of drivers. Ninety-two percent (92%) of all U.S. travelers are licensed drivers and have access to a personal vehicle that they use on a nearly daily basis.

Seven out of ten (70%) travelers commute to work and/or school, typically four to five days per week. Assuming two trips per day, this equals nearly 1.6 billion commute trips per week.

In addition to commute trips, individuals travel in their local communities for a myriad of purposes. The amount of non-work travel is more than double that of work travel - an estimated 3.3 million non-commute trips weekly.

Three out of four (75%) travelers experience delays from congestion at least once a week or more often. With the extent of non-commute travel, travelers experience delays during all types of trips and at all times of the day. However, travelers experience delays during non-commute trips less often than they do during their commute trips.

Nearly seven out of ten (69%) travelers are satisfied with the transportation system. This is a significant increase from 2000 when 58 percent of travelers said they were satisfied with the transportation options in their community and from 1995 when 50 percent of travelers said they were satisfied with the transportation system. Overall satisfaction with the transportation system varies significantly by region, with the greatest satisfaction among travelers in the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest. Overall, travelers in the South are the least satisfied with the transportation system.

The transportation system is rated just slightly above average in serving populations that may have special transportation needs. The transportation system is seen as doing best at serving those who are over 65 years of age and worst at serving persons with disabilities. Travelers have noted improvements in the system's capabilities to meet special transportation needs. Today, 47 percent of travelers give fair to poor ratings for meeting the needs of the disabled compared to 60 percent in 2000. And today, 46 percent of travelers give fair to poor ratings for meeting the needs of children and young adults compared to 56 percent in 2000.

The survey included 25 items answered by travelers to indicate the extent to which they felt these items are a problem. Of these 25 items, 14 were rated as a problem by at least half of all travelers. Reflecting the timing of the data collection effort (late fall 2004), the biggest problem travelers feel they face today is the high price of fuel. The next most important set of problems includes concerns about other drivers on the road - whether they are distracted, speeding, aggressive, and/or drunk. The third most important set of issues relates to the extent to which the system meets increased demands placed on the system. Travelers indicate that the level of funding for highways, the extent of plans to accommodate future growth and development, and the amount of traffic congestion are problems. Finally, travelers indicate that the overall transportation system is not well planned, there is not enough highway capacity, and too little funding for public transportation.

By far, the most important characteristic of a high-quality and effective transportation system is highway and roadway safety. Also important:

Consistent with the overall satisfaction scores, the majority of travelers give the system an overall grade of A or B. They give the highest grades to:

An above-average number of travelers give a failing grade (lower than a C-) for the following:

A significant number - 49 percent of all travelers or a total of 104 million people - drove on or through federal lands in the past year. Travelers are generally satisfied with their travel on federal lands. Potential problem areas include: congestion and road surface conditions.

Overall, there is strong support for future transportation projects - 11 percent of travelers are extremely likely and 52 percent are likely to support future projects. There is significantly more support for transportation projects today than evidenced in 2000. Although most travelers drive, support is strongest for transportation projects that support the use of alternative modes of transportation - walking, public transportation, or bicycling. In addition, travelers are more likely to want existing highways expanded and to have better quality traffic information than to build new highways.

Study Conclusions

Most travelers are satisfied with the nation's transportation system and their satisfaction with the system has increased significantly over the past ten years. Despite increased traffic and congestion, the focus on achieving new levels of quality in the construction and maintenance of the transportation system initiated in 1992 is paying off in traveler satisfaction. However, there is room for improvement.

A primary objective of this study is to translate the results into a set of concrete strategic imperatives that federal and state highway agencies can apply to further improve the traveling public's satisfaction with the transportation system. The study accomplished this through a two-step analysis process that clearly identifies the system's primary and secondary strengths and critical and potential weaknesses.

Highway safety - the most important characteristic of the system - is strength of the system. Specific safety improvements that can have the greatest impact on travelers' satisfaction with safety include: increased enforcement of speed limit laws, improved roadway lighting, additional use of roadway materials that increase traction, lengthening merge lanes, and providing emergency road information.

Travelers are also satisfied with the setup of work zones to maximize safety and improve traffic flow. Creating better merge patterns into work zones and/or as work zones force lane closures should continue as a focus in this area. In addition, better detour systems and/or simply more effective notification of detours could increase traveler satisfaction with the setup of work zones.

Travelers are also satisfied with the condition of the nation's bridges. Increasing the width of lanes and shoulders on bridges and notably providing access for pedestrians and bicycles on bridges will serve to further augment the critical strengths of the system in this area

Four areas emerge as critical weaknesses - pavement conditions, planning for future transportation needs, efforts to mitigate congestion and improve traffic flow, and pedestrian safety and mobility.

The condition of highway and roadway surfaces was identified as a system weakness in 2000 and continues as a weakness today. The most critical areas for improvement are the number of surface defects and, to a lesser extent, the durability of the materials used.

Efforts to mitigate congestion and improve traffic flow were noted as a system weakness in 2000 and should continue to be a focus for improvement in the future. Specific areas to address include better traffic signal timing to improve traffic flow and developing a system that provides alternate routes. At the same time, it is important to communicate the improvements that have been made in this area. These include the ability to judge and predict travel times, the availability of park-and-ride lots, the availability of traffic information, and use of traffic signals on freeway ramps to control traffic flow.

Travelers give one of the lowest overall grades for how effectively their communities are planning for transportation. The most critical areas for improvement include: better planning for transportation systems to support land use development and better planning for where development should occur. In addition, travelers are moderately interested in being involved in the transportation planning process but feel they are not particularly well informed about or encouraged to become involved. Further efforts are needed to include citizens in the public process.

Consistent with the support given to transportation projects expand and improve pedestrian mobility, pedestrian safety and mobility is an issue that is important to travelers and that receives a below-average grade. While a problem everywhere, pedestrian safety and mobility is a greater issue in the South. Areas that should be the focus for improvements include general availability of sidewalks (notably in rural and suburban communities), better co-existence between roadways and pedestrian walkways, and greater accessibility for persons with disabilities.

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