Travel in the ATUS: Where You Are or What You’re Doing?

It’s that time of year again! The weather is getting colder by the day, and it’s the perfect time to travel. Wait, before you click away, this is not a travel ad (though maybe you would like it to be? Stay tuned…). Instead, this is a piece about measuring travel in the American Time Use Survey (IPUMS ATUS)

First, let’s lay down some basics. The ATUS data are collected by phone, and the primary focus is to document population level time use. Data are collected via a time diary, which records all the activities one engages in over 24 hours. Along with the activity, the interviewer also gathers data on the duration of the activity, whether the respondent did the activity with anyone else, and where the activity occurred (or the mode of transportation). Note that for travel activities, respondents are asked to provide their mode of transportation.

While these data are amazing and a great source for answering so many questions, collecting both what people are doing and where they’re doing it makes things interesting. Why? Because respondents can say that they are traveling as an activity AND they can respond that they’re traveling as a location, but their answers don’t have to match. They can respond differently about their travel and their activity.

Knowing that respondents can report traveling for both where they are and their activity goes beyond the “Wow! Neat!” reaction and great trivia knowledge. Here at IPUMS, we dig a little deeper and really understand our data. Today’s question is: “How closely aligned are respondent reports of traveling for both their activity and their location?”

Short answer: Pretty closely.

Long answer: Close only counts in horseshoes. 

Using activity-level data, we compared what people were doing (ACTIVITY) and where they were (WHERE). Looking at all IPUMS ATUS data from 2003 to 2018, we found that during 98.63% activities, there was agreement between what people were doing and their mode of transportation; that is, traveling was listed either as both an activity and a location or not a travel activity and not a mode of transportation. However, for 1.37% of the activities, respondents show that they like to live on the wild side and mix things up. We dig a little deeper into the mismatches between what people are doing and where they’re doing it (or their mode of transportation).

Traveling as an activity but NOT a location:

It’s more common for people to report they are traveling as an activity and not to report traveling as their location (1.03% of activities or .34% of activity/location mismatches). For this 1%, what are the locations people report while traveling as an activity?

Highest three responses:

Outdoors – Not at home: 35.0%
[Respondent’s] Home or Yard: 29.4%
Other Place: 18.3%

So, what’s the possible “why?”

Before we begin, we need to talk data. Generally speaking, walking and biking, by themselves, are not considered “travel.” We ran different analyses, one that excluded walking and biking with the travel activities and one that included biking and walking as travel. We found that there were fewer discrepancies between location and activity when biking and walking were included in travel. For these analyses, we included biking and walking as travel. To get a sense of what may be happening, we looked at the activities and locations that were both before and after their mysterious “travel as an activity but not as a location” response.

The top three responses for participating in a travel activity but not a travel location were: “Outdoors and not at home,” “Respondent’s own house or yard,” or an “other place.”

For those travel activities that are either “outdoors and not at home” or at their “home or yard,” the most common types of travel are related to working, socializing and communicating, and caring for or helping household children. 

Some of these travel activity/location mismatches may be part of a trip chain. Individuals report being in an “other place” while traveling. Often before or after being in an “other place,” respondents are walking, driving a vehicle, or riding the bus. “Other place” may be elusive, but this may also be part of a trip chain. 

When looking at the history of coding for ATUS, there have been inconsistencies in coding because of multiple travel destinations (multi-stop travel) and general lack of information from respondents that are harder to accurately code (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Traveling as a location but not as an activity:

Okay, so now we have to talk about the people who report they are traveling for their location, but they don’t report traveling for their activity. You know, that last third of a percent.

Top four responses accounting for about three-fourths of the respondents who report doing something besides traveling while they are moving from one place to another via a mode of transportation. People tend to either do household activities, socialize/relax/do leisure activities, or work, and, of course, eat.

Household Activities (21.0%):

These activities largely consist of walking, exercising, or playing with their animals when they respond that they are walking as their mode of transportation (13.8%). When they are driving or riding in a car, many respondents are responding to personal mail and messages (19.7%) or doing personal organization and planning (23.9%). We have all experienced the time when mom calls home to see what we need from the grocery store, or when our friend was driving and we were simultaneously planning where we are going to go to dinner later in the day.    

Socializing, Relaxing, and Leisure (19.2%):

Perhaps someone was going somewhere with a friend and catching up on the latest happenings in life! A respondent could be walking around or biking or even talking with a friend, which for them, is a leisure activity rather than a traveling-related activity even though they’re traveling from one destination to another. 

Work and Work-Related Activities (18.5%):

Commuters are likely the folks that ATUS picks up here. Technically, riding the bus or the train is traveling from one destination to another. However, when one is commuting in these ways they may be passing the time by doing work. Another example could be people taking conference calls while driving. We may have to be careful with that last one though; we’ll only count it if the respondents are driving “hands free” in accordance with the new Minnesota law.

Eating and Drinking (11.5%):

Here in MN, we have a thing called the Walking Taco. Well, I heard it may not be Minnesota specific, but that can be saved for another blog post. People may be walking (as a mode of transportation) and eating (as an activity). If you question this response, I encourage you to attend The Great Minnesota Get Together (aka the Minnesota State Fair) to see this wonderful walking and eating montage. One might also be eating during a stretch of a road trip.

TL;DR: There are three takeaways:

  • For most activities there is an agreement in terms of travel as a mode of transportation and what people are doing (98.63%)
  • When people report travel as an activity but NOT as a mode of transportation, they are in these types of locations (1.03%):
    • Outdoors – not at home
    • [Respondent’s] Home or Yard
    • Other Place
  • When people report travel as a mode of transportation but NOT as an activity, they are doing these types of activities (.34%):
    • Household Activities (21.0%)
    • Socializing, Relaxing, and Leisure (19.2%)
    • Work and Work-Related Activities (18.5%)
    • Eating and Drinking (11.5%)

Story by Emily Johnson
IPUMS Data Analyst