Faculty Spotlight: Steven Hankey, PhD, Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech

The opportunity to work for Zipcar after graduating with a BS in chemical engineering changed the trajectory of Steven Hankey’s career. Tasked with evaluating communities to determine if the car-sharing program might be feasible in those locations, he developed an interest in the impact that various modes of transportation have on clean, healthy neighborhoods.

Enrolling at the University of Minnesota, he earned an MS in Civil Engineering, a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a PhD in Civil Engineering. Today, as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech (VT), he continues to study urban air quality, bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and land use models to design healthy neighborhoods.

These interests in sustainable land use practices led to his MATS UTC collaboration with his Alexandria-based VT colleague, Ralph Buehler, PhD, associate professor in urban affairs and planning, Tianjun Lu, a PhD student at VT, and Andrew Mondschein, PhD, assistant professor in urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia. Together, the researchers developed a proof-of-concept bicycle and pedestrian traffic count program as a tool to comprehensively monitor non-motorized traffic. As federal, state and local governments commit more funding to developing sustainable communities, there is growing interest in understanding the impact of pedestrians and bicycles on the entire transportation network rather than on specific trails or corridors.

Using 101 count sites in Blacksburg, VA, the researchers collected over 40,000 hours of bicycle and pedestrian counts covering 10% of the transportation network, exploring seasonal, daily and hourly patterns as well as spatial location, street functional class and level of supporting infrastructure. The study determined that non-motorized traffic can be monitored on a routine basis and that the performance measures analogous to those for motorized traffic can be used to track progress. The researchers hope to replicate the study in other locations and ultimately develop non-motorized land use modeling on a national scale.

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PhD Student, Tianjun Lu, places sensors to monitor bicycle and pedestrian traffic in Blacksburg, VA

Hankey presented similar work at the 2016 Transportation Research Board annual meeting. Working with Greg Lindsey, PhD, professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, the researchers explored facility-demand models as potentially useful tools for generating spatial estimates of pedestrian and cyclist traffic volumes. Comparing fully-specified versus reduced-form models, they concluded that reduced-form models explain nearly as much of the observed variation in bicycle and pedestrian traffic as the fully-specified models but are easier to apply and interpret. The work was recognized as the outstanding paper in the pedestrian category at the annual meeting.

Extending these research interests to students has been rewarding for Hankey. “Students in my ‘Topics in Transportation’ class provided much of the preliminary information for our MATS UTC project,” he explained. “They worked with town staff to identify top transportation priorities. They conducted preliminary research, deploying counters at several locations and measuring 240 hours of bicycle and pedestrian counts. The students presented their findings to a town advisory committee, gaining experience in applying research discoveries to real community issues. And their work provided validation counts that were critical to the design of the proof-of-concept project.”

Working collaboratively on these projects has been important. “Ralph and Andrew brought unique skills to the table,” he stated about the MATS UTC project. “Andrew provided his expertise on land use factors that affect bike use and Ralph helped us determine if the variables made sense. We had three researchers working together in three different locations, with students in each lab gaining valuable exposure to application-based results.”

Hankey’s work continues to focus on how bike and pedestrian traffic can be an integral part of healthy communities. Next up, he’s hoping to develop a phone app to determine how the transportation environment, related to pedestrians, bikes and vehicles, influences mood. And with his students out on bikes and wearing air quality sensors, he’s developing a spatial model of the air pollution ‘hot-spots’ in Blacksburg. The study explores the impact of relocating bike corridors off of main routes to reduce exposure to air pollution. “By gaining a better understanding of the interactions between pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles, we can develop smarter ways to build out the entire transportation network.”

Designing a Bicycle and Pedestrian Traffic Count Program to Estimate Performance Measures on Streets and Sidewalks in Blacksburg, VA – Project Page, Designing a Bicycle and Pedestrian Traffic Count Program to Estimate Performance Measures on Streets and Sidewalks in Blacksburg, VA – PDF (June 2016)

For more information, contact Steve Hankey at hankey@vt.edu.