Van Horn Uses Pedal Power for Relaxation, Reflection

Mon Aug 07, 2017

While some people rejuvenate their mind and body through yoga, reading, or taking a leisurely stroll, a programing language expert at the University of Maryland has discovered his own head-clearing process: biking to campus each day from his home in Washington, D.C.

David Van Horn, an assistant professor of computer science with an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, says the daily bike commute offers a slew of benefits, both physical and mental.

“It’s fun. I get to see a lot of things I would probably miss if I were driving or taking public transportation, and some days when I bike the shortest route, it’s actually faster than the Metro,” says Van Horn, who is co-director of the Lab for Programming Languages at the University of Maryland.

Since moving to Washington, D.C. from Boston four years ago, Van Horn has discovered numerous bike trails leading from the nation’s capital to the Maryland campus. Some of these routes take as little as 40 minutes to navigate, while others run just over an hour.

“There’s a beautiful network of trails through Prince George’s County that make it quite pleasant and safe to commute to College Park by bicycle,” he says. “I frequently ride the Sligo Creek Trail, the Northwest Branch Trail, the Northeast Branch Trail, and the Anacostia River Trail—it’s a relaxing and reflective time for me that I've come to really depend on in my daily routine.”

Van Horn’s research and scholarship centers on program analysis and how it is applied to programming languages, software engineering, verification and security. He specifically works on the design and implementation of programming languages that go toward building secure, reliable, efficient and reusable high-quality software.

He says biking to work helps clear his head for research and teaching.

“I can get into a rhythm on my bike and my mind just works away at whatever is on my plate,” Van Horn says. “I arrive at work ready to hit the ground running.” 

Van Horn has not owned a car for the past 10 years, and being able to live car-free was a “big consideration” when deciding to come work at UMD.

“The D.C. area is one of the few places in the U.S. where not only is it possible to live without a car, it's arguably easier to do so,” he says. “Talk to anyone who lives or works in the D.C. area and the misery of driving here is bound to come up eventually. But the city is dense with a very good transit system and excellent, rapidly improving pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.”

On average, Van Horn says he bikes approximately 100 miles a week. His goal for the year is 5,000 miles, adding he is currently “ahead of the pace to hit that goal.”

Van Horn is an active member of the Washington Area Bicycling Association (WABA) and has participated in some of their events. In early October, he will partake in the "WABA in the Wild" ride, a three-day biking and camping trip that will cover the length of the C&O Canal trail—from pastoral Cumberland, Maryland to the toney Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C. 

“I'm doing this largely because it looks like a ton of fun, but I also strongly support WABA's mission and want to raise money and awareness for their efforts,” he says. “WABA is a critical player in making bicycling such a viable and enjoyable activity in the D.C. region.”

He has biked long distances before—100 miles being the farthest—but says that was on a paved trail.

“I once rode 50 miles on the C&O with Andrew Ruef, a UMD Ph.D. student, which was cold, raining, and miserable the whole way,” Van Horn says. “I'm hoping for better conditions in October!”

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld