No Data? Big Problem.

Joseph Schofer is a professor at Northwestern University. Johanna Zmud is director of the transportation, space and technology program at the RAND Corporation. Mortimer Downey served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton administration.

Bridges are falling down, or being built to nowhere. Highways are getting more congested, airports more crowded, and transit systems struggle to cover costs and keep up with growing demand. How can we address the problems of passenger and freight mobility with limited resources?

Saving money at the expense of informed transportation decisions is pennywise and pound foolish.

In hard economic times, America’s leaders are looking for every opportunity to spend less and get more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. It’s a time for smarter decisions – especially transportation investment and policy choices based on independent and objective information. We must understand where and what the needs are, what works and doesn’t, and where the payoffs are greatest. That takes data – and good data are hard to find.

Yet in passing the long-overdue two-year, $109 billion highway finance reauthorization bill, the Senate dropped a modest provision to assure timely travel data needed to make the smart choices that will keep people and freight moving safely and efficiently.

The federal government allocates about $50 billion each year from motor fuel tax dollars to assure that we have the passenger and freight mobility to keep society productive and the economy ticking. State and local governments spend even more for the same purposes. Making the best use of such funds – for highways, transit systems, passenger rail services, airports, ports — is especially important when costs are outstripping tax revenues and needs are continuing to grow.

Smarter transportation decisions require comprehensive, accurate and timely data about infrastructure condition, travel time reliability, crashes and their causes. These data can inform decision makers about what really works – how best to relieve congestion and improve supply-chain connectivity to make freight transportation – and hence the U.S. economy – more competitive. Good data can enable people and businesses to use the transportation system more efficiently and ensure universal mobility.

The National Travel Data Program, defined in a study conducted by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), part of the National Research Council, would have directed the Secretary of Transportation “…to collect essential national passenger and freight travel data to guide transportation operations, policy, and investment decisions for Federal, State, and local governments and the private sector.” This program would have integrated, enhanced, and sustained existing federal transportation data programs to serve as an anchor for efforts now conducted by state and local governments and the private sector. The result would be a powerful decision-support infrastructure to preserve and improve America’s transportation system and keep the country competitive in the years to come.

Critics, of course, figure they already know where and how to spend the money, so information-based decision making is superfluous But there are all too many examples of transportation investments – or non-investments – that have not made good use of America’s limited resources. Bridges are load-restricted, closed, or falling down from lack of maintenance; transit systems endure unending cycles of maintenance interruptions; congestion wastes our time and impedes logistics. We have bridges to nowhere and other misplaced investments: good data can embarrass bad projects as well as promote good ones. There is plenty that decision makers can learn from good data thoughtfully used.

Some say that the private sector will collect all the data we need. True, entrepreneurs are far down the road collecting and disseminating real-time congestion data useful to drivers and decision makers. But the private sector isn’t interested in monitoring public infrastructure or providing data to support transportation policies that guide economic development or equity. The data problem we face will be solved only through effective public-private collaborations – just the sort the National Transportation Data Program would support.

The Senate may have passed up the National Travel Data Program to save money. But saving money at the expense of informed transportation decisions is pennywise and pound foolish. The National Travel Data Program could help us pick smart solutions to mobility problems at a cost of about nine cents a year for the average driver. Not a bad investment to make transportation decisions better and smarter.

This column was also signed by fellow members of the Transportation Research Board Policy Committee on Strategies for Improved Passenger and Freight Travel Data: Joseph G.B. Bryan; Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project; Anand Desai, professor at The Ohio State University; Lance R. Grenzeback, senior vice president of Cambridge Systematics Inc.; Hermann Habermann; Timothy A. Henkel; James M. Lepkowski, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; Daniel Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI); Alan Pisarksi, transportation consultant; and Steven Polzin, University of South Florida. The views expressed are the authors’ and not necessarily those of TRB or the National Research Council.


From Sprawling New Jersey, a New Way Forward for State DOTs

Despite the rather obvious link between transportation investments and development patterns, land use planning is simply not a consideration at your average state DOT. Most state DOTs — and there are notable exceptions — see their primary responsibility as building highways, never mind that highways are likely to spur outward development, which leads to the […]

Did Pelosi Just Side With Oberstar on the Transpo Bill?

That’s the implication of a Roll Call story today that states: "Momentum Builds for Transportation Bill." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (Photo: Here’s how the exchange in question played out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) weekly briefing. Pelosi was asked for her position on a possible second stimulus bill, and she replied: I […]

Streetsblog Capitol Hill Q&A: Four Questions For Mike McKeever

America’s transportation and infrastructure policies affect literally everyone who moves from place to place in the country, but often they are under-discussed and over-simplified by the mainstream media. To help broaden the debate, Streetsblog Capitol Hill runs a Q&A series called "The Four Questions."  Mike McKeever (Photo: SACOG) Here’s the concept: Every week, a different […]

This Is the Kind of Leadership We Need From State DOTs

“A breath of fresh air” — that’s how Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns describes this interview with Tennessee DOT Commissioner John Schroer. In this video, produced by Smart Growth America, Schroer describes what he is doing to make Tennessee’s the “the best DOT in the country.” Here are some of the highlights: We did a top-to-bottom review and we looked […]

Streetsblog Capitol Hill Q&A: Four Questions For Rob Puentes

America’s transportation and infrastructure policies affect literally everyone who moves from place to place in the country, but often they are under-discussed and over-simplified by the mainstream media. To help broaden the debate, Streetsblog Capitol Hill is kicking off a new Q&A series called "The Four Questions." Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s […]

Can We Bike Our Way to a Stable Climate?

Crossposted from the Frontier Group.  Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk about the role of bicycling in addressing climate change at the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists. The conversation was framed around the Paris climate agreement – the pact signed by 195 nations in December […]