A professor in the Virginia Tech department of urban affairs and planning says despite geographic challenges the New River Valley offers a small, but thriving, bicycle community.

Steve Hankey cites numerous organizations and clubs that promote recreational cycling. But the future could lend itself to more people commuting by bicycle to and from work.

“The NRV has relatively low bicycle commute rates as compared to major urban areas, but moderately higher commute rates when compared to other rural areas. There are many ongoing planning efforts to encourage more cycling in the area,” he said.

The comments are timely as May 15-19 was “National Bike to Work Week”.

Hankey said in general, the NRV should work to implement ideas already embodied in planning documents for each jurisdiction.

“For example, the Town of Blacksburg has recently published its Bike Master Plan (www.blacksburg.gov/residents/ getting-around/biking/bike-master-plan). Included in this document are significantly expanded on-street and off-street bicycle facilities as well as educational programs to better prepare people for cycling in the built environment,” he said.

The urban affairs associate professor points to the fact that Blacksburg is a university town.

“Throughout the United States many university towns are known as premier cycling towns. For example, in Boulder, Colorado 12 percent of workers regularly commute to work by bicycle. In Davis, California 22 percent of commuters regularly cycle to work. In Blacksburg only three percent of regular commutes are by bicycle. Blacksburg has great potential and should strive to become a top bicycling university town. There is clearly room to grow,” Hankey said.

According to a study by the New River Valley Regional Commission, over 50 percent of residents in the area are commuting less than 10 miles, thus lending itself to commuting to work possibly by bicycle. The number of people currently biking to work is not known, but this area could also be a step ahead of other communities around the country. Tech’s Hankey said the Huckleberry and other off-street trail networks are vital pieces of the transportation network for cyclists.

“Throughout the country cycling volumes are typically higher on off-street trails than other types of facilities (e.g., bike lanes or roads). There is also growing evidence that providing safe infrastructure – such as the Huckleberry Trail – plays a role in encouraging more risk adverse populations (e.g., children and/or new cyclists) to start cycling,” he said.

Recently, Christiansburg leaders have opened a new path from Cambria Street into the Oak Tree town home development, and looking to extending it to Christiansburg High School and then into the downtown area with crossings near or at retail stores and doctors’ offices.

Last week, Christiansburg also hinted at a plan that would take an extension of the Huckleberry through Cambria’s historic district to Roanoke Street.

Melissa Powell, Christiansburg’s public information officer, said a recent trail looked at getting the trail from North Franklin Street to Roanoke Street. How to get across North Franklin Street is still being evaluated, and a further study will likely be required.

The trail extension would remain in the public right-a-way and would not require any land acquisition. No timetable has been placed on that project, but construction on the extension to the high school is anticipated to begin in the spring of 2018.

“The project design is underway, and easements will then need to be acquired,” Powell said.

Blacksburg has similar plan to extend the Huckleberry across Prices Fork Road and to the Jefferson National Forest to the north of the town, thus opening almost eight miles of trail in and around both communities.

But Virginia Tech urban affairs professor Ralph Buchler said the U.S. as a whole still needs big improvements to its bicycling infrastructure to improve safety and encourage more cycling commuting.

“Traffic fatalities and serious injuries are not inevitable, and they can be reduced by implementing the right policies, especially improved infrastructure and technology,” said Buehler.

According to a recent editorial and study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPJH), co-authored by Buehler and John Pucher, professor emeritus, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, the U.S. has a much higher fatality and serious injury rate compared to other countries.

Most roads in the U.S. have no cycling infrastructure, and what exists is often dangerously designed, poorly maintained, and not connected to form a useful network. In many urban areas intersections are dangerous for cyclists because of turning motor vehicles.

The researchers find that recent implementation of improved cycling infrastructure in 10 cities across the U.S. has led to significant improvements in safety. For example, offering on-street bicycle lanes that are physically separated from motor vehicles by raised curbs, bollard, or concrete barriers improve safety on major streets. As a result, places such as Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C. have reduced the number of cyclist crashes and serious injuries.

“More and better bicycle infrastructure and safer cycling would encourage Americans to make more of their daily trips by bicycle and help raise the current low physical activity levels of the U.S. population,” says Buehler.

Once bike infrastructure is improved, Buehler says there are incentives employers can use to encourage more cycling. This includes having showers, lockers and bike parking for employees. He says that cash incentives work best if companies don’t offer free parking as an option.

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