Photo by Jerry Ranch

Data are crucial to make an evidence-based case for active transportation. National surveys and counting tools can provide essential information about user habits and experiences, and new, innovative technologies are providing this information more efficiently than ever.

Who Goes Where, When and Why?

Data collection and research on active transportation are rapidly growing fields, with many important developments in the past few years. Two key national surveys provide travel data but are limited to smaller sample sizes: the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) and the National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS).

These can tell planners and advocates the following:

  • How many miles users ride or walk
  • How often different modes of travel are combined
  • Characteristics of users, such as age and gender
  • Trip purpose, for example, commuting, grocery shopping, recreation, etc.
Continuous counters on trails, noted by the diamond-shaped cut-outs and the wooden post in the background. | Photo by Jim Lyle, TTI. TRB Circular (March 2014).

Short-term pedestrian and bicycle counts—another form of data collection—are popular with advocacy groups because they can easily be implemented, and at low cost, with volunteers. However, they are prone to methodological problems (e.g., low numbers of sites, limited experience and extrapolation to estimate longer duration volumes). In contrast, long-term, continuous counts offer compelling data that can account for short-term time effects, such as weather, but come at a higher cost.

When used in combination, the value of short-term counts can be increased considerably. The Federal Highway Administration’s revised Traffic Monitoring Guide (TMG) provides guidance on monitoring walking and biking, including information on short-term and long-term counters.

Innovative Technologies

New technologies provide promising data for active-transportation planning and research. Smartphone applications that track routes of riders, such as San Francisco’s CycleTracks app, can be used in bicycle traffic models to plan networks or conduct safety analyses. Other apps allow for infrastructure audits and rapid responses to dangers. Other applications such as Strava, MapMyRun and MapMyRide track users’ rides and run via a smartphone or dedicated GPS device to help quantify and analyze performance.

Heat map of users’ rides and runs showing the most-used roads and trails in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas | View Full Image →

New Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for trails, walking and bicycling are being developed to provide greater speed and efficiency in understanding spatially referenced data1. Using GIS mapping software, RTC has begun to analyze gaps in trail networks that, if developed, would have the greatest impact on health equity (i.e., connecting trail networks to disadvantaged communities to provide access to places of importance and need).

Importance of Data

Data collection can also be a powerful tool to engage advocates and challenge decision-makers. For example, the San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services in California now publishes an annual trail report which informs the mayor, city council, stakeholders and residents about the progress made on the city’s mission to build out the trail network. Understanding how active-transportation routes are valued by users and where the gaps in infrastructure are today can help decision-makers create better policies that recognize the importance of active transportation to create balanced transportation systems and quality communities.


  1. Sallis, J. E., Cervero, R. B., Ascher, W., Henderson, K. A., Kraft, M. K., & Kerr, J. (2006). An ecological approach to creating active living communities. Annual Review of Public Health, 27, 297–322.