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By Brian Greene, Director of Trails and Conservation and Data Scientist
When going out on the D&L Trail recently you might have had a common thought: “Wow, there are a lot of people out on the trail today.” Maybe you caught it at a popular time. Perhaps you were out on that first warm day when everyone feels that primal call of spring to get outdoors. As the data scientist for the D&L, I often try to take these qualitative insights and measure them in quantitative ways.
One of my main projects is counting trail users. This turns out to be much more difficult than you would imagine. For one, the D&L Trail is an exceptionally long trail with 146 miles currently open for use and lots of places people can get on and off. Plus, people tend to use the trail at all hours of the day and have many different modes of transportation (walking, running, cycling, etc.). So, we know that we cannot count every single person who visits the trail. As a result, we designed a system to representatively monitor the entire trail so that we can estimate use. We use machines called trail counters which place invisible beams across the trail. When a person walks or bikes past this beam, a trail count is recorded.
Recently, with COVID-19 shutting down much of the economy, one of the few options people had for activities outside their home was recreating outdoors on a trail or at a park. Our trail counters monitor this so we can track the results. So, that feeling you had that there were a lot of people out on the trails? The data backs it up and demonstrates it in two ways.
First, when we compare the trail counts of cyclists from a month in 2020 to the same month in 2019, we see large seasonal increases. Overall, from five different trail counters we saw monthly increases of 144% (March), 63% (April), and 105% (May). But when you look at the sites individually, you will see some sites as high as 255%. Interestingly, trail counts were already higher in January and February due to climate change, resulting in a warmer winter that had virtually no snow.
Second, while the previous data shows a seasonal trend, I was interested in looking at an overall volume trend. To do this, I analyzed the highest month count in 2019 (August) and compared what the percent change was for that count. For comparison, while March and April 2020 saw a large seasonal increase, their total counts were still lower than the max in 2019. However, in May, the D&L Trail recorded its highest count for cyclists ever. This was likely the result of warmer weather and continued restrictions on activities outside of the home. May 2020 saw a 32.7% increase on the 2019 maximum count. This data point along with other information—like national bike sales increasing—leads me to believe that we are seeing new trail users as a result of the COVID–19 pandemic.
What does this mean? To me, this is hard data that shows that trails are a critical part of communities. Moreover, it reveals that in turbulent times trails provide an essential place for people to recreate, de-stress, and stay healthy.
We need trails more than ever, and more people are using the D&L Trail more than ever before. That’s why it’s important that we practice proper trail etiquette and support trails. You can support the D&L Trail in many ways including volunteering, telling public officials how much you value trails, and making a donation to the D&L. Every bit helps, and I hope all our new trail users do their part to ensure a vibrant and resilient D&L Trail for everyone to enjoy.