James Madison University

HS Students Help City Collect Data

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: October 15, 2015

In just two days in September 2014, almost 400 bicyclists and over 3,600 pedestrians were counted at various intersections across Harrisonburg. These numbers speak to the increasing use of sustainable transportation methods by city residents, leading to positive changes in Harrisonburg’s infrastructure like more sidewalks and bike lanes. This data could not be collected, however, without the help of community volunteers, including many students from JMU. This is due, in large part, to the efforts of Dr. Stephanie Baller, a professor in the Department of Health Sciences. For the past three years, students in Baller’s course, HTH 351: Health Behavior Change Theory, have supported the City of Harrisonburg’s Bike and Pedestrian Counts, contributing valuable data to the development of health-related policies for Harrisonburg. This year’s students volunteered their time on September 12th and 15th.

PHOTO: Bikes on campus

The City of Harrisonburg Bike and Pedestrian Counts is an annual two-day event where volunteers count the foot and bike traffic at over two-dozen city and county intersections. “We train the volunteers and supply them with all the necessary materials, but the counting process is as simple as sitting on a street corner with a piece of paper and pencil counting,” explained Zachary Nagourney (‘15), Harrisonburg’s Traffic Analyst and recent JMU Geographic Science alumni. After these counts, the City uses the data to see how many people are using alternative methods of transportation, particularly in those locations that may not have sidewalks or bike lanes. “We use [the data] to prioritize projects,” Nagourney continued. “These counts help justify which areas might need help, and hopefully bring funding to these city projects.”

These local bike and pedestrian counts are just one of thousands of contributions to the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project (NBPD), a nationwide effort that provides ongoing data for city planners, governments and bicycle and pedestrian analysts. According to the NBPD website, despite the need for data concerning the usage and demand of city infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, there is an overall a lack of documentation of these numbers. By providing accurate and consistent figures, the NBPD helps local governments and professionals better measure the positive benefits of their investments into alternative transportation routes. The City of Harrisonburg Bike and Pedestrian Counts utilizes the methods provided by the NBPD to contribute to the database.

The HTH 351 students became regular volunteers for Harrisonburg’s pedestrian and bike counts following Baller’s work with the JMU Campus Accessibility Committee. There, she got to know some of the city employees involved with pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements. “When they asked for help, I knew this was something our students would be able to meaningfully contribute to,” said Baller. “This is a relatively simple way for students to support healthy environments in our community, and increases student awareness of the positive changes happening in Harrisonburg and on campus.”

The Health Behavior Change Theory course focuses on the theoretical approaches to helping patients and clients change their behaviors. “The students learn different theories for [patient] intervention, beginning with those targeted at individuals and progressing by the end to approaches that target large groups, such as through social marketing and public policy,” explained Baller. Through the bike and pedestrian counts, students get to learn more about alternative forms of transportation that are not only more sustainable and environmentally friendly, but have far greater health benefits as well. “[These counts] allow the students to learn a bit about the process for creating larger scale change, such as the steps involved and the importance of having data in advocating wisely for policy or infrastructure change.”

“Having data to support improvements in essential to the ongoing and proposed projects in Harrisonburg and on campus,” said Baller. “[The counts] are also an opportunity for students to discuss the intersection of topics like healthy environments, access issues for different populations, and social justice.” Both Baller and Nagourney look forward to this collaboration continuing in the future. “These student volunteers make up about half of our total volunteers,” Nagourney added. “We wouldn’t be able to get this data without them .”

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