Triangle survey asks residents about their travel behavior

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Traffic on Interstate 40, looking east from Avent Ferry Road, in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, July 30, 2020.

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Forty thousand households in the Triangle are receiving cards in the mail this month inviting them to take part in a survey that will be used to help plan the future of transportation in the region.

The coronavirus pandemic may seem an odd time to ask people about their travel habits. The shift of work, school and retail online has changed when and where people drive or take the bus. It’s unknown if they will return to their old ways when the pandemic ends.

The Triangle Travel Survey is carried out every two years to try to gauge how people behave over time, said Leta Huntsinger, a researcher at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, or ITRE, at N.C. State University. Huntsinger said the agencies that use the survey findings, including the N.C. Department of Transportation, GoTriangle and the regional transportation planning organizations, agreed it didn’t make sense to skip the survey this time just because the results might be unusual.

“They decided, we need to know; we need a snapshot of what travel looks like right now so that when we do the survey again two years from now, we’ll be able to track these changes over time,” Huntsinger said in an interview.

All trips of 100 feet are farther measured

The answers to the survey will show how things have changed since the last times it was done, in 2016 and 2018. But it won’t be until the next survey in 2022 when researchers will know how much COVID-19 has changed travel patterns for good.

Researchers could get a sense of how much people are getting out by counting traffic on the road or the number of riders on the bus. But the survey captures who is traveling, where they’re going and why and how much they’re spending on transportation. It also captures other ways of getting around, such as walking or riding a bike.

Participants are asked to track all their trips of 100 feet or farther on an assigned day, whether its driving to the next county to go to work or walking the dog around the block.

Huntsinger said the data is used to build mathematical models that can help predict where roads, walkways or mass transit might be needed in the future, based on behavioral trends among different demographic groups.

The survey is by invitation only, so the researchers can ensure their sample is representative of the region, Huntsinger said. They expect that by inviting 40,000 households to take part at least 1,800 actually will and hopefully more.

If invited, take part

Huntsinger said survey organizers are urging people to take part even if the pandemic is keeping them mostly at home.

“Even if you are only going to the grocery store or even if you’re traveling very little at all, that’s important information that we still need to know,” she said.

The survey will help transportation planners reconsider their assumptions about where, when and how often people travel in the future. What will the daily commute look like, for example, if more people are spending at least part of their work day at home?

“This pandemic has told us as transportation planners and analysts that we need to build more risk and uncertainty into what we do,” Huntsinger said. “Because I think a lot of times we think, well, things in the future are going to be similar to the past. But we’ve now lived through something that’s shown us that things outside of our control can change that.”

Though the survey is by invitation only, you can get more information about it at www.triangletravelsurvey.com/.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He’s been a reporter or editor for 33 years, including the last 21 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, [email protected]

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