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Travel Survey Provides Wealth of Information

1 February 2011 979 views No Comment
Submitted by Adella Santos, NHTS Program Manager, U.S. Department of Transportation

The Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey (NHTS)—the flagship survey of the Department of Transportation—provides the administration, Congress, state and local agencies, researchers, and the public with sound information about the daily travel of U.S. residents.

The NHTS has been conducted since 1969, and the most recent iteration—the 2009 NHTS—caps the data series that now includes 40 years of trends in travel behavior. The NHTS includes information about all modes of travel (e.g., by foot, bike, public transportation, car) and for all purposes (e.g., going to school or work, shopping, short-term pleasure trips, walking the dog).

In addition to providing travel statistics, the detailed information about the households, persons, vehicles, and travel-day activities can be used to understand the following:

  • Characteristics of drivers and passengers, such as age, sex, and household income
  • Trends in active transportation, such as walking and biking
  • The impact of online shopping and deliveries to the home on trip-making
  • The aging of the population and growing unmet mobility needs
  • The effect of gas prices on vehicle use and shifts to other modes
  • The impact of flexible hours, working at home, and working past retirement on travel

The 2009 NHTS is the largest household travel survey in the series. It consists of a nationally representative core sample of 26,000 households and an add-on sample of more than 125,000 households across 15 states and five localities to be used for local planning purposes. The total sample is made up of more than 150,000 households, 300,000 personal interviews, and nearly 1 million types of trips.

One of the new initiatives associated with the 2009 NHTS is child travel to school data collection. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) partnered with the Safe Routes to School program to coordinate definitions and collect data for school travel across the nation. Data were collected on distance to school, whether the child attends before- and/or after-school activities, mode of transportation used to get the child to and from school, party size if the child walks or bikes, and time it takes to arrive.

We found that, since 1969, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of private vehicles to transport children to school. In 1969, NHTS found that only 15% of school-aged children were driven to school in private vehicles. Four decades later, 75% of children arrive at school in a private vehicle. This concerns planners and policymakers because walking contributes to children’s health, reduces emissions and congestion around schools, and adds to the quality of life in a community.

Furthermore, national and local policies focus on encouraging children who live fewer than two miles from school to walk or bike. Until the NHTS 2009, however, there was no national estimate of the number or percentage of school-aged children nationwide who lived within that distance. The 2009 NHTS estimates that 46% of school-aged children live within the two-mile target area.

Understanding the number of children who live within walking distance to school and listening to parent’s attitudes and concerns about letting their children walk is instrumental in formulating guidance for the Safe Routes to School initiative and other policies concerning school children. In the survey, parents of children between the ages of 5 and 15 who lived within two miles of school were asked in detail about what concerned them about allowing their children to walk or bike to school. The number-one concern was traffic (37%), followed by too far to walk or bike (~33%).

For more information, read the NHTS Policy Brief.

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