One year ago, COVID-19 was only just beginning to make its presence felt in the U.S. By the end of March, Pennsylvania and much of the rest of the country were in lockdown, and already, it was clear that our relationship to trails and open space was changing. News coverage and anecdotal reports indicated more and more Pennsylvanians were taking refuge outdoors, but, as with so many things in the early days of the pandemic, what it all meant was unclear.
At PEC, we saw a need for solid data and analysis to guide decision-making around trails under this strange new paradigm. We went in search of answers, and what we found was eye-opening: not only was trail use up dramatically, but the spring trail season itself was off to an early start. Parking lots were full, bike shop inventories were empty, and it wasn’t even summer yet.
“It’s one thing to get people to go outside for a short period of time. It’s another thing to change society, and really change the patterns in which they live their lives.”
PEC’s initial research found that trail use was significantly higher in March 2020 in comparison to recent years, with some trails experiencing increases of 100 to 200 percent. The spikes in trail traffic began the second week of that month, when schools and non-essential businesses closed. The evidence was everywhere: something had changed. What was unclear, however, was whether this was a passing trend, or the beginning of a cultural shift.
The initial report covered trends observed by trail managers throughout the state in March and April of 2020, as well as data collected by trail counters. By the time PEC’s research team released their initial findings in June, we already knew more study would be needed. It was clear that the increase in trail usage was continuing into the summer months.
“It’s one thing to get people to go outside for a short period of time. It’s another thing to change society, and really change the patterns in which they live their lives,” said Frank Maguire, Trails and Recreation program director. “We were thinking that we were starting to see that. People were habitualizing themselves to getting outside.”
This month, we published a second report detailing how the pattern held up over the summer and fall. PEC used the same survey from the spring, and collected trail counter information through the end of October 2020.
Over the course of the trail season, our research found a 17% increase in usage, backing up anecdotal evidence that trails continued to be more packed than usual. We also found that trail managers’ outlook on the pandemic’s impact on trails was mostly positive, and that this positive outlook increased throughout the year. Some concerns surrounding the “unknown” of the pandemic that managers voiced in the spring were lessened by the fall, when managers saw that much of their work could continue despite the challenges of lockdowns and social distancing.