Pennsylvania Legacies #125

June 26, 2020
PEC Blog

“Every day is like a weekend day now,” read one response to PEC’s recent survey of Pennsylvania trail managers about outdoor recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of respondents reported — and counter data confirmed — that statewide trail use had surged amid school cancellations, business closures, and stay-at-home orders during March and April.

What can the data tell us about the role trails and greenways play in the lives of Pennsylvanians, especially during a crisis? Amy Camp, who helped compile the report published earlier this month, is our guest.


When the state went into lockdown this past spring, many Pennsylvanians took to local parks and trails for exercise, comfort, or a change of scenery. That much was obvious to trail users, who suddenly had to fight for parking at trail access points or had to learn how to navigate around others while maintaining social distance.

PEC’s trails and outdoor recreation team watched this apparent trail boom with great interest. It was, after all, a live demonstration of the value that parks, trails, and public greenspace hold for communities at a time when the future of state funding for such assets seems a bit uncertain. It was also a public stress test for trail systems themselves, putting unusual amounts of strain on infrastructure and staff. And as heartening as it was to see so many Pennsylvanians using the trails we love and advocate for, there is also concern about overcrowded facilities possibly contributing to the spread of COVID-19, rather than providing a respite from it.

For all of these reasons and more, we wanted to know exactly how big this trail boom was. Was it state-wide, or just isolated in urban pockets or other areas? And how were trail systems dealing with the new demand? In order to address these questions, we did some research, which resulted in the report, “The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Pennsylvania’s Non-motorized Trails: Increased Use, Added Strain, and a Newfound Appreciation.”

The first step in creating the report was deciding what information we wanted to focus on. Because the spike in trail usage was such a visible phenomenon, everyone was talking about it, resulting in a slew of potential research directions and a wide range of sources to choose from.

Amy Camp, Cycle Forward

“I couldn’t tell you how many different news articles there were out there, webinars, blog posts, you name it. There was just a ton of content around how people were flocking to the outdoors,” said Amy Camp, who helped compile the report.

Much of the key data for this report came from trail counts, which were mostly taken from multi-use and rail trails. The method of conducting these counts varies from trail to trail. Some organizations use electronic counters, while others count manually or use a combination of the two strategies. This was one of our primary ways of estimating total numbers of people using trails.

A significant part of the research involved conducting a survey of non-motorized trail managers across Pennsylvania. Nearly 80 managers responded to the survey, and we were able to use 74 of those responses. Managers that we surveyed were also asked if they would be willing to share their trail counts. A number of them were able to share their data, resulting in usable data from fifteen counters with counts from the past three years.

“We were hearing stories from trail managers about 200 and 400 percent year over year increases, and comments about parking lots being full, or having to manage their parking lots.”

Once we collected all of this information, we had to synthesize it for answers to the crucial question: What does this tell us about how people have been using trails this spring and summer?

“The analysis tells us that trail use was way up in March in particular. Not only did the electronic counts tell us that, but the trail managers told us the same thing,” said Camp. “We were hearing stories from trail managers about 200 and 400 percent year over year increases, and comments about parking lots being full, or having to manage their parking lots.”

Not only were numbers up, but the time of year when people started using trails shifted.

“Trail season typically is thought to start around April… But what we saw this year with trail use in Pennsylvania is that March was so busy, and so much busier than in recent years, that it essentially kicked off trail season a month early.”

Of course, not all trails are being impacted by this increase in the same way. Camp explained that multi-use and rail trails have the “carrying capacity and space to be able to accommodate a sudden uptick in use,” while trails with natural surfaces “may be seeing more of the negative impacts due to those trails having a different carrying capacity,” and are therefore more likely to experience issues like erosion and damage to plant life. Additionally, managers of destination trails might also respond with a mix of positive and negative views, because of the pandemic’s impact on trip cancelations.

“People are going to be more likely to use their local trail for exercise and recreation and maybe to some degree for transportation. But obviously, the multi-day-tourism-type trail use is going to drop off,” said Camp.

“My hope is that decision makers will… support new trials being constructed so that we can accommodate the kinds of crowds that a lot of our state experienced this spring.”

Overall, the picture that emerged from the research confirmed what we and many others already suspected: we were looking at an unprecedented surge in trail use in almost every part of the Commonwealth. In some areas, there was nearly a threefold increase over the last two years. As we wrote in the report, “This is a great time to have access to trails and a challenging time to manage them.” But it is clear that Pennsylvanians have a newfound appreciation for trails as a means to get outdoors and stay mentally and physically well.

Amy Camp has a positive outlook on what this might mean for the future of trail policy: “My hope is that decision makers will not only support quality trials, but also support new trials being constructed so that we can accommodate the kinds of crowds that a lot of our state experienced this spring.”

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