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TRB Special Report 276 - A Concept for a National Freight Data Program calls upon the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and its Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) to take the lead in coordinating freight data collection in the United States. Citing the need for accurate goods movement data in order to make informed decisions related to congestion, economic competitiveness, safety and security, and the environment, the TRB report recommends the development of a national freight data framework.

The report's conceptual framework focuses on increasing the linkages between different sources of data and filling data gaps to develop a comprehensive source of timely and reliable data on freight flows. The national freight database aims to fulfill the major needs of a wide variety of users by capturing the important characteristics of freight movements--namely, shipment origin and destination; commodity characteristics, weight, and value; modes of shipment; routing and time of day; and vehicle or vessel type and configuration. The database also forms a foundation on which users can build their own more specialized data sets.

In its eight recommendations, the report's study committee offers the U.S. DOT and the BTS specific guidance on developing a multiyear program to implement the framework concept. In particular, the committee strongly recommends that a freight data advisory committee composed of stakeholders and experts drawn from both the public and the private sectors play a key role in guiding program development and implementation. The proposed initiative will require a sustained effort over many years and involve many technical and organizational challenges. The amount of data required is large, and some of the information needed by decision makers has not previously been collected in the United States. The report highlights the development of innovative, low-cost methods for data collection and of procedures to protect the confidentiality of data providers as critical to a successful final outcome.

Demands on the U.S. transportation system continue to evolve in response to changing patterns of goods movement and passenger travel and heightened concerns about transportation security. In the case of freight, the growth of international trade, the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, deregulation, and the advent of freight logistics have all resulted in changes in the nature and volumes of goods shipped and the origins and destinations of shipments. At the same time, growing congestion on the nation's roads and at transportation hubs, such as ports and airports, not only inconveniences travelers but also threatens to undermine the reliable and timely movement of goods so critical to the national economy and quality of life.

The effectiveness and efficiency of the freight transportation system are heavily dependent on reliable data to inform a range of decisions at all levels of government and in the private sector about economic and infrastructure investments and policy issues. Data on goods movements are needed to identify and evaluate options for mitigating congestion, improve regional and global economic competitiveness, enable effective land use planning, inform investment and policy decisions about modal optimization, enhance transportation safety and security, identify transportation marketing opportunities, and reduce fuel consumption and improve air quality. While data alone cannot guarantee good decisions, informed choices are not possible without good data.

Data on goods movements are collected by federal agencies and other public- and private-sector entities that monitor or analyze transportation and trade activities on a regional, state, national, or international level. Because these data collection efforts are not coordinated, the resulting data sets are of varying quality and reliability and provide an incomplete picture of the universe of freight movements. Furthermore, difficulties in combining data from the diverse sources limit the usefulness of current data sets for the purposes of freight transportation analyses. To remedy these deficiencies, a national freight data framework is needed.

A four page summary of the report was published in the July-August 2004 issue of the TR News.


Suggested Citation

Transportation Research Board. 2003. A Concept for a National Freight Data Program: Special Report 276. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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126 pages |  6 x 9 |  DOI:

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