Connecting People to Safe Outdoor Space During COVID-19

Burke Gilman Trail in Washington | Photo by Bryce Hall

The COVID-19 pandemic brought dramatic changes and challenges as individuals and families sought safe places to be active outside in the wake of “stay at home” measures and the need for social distancing. Amidst the tumult, trails became—and remain—a lifeline for millions of Americans for daily, close-to-home activity and mental respite.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, trail use surged by 200%. In 2020, trail use was 51% higher than the year prior.

In this time of unprecedented demand for trails, RTC was quick to lead, providing the latest in critical public health guidance, updates and advocacy tools to connect people to safe outdoor space. Our COVID-19 Resources portal was designed to serve as a fast-response platform to support trail managers, active transportation advocates and trail users as things quickly evolved.

“We found that over the same three-week period from last year to this year that most of the trails were experiencing over a hundred percent increase, and particular Kelly Drive … was experiencing a quadrupling. And so … it became crystal clear almost immediately, that if that could be closed, we could alleviate the pressure on the path that’s on Kelly Drive."

—Sarah Stuart Clark, Executive Director, Bicycling Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

Creating a Trail in Every Neighborhood

10,000 petition signatures to close streets for walking, biking and being active outside during the pandemic

For the better part of 2020, surging demand for trails and outdoor places made it difficult for people to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other while outside, forcing many public spaces and parks to close, and many others to limit facilities and services. As the early spring saw an elevated rise in these conditions in many areas, RTC led a nationwide effort, modeled after the global “open streets movement,” calling on mayors and local elected officials to increase access to safe outdoor space for people to walk, bike, move and connect to nature.

Due in part to our advocacy, more than 70 cities took early action to repurpose streets for outdoor physical activity. In some communities, the push to preserve these streets as public spaces for walking and biking—even after the pandemic—continues.

RELATED: Walking and Biking Are Way Up During COVID-19, Revealing Big Inequities in Open Spaces | Salud America!

RTC Research in 2020 Showed Surging Demand for Safe Outdoor Space During Pandemic

“We continue to see evidence that access to nature and the outdoors is a critical component of our well-being—especially during times of heightened and chronic stress like this."

—Dr. Torsha Bhattacharya, research director at RTC

In July 2020, RTC released findings from a national survey, conducted in May, demonstrating an overwhelming demand for safe places to walk and bike in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—as people sought opportunities to be active and mentally recharge in the outdoors.

The study found that since March 2020, trails nationwide experienced a surge of 79% higher on average than during the previous year. Additionally:

  • Nearly half of respondents (46%) indicated that access to open space had reduced their stress levels during the pandemic—and the majority (66%) indicated that they were getting outside about the same or more than they were before the pandemic.
  • More than half of respondents (52%) report exercising outdoors in their immediate neighborhoods and on local trails.
  • Most of the respondents (78%) said it was very important to have access to places to walk and bike that were completely separated from vehicle traffic.

Capturing Trail Moments

Trail Moments banner

The moments we spend on the trail—playing, commuting, connecting with nature, walking, biking, running and exploring—make an impact on our lives.

Over the past year, millions of people have discovered the outdoors, close to home, on trails. As people sought out spaces to be active at a safe physical distance, trails proved vital to so many—for our health, our well-being and our resilience.

In 2020, we launched a national campaign to capture and elevate these moments—of joy, solitude and self-care—with a goal to inspire the nation and shine a light on the positive impact trails and time spent outside have on our physical and mental health, our sense of community and our vitality.

To date, nearly 2,000 people have shared their stories, and millions have been reached with the message that moments spent on the trail make a difference.

Share Your Trail Moment

Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.


From Father to Son—A Beautiful Life on a Bike Seat

Jorge Brito and son on the W&OD Trail in Northern Virginia | Courtesy Jorge Brito
Jorge Brito and son on the W&OD Trail in Northern Virginia | Courtesy Jorge Brito

“During these times of uncertainty, it is reassuring to have trails as a constant. My local trail has never been so important to me."

—Jorge Brito, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania