Jennifer Yakey-Ault via shutterstock
Windsor Locks Canal Trail State Park on an early summer morning (Jennifer Yakey-Ault via Shutterstock)

In an era when outdoor activities are statistically safer from transmission of the coronavirus, Connecticut’s trails have become an increasingly popular destination for people trying to get out of the house.

At the 3rd annual Northeast Multimodal and Transit Summit conducted on Zoom on Monday, Laura Brown of the University of Connecticut Department of Extension, shared data about how outdoor activities have changed because of the pandemic.

While trail use nationwide is up 200%, Connecticut is right on trend according to Brown, who is working on a project called the CT Trail Census.

CT Trail Census has installed counters on about 20 multi-use trail sites across the state.

“The original purpose of this project was to be able to create some baseline estimates for trail use and number of users and use patterns,” Brown said. “Since we have been looking at this data for some trails since 2016 to 2017, we are now able to see how it changed in use since the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This data reveals that in 2020, compared to the previous two years, use was up even before the pandemic hit in March.

“We saw that really skyrocket between March and April, which was of course when Connecticut had a stay-at-home order,” Brown said.

Compared to 2019, the trails are being used up to 80% more this year and bike use is up 20%.

In addition to the usage counters, the CT Trail Census also conducts trail surveys of people using the site. Previously, hikers and bikers would be surveyed by a person with a clipboard, but due to the pandemic, they can enter the survey by scanning a QR code at the trail.

“This gives us a clearer picture of what is going on and how they are using the trail and why they are using the trail,” Brown said.

This year’s participants also were asked some questions about COVID-19.

The survey results revealed that 21% of respondents use the trail at which they were surveyed more since the pandemic, and 16% said they hadn’t used the trail at all prior to the pandemic.

“About 20% of those users are new to that trail at least,” Brown said. “We do not know if they are new to trails overall but the assumption is that a lot of these people are new users.”

Brown said the reason for the increase in trail use is because they are one of the only outdoor amenities that was consistently open throughout the pandemic nationwide.

“All of these pieces of data are combining to give us a clearer picture of what is happening,” Brown said. “What we see in terms of responses from trail managers is anecdotally, increase in number of users and increase in interest in trails, as well as increase in interest in the trail for health and wellness purposes.”

Trail managers surveyed also supplied anecdotes about overcrowding on trails due to the immense interest.

Long-term, organizations like Brown’s are looking for ways to keep interest in trails up even after the pandemic. But first, she said it is important to consider trails through the lens of equity of access.

“Increased use does not imply equitable access,” Brown said. “Just because there are more people using trails doesn’t mean more of everyone is using trails.”

Even though trails were one of the few attractions that stayed open, not all people have access to trails as an activity throughout the pandemic.

“Who is it that is able to continue to use these amenities during a pandemic?” Brown said. “Who loses access to some of these amenities because of policies instituted due to public health reasons?”

The issue of the inaccessibility of parks and trails for some members of the population is not specific to Connecticut. Statistics from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service show that although Black people make up 40% of the U.S. population 70% of national park goers are white. The Black population is underrepresented in these spaces, according to the National Health Foundation.

“This really shines a spotlight on the needs for better integration between public health, planning and design including a focus on more universal access to healthy outdoor amenities and transportation amenities,” Brown said.

Center for Latino Progress logo

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coverage of the 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit, as well as a follow-up series on related transportation issues, is being partially underwritten by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress.

Underwriting is funding for journalism that will be reported and produced independently, without prior review by the funder before publication.