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Meet Bureau of Transportation Statistics Director Patricia Hu

1 July 2011 2,031 views No Comment
Amstat News invited Patricia Hu, director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about her and the agency she directs. Look for other statistical agency head interviews in past and forthcoming issues.

Pat HuPatricia Hu is director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Formerly director of the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she led research for which she received the National Research Council Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) Pyke Johnson Award, YWCA Tribute to Women Award, and the Association for Women in Science Award.

What about this position appealed to you?

    It was an offer I could not pass up. It gives me an opportunity to help the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) become the “glue” that integrates transportation mode-specific data and analysis perspectives, both within and outside the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The position gives me the opportunity, during this exciting era of advancements in innovative IT technologies, to enhance the quality and timeliness of transportation statistics to improve the well-being of individuals and business productivity.

    Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

      My goal is for BTS to work with other DOT agencies to compile, analyze, and publish comprehensive sets of multimodal transportation statistics that are timely and useful for (1) describing the state of transportation systems, (2) diagnosing system performance and its contributing factors, (3) evaluating the impacts of both private and public investments, and (4) identifying emerging issues and challenges in transportation and how they might be addressed.

      To attain that goal, one priority is to harvest data generated by private-sector mobile technologies and other public-sector IT technologies, and to integrate them with data generated through conventional surveys and administrative records toward developing a comprehensive statistical infrastructure.

      Another priority is to develop visual analytical tools to enhance diagnostic analysis and more effectively communicate key insights distilled from massive amounts of transportation data so as to better inform policy, investment, planning, and operations decisions.

      BTS Fast Facts
      Part of the Department of Transportation Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA)
      Website: www.bts.gov
      Fiscal year 2010 budget: $27 million
      Staff size: 70

      What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) for BTS?

        BTS’s challenges reflect the complex and intricate nature of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, both in terms of physical assets and the services provided. The complexity is compounded by the diverse ownership of the physical assets, spatial and temporal shifts in travel, unique transportation requirements of emerging demographic sectors (e.g., the aging population, new immigrants), coordination challenges among public and private service providers, shrinking resources, and need to restore or replace aging assets.

        To meet the informational needs of operating, managing, and planning these assets and services, the development of transportation statistics infrastructure and data models needs to do the following:

        • Address the connectivity of transportation systems across different modes. Although much of people’s travel is by a single mode (either personal vehicles on roadways, public transit, or biking), no freight is moved from producers to consumers by a single mode.
        • Understand how critical transportation infrastructure is. To prioritize transportation investment decisions or develop operations strategies, information is needed to understand their effects and the tradeoffs among options. Assessments of criticality need to take into account not only the physical attributes, but also the operational characteristics of an asset.
        • Provide information about the consequences of transportation systems. Data need to be available to estimate the economic impacts of transportation systems, diagnose the causes of accidents and crashes, project energy and vehicle-technology needs, and identify and evaluate environmentally friendly strategies.

        How can the statistical community help you?

          In my first three months as BTS’s director, I have been amazed to learn more about the collective and collaborative efforts undertaken by the statistical community to continue to improve our statistical products, despite our shrinking resources. Examples are the Inter-Agency Council on Statistical Policy’s effort to develop and share approaches to solve common problems, the American Statistical Association’s support to re-establish the Transportation Statistics Interest Group, the Committee on National Statistics’s initiative to tackle significant challenges facing future household surveys, and the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology’s dialogue to improve the quality of statistical information. I encourage and support these types of efforts and hope they continue.

          Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?

            I hope to maintain and expand on BTS’s many accomplishments. Our Commodity Flow Survey is the primary source of national data on the flow of goods, including data on origin and destination, distance, and mode of transportation. In collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau, BTS has significantly improved data quality, the coverage and delineation of different economic sectors, and the precision of the estimates.

            BTS collects and releases the most comprehensive and timely airline-related data, including on-time performance, financial statistics, traffic flows, and trends on airfare. These data are widely used for rule-making, compliance review, and research to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of air traffic operations. BTS has significantly improved data quality by implementing multiple tiers of validation and verification procedures. BTS is recognized internationally as a knowledge gateway to data, statistics, reports, and related materials on numerous facets of transportation. This has been achieved in large part by the implementation of the National Transportation Knowledge Networks.

            To illustrate the importance of transportation statistics, please provide an example of how data not currently produced could have helped to better guide transportation policy in recent years.

              The Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS) had been providing data on the physical and operational characteristics of our nation’s private and commercial truck population. Its goal is to produce national- and state-level estimates of the total number of trucks and their usage patterns. This survey was conducted every five years, but was discontinued in 2002.

              With freight traffic being an intrinsic element of economic productivity and global competitiveness, the pain of not having VIUS statistics is widely felt. For the transportation community, how to operate better, plan for, and invest in transportation systems cannot be accomplished well without knowledge of freight traffic. From a safety perspective, truck safety issues and effective countermeasures cannot be understood well. From the energy and environmental perspectives, the impacts of innovative vehicle technologies on energy security and environmental sustainability cannot be accurately assessed.

              What will be the role of RITA and ACTS to help you achieve your top priorities?

                The coverage and quality of transportation statistics will benefit from collaborations among RITA’s programs. For example, transportation statistics can be more complete and timely by leveraging data collected by RITA’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Program. Data quality issues can be identified and solutions developed through the academic community engaged in RITA’s University Transportation Center Program. Statistics and decision support tools can be more strategically developed in collaboration with RITA’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

                ACTS has been instrumental in identifying critical data gaps and limitations, as well as offering advice about how to address them. Furthermore, the unique missions and activities of the different members and stakeholders brought together by ACTS enable BTS to develop a more informed and holistic statistical program that takes advantage of their diverse perspectives and insights.

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