Biking enhances our health and our planet’s health. So why don’t more of us bike to work or school?

“For many people, the principal barrier to biking is a concern for safety,” said Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. “To decide to share roads with cars, cyclists must feel safe throughout the route, from point of origin to ultimate destination. Often, cities provide only a patchwork of routes, and the transitions between them can feel risky.”

Safety was one of several key issues that Buehler’s graduate students considered when city planners for Falls Church — which has fewer people cycling than other communities in Northern Virginia — recently requested a review of the city’s biking landscape.

“The city has had a bike plan since 2015, and while planners have tried to promote bicycling, their efforts have fallen a bit flat,” Buehler said. “So they asked whether my students could reinvigorate those efforts by providing their own strategic approach.”

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Members of Buehler’s semester-long Environmental Planning Studio began with an analysis of the city’s progress since adoption of the bike plan. The graduate students — 21 of whom are based in Arlington and four of whom are based in Blacksburg — also undertook an audit of the city’s current conditions, a literature review of other bicycle master plans nationwide, a public survey, and an analysis of potential future routes.

A handful of students presented the findings in person to the City of Falls Church Planning Commission on Dec. 7, and the entire class followed up with a final written report a week later.

Photo of Falls Church Planning Commission meeting
During the City of Falls Church Planning Commission meeting, Hannah Cacner (at left at podium) reported on the students’ analysis of roadway conditions and Allison Ulaky (at right at podium) presented on public survey findings.

One key recommendation was to incorporate achievable, measurable implementation goals in the next master plan. The students also suggested adopting the bicycle boulevard model. This shared roadway design concept addresses the safety needs of cyclists by combining marked shared lanes with route branding, wayfinding signs, and traffic-calming devices such as bicycle-friendly speed humps and curb extensions.

The students’ survey results supported adoption of that model, as 70 percent of respondents said they would ride downtown if they could feel safe.

Buehler was not surprised by the emphasis on safety.

“Women tend to be more risk averse than men when it comes to biking, which is why 70 percent of cyclists in the United States are men,” he said. “In bike-friendly countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, though, half the cyclists are women. Of course, Falls Church will not become Amsterdam overnight — it lacks the infrastructure and has less money and less political will to create a true cycling culture. But this study is an important first step.”

Photo of students' Laura Castro, Hypatia Alexandria, and Olga Perez Pelaez conducting a bike survey.
The graduate students who conducted a bike survey included (from left) master’s student Laura Castro, doctoral student Hypatia Alexandria, and master’s student Olga Perez Pelaez. Photo courtesy of Laura Castro.

Dave Gustafson, chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation, agreed on the value of even incremental progress. During the question-and-answer period following the presentation, he said he found within the students’ survey findings a promising echo of previous studies in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland. Those studies found that the addition of protected bike lanes and other accommodations yielded “a tripling or even a quintupling” of the number of cyclists over time.

“As you know from your survey,” he told the students, “if you build it, they will bike.”

After their discussion with city planners, the students added a recommendation to their final report.

“We suggested the city hire a dedicated bicycle planner to enhance the experiences of cyclists and possibly pedestrians too,” said Jason Schwartz, one of the student presenters. “That person could identify funding sources, conduct community outreach, and serve as an overall champion to push things along.”

Schwartz added that the open-ended nature of the project had boosted his learning, as the students needed to set their own goals, identify their own inputs, and develop their own methodologies.

Buehler concurred. “What’s great about studio classes is they enable real-world experiences,” he said. “The students learn how to run projects, communicate with clients, interact with community members, and deliver products. Just as important, though, is they can be of service to the community.”

Photo of Jason Schwartz, Olga Perez Pelaez, and Silas Sullivan reviewing their draft presentation.
(From left) Jason Schwartz, Olga Perez Pelaez, and Silas Sullivan — all Arlington-based master’s students in urban and regional planning — review their draft presentation to the City of Falls Church Planning Commission. Photo by Anthony Wright for Virginia Tech.

During the student presentation, several Hokies who work for the City of Falls Church expressed their appreciation for that service. Those participants included Paul Stoddard, the city’s planning director, who graduated from the master’s program in urban and regional planning in 2014; Jack Trainor, an urban planner who graduated from the program in 2021; and Derek Hyra, a planning commissioner who used to teach urban planning in the School of Public and International Affairs.

After opening his remarks with “Go, Hokies!,” Hyra summed up the reaction of many of his fellow commissioners.

“A lot of love for you guys,” he told the students. “You just did a tremendous job with this report, and it really gave us a lot of insight.”

Photo of Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech
Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech and an internationally recognized expert on biking safety, takes the lead — both literally and figuratively — on a bike tour of Falls Church. Photo by Anthony Wright for Virginia Tech.
Environmental Planning Studio students pose for a photo.
Just over half of the Environmental Planning Studio students were able to attend the final presentation (front row, from left: David Brown, Jason Schwartz, Mark Goldberg-Foss, Olga Perez Pelaez, and Chris Evans; back row, from left: Mirna Wassif, Amy Lynne Denny, Samantha Lockwood, Hannah Cacner, Allison Ulaky, Aaron Bethencourt, William Redmon, and Silas Sullivan). Photo courtesy of Ralph Buehler.

Written by Paula Byron