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Faculty Spotlight: Ralph Buehler, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech

Travel Behavior: An Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Approach to Developing Transport Policy

Ralph Buehler, PhD

Ralph Buehler has dedicated much of his academic career to understanding travel behavior and how it is shaped by the built environment, cultural attitudes and demographics. His research is cross-disciplinary, focusing on policy implications, safety and health outcomes particularly related to the influence of transport policy, land use and socio-demographics on travel behavior as well as supply, demand and regional coordination related to public transport.

These research efforts have generated significant contributions related to bicycle and pedestrian safety, promoting policy considerations around multimodal transportation infrastructure and its relationship to healthy lifestyles and financial efficiency. His 2017 editorial on cycling towards a more sustainable transport future, co-written with John Pucher, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Urban Planning at Rutgers University, opined that cycling is possibly the most sustainable urban transport mode. It causes virtually no environmental damage, promotes health through physical activity, and is economical in terms of infrastructure and cost to users.

Buehler recently collaborated with Jon Wergin, MURP, Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, to explore the activities occurring between check-out and check-in of bikes in the Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) program in Washington, DC. Using data from GPS trackers placed on 94 CaBi bikes, the team identified differences in trip attributes between short-term users and monthly or annual CaBi members. With short-term riders primarily riding in parks and long-term bike share members relying more heavily on dedicated bicycle infrastructure and roadways with motorized traffic, the study made recommendations about potential locations for bicycle infrastructure improvements and new bike share stations.

Buehler’s MATS UTC-funded projects reflect his interest in developing sustainable transport practices. These interests led to his MATS UTC collaboration with his VT colleague, Steven Hankey, PhD, assistant 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 team developed a proof-of-concept bicycle and pedestrian traffic count program as a tool to comprehensively monitor non-motorized traffic.

More recently, Buehler received 2017 MATS UTC funding to explore the potential impacts of automated and connected vehicle technology on walking and biking. In an automated environment, it is possible bikers and pedestrians will be safer due to improved braking technologies. However, safety may be reduced due to an over-reliance on automated technology by drivers, but also be pedestrians and cyclists. “If, for example, pedestrians and cyclists assume automated technologies will ‘automatically’ stop for them, then we may see increases in unsafe walking and cycling behaviors such as jay-walking or failing to use designated bike lanes,” said Buehler. Again working with Hankey and Mondschein, the team is using semi-structured interviews with various stakeholders to develop planning guidelines for walking and cycling as society transitions to an automated fleet.

“This latest MATS UTC project represents a significant and exciting shift,” explained Buehler. “Similar to predictive modeling, we’re trying to anticipate future behaviors and impacts. However, there is very little literature or empirical evidence related to the impacts of automated vehicles since their use is still in its infancy. If we can identify potential impacts, synergies and conflicts between automated and connected vehicles on non-motorized modes, then we can start to develop policy recommendations for improving safety and efficient use of roadway space and the built environment.”

Inspired by transport policy initiatives in Western Europe, Buehler also focuses significant attention on developing an international comparative perspective, studying walking, cycling and vehicle dependence primarily in Europe and North America. “By contrasting transport initiatives among different cities and different countries, we can learn valuable policy lessons to inform transportation priorities in the United States,” Buehler explained.

Buehler is the author or co-author of over 45 refereed articles in academic journals, the book City Cycling (MIT Press), as well as reports to federal and local governments, NGOs, and for-profit industry organizations.  He currently serves as Chair of the TRB committee on Bicycle Transportation and is a Faculty Fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center.

He received his PhD in Planning and Public Policy from Rutgers University. His PhD dissertation was honored with the Barclay Gibbs Jones Award for Best Dissertation in Planning 2008. Buehler may be contacted at ralphbu@vt.edu.


Select publications:

Buehler, R. and J. Pucher. 2017. “Have Walking and Cycling Become Safer? Recent Evidence from High-Income Countries, with a Focus on the United States and Germany,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 107, No. 2, pp. 281–287.

Buehler, R., J. Pucher and A. Altshuler. 2017. “Vienna’s Path to Sustainable Transport,“ International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, Vol. 11, No. 4, 257-271.

Buehler, R., J. Pucher, R. Gerike and T. Goetschi. 2017. “Reducing car dependence in the heart of Europe: Lessons from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland,” Transport Reviews, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp 4-28.

Buehler, R., W. Jung and A. Hamre. 2015. “Planning for Sustainable Transport in Germany and the U.S.: A comparison of the Washington, DC and Stuttgart Regions,” International Planning Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp.292-312.

Hankey, S.,  T.Lu, A. Mondschein and R. Buehler. 2017. “Spatial Models of Active Travel in Small Communities: Merging the Goals of Traffic Monitoring and Direct-Demand Modeling,” Journal of Transport and Health, Vol. 7, Part B, pp. 149-159.

Wergin, J. and R. Buehler. Accepted for publication. “Where do Bikeshare Bikes Actually Go? An Analysis of Capital Bikeshare Trips Using GPS Data.” Transportation Research Record.