Volume 2022, Issue 01

National Parks Service project is one of “most exciting” yet for HSRC Researcher

HSRC’s Krista Nordback is busy working with Co-Principal Investigator Sarah O’Brien and an impressive team on, in her words, “one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on yet.” Such a grand statement is easy to understand if you know that organizing pedestrian and bicyclist (ped/bike) count data is Nordback’s passion. We caught up with Krista to learn more about the project.

What are you doing for the National Parks Service?

KN: This is a National Capital Area (NCA) Trail Monitoring and Analysis Program project, funded by the National Parks Service, to research and improve ped/bike count data methods in the Washington, D.C., area.

Ped/bike count data is unorganized. Agency A is counting data one way, Agency B is doing it another way, and Agency C is approaching it in yet another very different manner. And because each agency is on a different page, regional data sharing – which is useful for understanding and planning for the network – is difficult. In the Capital (Washington, D.C.) area, national parks cross through many different jurisdictions (federal, state, city, etc.) and provide a great opportunity to improve the ped/bike count process for the region. If this works, it can grow and not just meet the needs of this region but beyond – including showing how universities can be part of the solution.

This project is also spreading the good news that we can improve ped/bike count data, and that it’s critical to count these travelers when we talk about transportation safety.

Why is this project so exciting to you?

KN: Three components of this project really excite me:

First, getting to work with real data for real places that have real needs is exciting. This is true research into practice. We can make the data easy to use, and we’re getting a unique chance to prove that researchers can set up an effective, sustainable program to help meet local needs.

Second, the National Parks Service comes at ped/bike counts from the trail management perspective, which is different from the safety perspective, but they’re very complimentary. And these data are important for safety analysis.

Third, this cooperative agreement enables students to be involved in research. Training the next generation of transportation safety practitioners about the importance of ped/bike count data and showing them what to do with it is so important.

What is the potential impact of this project? And what is the role of the university?

KN: Jurisdictions are often unable to maintain and manage their ped/bike counting equipment once installed. And though they are willing to share data, these data are often still not shared beyond a few folks within an agency. This project has the potential to be a model for how universities can bridge this gap and help institutionalize equipment maintenance and validation, data checking, and data sharing.

Eventually, we hope that state departments of transportation can take on some of this work, but in the meantime while local agencies and nonprofits are out ahead of most states on collecting ped/bike data, universities can play a pivotal role in standardizing data management, improving data quality, and making data more available and usable.

Who is working on the project?

KN: The project is a great example of the strength of collaborative research across organizations. The “we” is a dream team of researchers and students from the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, Virginia Tech, and the Portland State University Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC).

Virginia Tech, led by Ralph Buehler and Steve Hankey, is the “boots on the ground” part of the team, critical to this project as their students are the ones who are physically out in the field. TREC researchers, led by Hau Hagedorn and Tammy Lee, are developing a central place for this project data to be available online on a preexisting ped/bike data dashboard, which adds to the value of our work – making this data more available to other researchers across the country.