Positive utility of travel could change the way we think about mode choice

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Passengers on the Max Orange Line in Portland, Oregon make use of travel time by reading, listening to music or using their smartphones.

Normally we assume that travel is a means to an end, but the latest NITC report examines other benefits of travel—aspects that aren’t about reaching a destination.

One such benefit is travel-based multitasking. A good example of this is using time on a commuter train to listen to music, relax or get some work done.

The simple enjoyment of a walk in the fresh air relates to another benefit, known as subjective well-being, in which the act of travel itself makes a person feel better. 

These intrinsic benefits can impact travel behavior and mode choice, but our current models don’t have any way to reflect this.

NITC fellow Patrick Singleton investigated the policy and planning implications of this in his dissertation, Exploring The Positive Utility Of Travel And Mode Choice.

"The way we analyze travel behavior assumes people want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We don’t include the other benefits in travel demand models," Singleton said.

The idea that travel can provide benefits beyond reaching destinations is known in the travel behavior field as "the positive utility of travel" (PUT) concept.

Singleton’s dissertation makes some important contributions to this field.

By documenting reliable and meaningful ways to measure subjective well-being from travel, the report represents an advancement in how these concepts can be investigated. 

The paper also contributes novel and original data on PUT attributes with respect to mode choice for nearly 700 commuters in the Portland, Oregon area.

The findings offer implications for transportation planning and policymaking. 

In particular, the results suggest that there may be transportation-related interventions that could improve the health and well-being of a population.

Existing literature on the topic, reviewed in Singleton's dissertation, has examined and critiqued various ways to measure the PUT concept, including the "teleportation test," which asks whether people would be willing to instantaneously teleport to their desired destination (usually work) if the technology existed.

Singleton’s online questionnaire included the teleportation test, with two significant traveler perceptions emerging: people who preferred not to teleport were more likely to exercise while commuting, and were more likely to report that their commute time was useful.

So how does the PUT concept affect travel behavior?

Singleton found that measures of travel-based multitasking were significantly associated with mode choice.

Users of riding modes, like transit or being an auto passenger, reported more useful commutes than auto drivers, in part because they could and did engage in more activities while traveling.

Overall, the evidence suggests that walking and bicycling commuters enjoy gaining physical activity and value their use of travel time for exercise. Active modes like walking and bicycling had higher ratings on questions about enjoyment, confidence, and health, and people reported more useful commutes via these modes.

Social aspects of travel also play a part in mode choice, as does safety. People walking, bicycling, and riding transit were more likely to talk with strangers, and cyclists had higher ratings of "Fear" and lower ratings of "Security."

This work makes major contributions to the travel behavior field, centered on the PUT concept but in the broad areas of theory, data collection, measurement, and evidence of potential determinants and effects on mode choice.

It also makes a strong contribution to our understanding of the PUT–mode choice relationship. Notably, it offers one of the first empirical analyses of both travel activity and travel experience aspects in the context of mode choice.

These findings have several implications for travel behavior research. By demonstrating that the PUT concept may have a large influence on mode choice behavior, it suggests that future studies would be wise to consider including PUT measures in data collection.

The work also has policy implications.

For instance, if planners of a new toll road use inflated estimates of the value of travel time savings that do not consider PUT impacts, they might overestimate demand for the new facility and overstate the public benefits of such a project. Measuring and accounting for PUT-related factors in travel behavior models could help to produce more accurate estimates and behavioral sensitivities.

In the long run, if researchers can successfully measure, predict, and translate the PUT concept into a forecasting model (a major endeavor), planning tools could evaluate a much wider array of transportation projects, programs, and policies. These efforts could have the greatest benefits in terms of improving the understanding of walking and bicycling demand.

"There are future applications for transit service providers, to help people enjoy rides more, and ways to make active transportation more comfortable. It starts with research, and ends with practice," Singleton said.

For transit modes, he suggests, agency managers might leverage travelers’ desires to multitask by adding on-board productivity amenities like tray tables, charging stations, or WiFi.

Engineering interventions to make walking and bicycling safer and more comfortable—things like safer street crossings, wider and more pleasant sidewalks, enhanced human-scale streetscapes, protected bike lanes and intersections, and complete low-stress bicycle networks—could improve the travel experience enough to make these nonmotorized modes more attractive. 

Protected bike lanes in particular seem promising, as by separating conflicts with motorized road users they could likely reduce the relatively high ratings of "Fear" and "Distress" currently experienced by people bicycling.

Related research: Lessons from the Green Lanes

Singleton suspects that transportation behavior change is possible by altering the multitasking potential and the overall experience of travel via different modes.

These findings have implications for understanding and anticipating transportation futures. The looming introduction of advanced semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles (AVs) portends potentially massive shifts in travel patterns. Future "drivers" of AVs may act and feel more like today’s auto and transit passengers: engaging in more types of activities and not feeling as stressed.

While relevant today, it appears that the PUT concept will likely play an even more important role in transportation behaviors in the future.

For more on the effects of AVs, check out this session at the upcoming Transportation and Communities Summit.

To read more about Singleton’s research and the PUT concept, visit the project page or download the final report.

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