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Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-16-082    Date:  August 2017
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-16-082
Date: August 2017


Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology Evaluation: National Household Travel Survey Program Final Report

4. Recommendations

Bridge ImageThe NHTS Program has been conducting travel surveys for 46 years and serves as the only source of data that links individual travel behavior with household and demographic information, travel-related attitudes, and vehicle characteristics. This evaluation found that the NHTS serves an important role in the decisionmaking process, but its impact could be greater. To further increase the value of the NHTS to FHWA and to its wider community of users, Volpe offers the following recommendations for FHWA’s consideration. [41]



  1. Conduct the surveys on a more frequent and regular cycle. The most recent NHTS data was collected approximately six years ago, in 2009, and as one interviewee mentioned, these data are “ancient” and “a lot has changed since then.” Users would greatly value a more frequent data collection cycle, such as every three or five years. If the NHTS survey were on a regular cycle, adhering to a set schedule, users would know when to expect the data and they could plan accordingly. In particular, a regular cycle would make it easier for States and MPOs to participate as Add-on partners.

  2. Institutionalize adequate funding for the NHTS. It is difficult to conduct the NHTS on a regular cycle because of uncertainty around funding. Several lead users indicated that since the NHTS is not mandated (i.e. there is no earmark in the budget), it has been a struggle to obtain sufficient funding. While FHWA was more proactive and successful in obtaining funds for the 2016 national survey, in previous years this has been a significant problem. In addition, the NHTS relies increasingly on funding from Add-on partners to support the survey design and data collection efforts. While the NHTS benefits from Add-on funding and increased sample, the Add-on partners are pushing for changes in terms of survey design and execution (e.g., more weekday sample, advanced technology use, etc.). While balancing the needs of the national survey and the Add-on partners has been well-managed thus far, providing additional funds for the NHTS would ensure that control of the survey remains with the FHWA. NHTS needs greater institutional support, in the form of both funding and staffing, to fulfill its mission. “Passing the hat,” as one interviewee described the process, is not a successful strategy for sustaining the survey.

  3. Increase staffing. A majority of those interviewed spoke to the need for more staff at the NHTS Program. Currently, staffing is “bare bones” and stretched very thin. The staff has limited time to conduct outreach, given the other activities that must be performed in preparing for the survey. Additional staff would also enable NHTS to plan for and conduct more indepth analysis of the data (beyond the Summary of Travel Trends and NHTS Briefs), thus giving FHWA greater ownership of the data. This might contribute to improved “branding” of the NHTS, broadening its reach and further increasing citations.

  4. Conduct more outreach. NHTS has an established set of users who rely heavily on the NHTS data, but more outreach could be conducted to extend the reach of the program. Although limited in its resources, NHTS has taken steps in this direction; for example, the program manager has organized meetings with different Federal agencies to solicit their input and to understand their data needs. These efforts need to be expanded. For example, the NHTS Program should consider meeting with Congressional policy staff to increase awareness of the survey and the data that it provides. In turn, this would enable NHTS staff to learn more about the data needs of policymakers. At a minimum, NHTS should consider distributing its Summary of Travel Trends and NHTS Briefs to members of Congress and their staff. Greater outreach also could be conducted among Add-on partners, to solicit new partners and to ensure that current partners are having their needs met.

Based on the findings of this evaluation, Volpe also offers a few recommendations for tracking NHTS data use, so that the program might better demonstrate its value to decisionmakers.

  1. Continue to emphasize the importance of properly citing NHTS and consider new mechanisms for collecting reports, publications, and models that use NHTS. The NHTS Program Manager has made it her mission to convey to users that they must cite the NHTS when they use the data. This message needs to be emphasized on a continuous basis. Currently, the NHTS Program uses Google to track publications that cite NHTS, and these publications are documented in its Compendium of Uses.(2) While this is an important tracking effort, it tends to uncover reports and publications that are academic in nature. Other efforts are needed to capture Federal, State/MPO, and local government use of NHTS. As part of its outreach efforts with these audiences, NHTS should stress the importance of gathering reports, publications, models, or other forecasting tools that use the NHTS data. Other ways to collect this information include the following:

    • Contact users via email on a quarterly basis to inquire about publications or reports (or other outputs) that use NHTS data, and then share innovative use stories via a newsletter.

    • Use the TRB annual meeting and mid-year meetings as an opportunity to gather this information.

  2. At the end of each year, develop a one-page brief that highlights findings from the Compendium. As noted above, the Compendium is a useful tracking device, and NHTS should consider producing a one page brief that summarizes the Compendium. The brief could illustrate the range of topics being addressed in NHTS research, the array of author affiliations, and emerging topics. The brief would also be useful to demonstrate the widespread use of NHTS to FHWA leadership and other decisionmakers.

  3. Media requests and requests from government officials should be tracked in an accessible format. Based on a discussion with the FHWA Public Affairs staff person, FHWA receives numerous requests from the media as well as from government officials. While these requests are saved, they should be tracked in an accessible format (e.g., Excel), so that this information can easily retrieved and summarized to provide evidence of the impact of NHTS data. These requests might also serve as a source for identifying additional reports and publications that use NHTS data.

  4. Better use of the website tracking information. Pending available resources, more could be done with the website usage statistics to understand who the users are, what online resources they are accessing (e.g., user segments), and the extent to which new users are accessing the website each month, as compared to repeat users. This information might help NHTS better target its outreach to distinct user groups.

41 The challenges and lessons learned described by interviewees provide the basis for several of the NHTS Program recommendations summarized in this section.



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