Pedaling through the pandemic: Forest preserves report more riders on the bike trails

  • Hastings Lake Forest Preserve in Lake Villa. Forest preserve officials throughout the suburbs report increased trail usage, by both cyclists and pedestrians, during the pandemic.

    Hastings Lake Forest Preserve in Lake Villa. Forest preserve officials throughout the suburbs report increased trail usage, by both cyclists and pedestrians, during the pandemic. Courtesy of Tim Elliott

 
By Ralph Banasiak
Along for the Ride
Updated 9/28/2020 12:05 PM

You weren't imagining it -- bike trails were crowded during the shutdown. Five county forest preserves confirmed double and even triple trail usage April through August. Riders and nonriders alike had to adjust.

Tony Martinez, director of community relations for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, estimated, "Visitors increased by three times compared to previous years" in that time frame. "While our preserves remain very safe, we have received many reports of a lot of first-time trail users not knowing proper trail etiquette."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the Lake County Forest Preserve District, John Nelson, director of operations and infrastructure, tracked usage with vehicle count data at eight preserves. While April 2016-2019 showed less than 800 daily visits, totals exceeded 1,200 this April and 1,400 in May.

"For June to August, the increase was 61% overall," Nelson noted. "Visits increased in March as soon as the 'stay-at-home' order took effect."

Stacina Stagner, communications manager for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, reported, "In mid-April we set records daily for a while, more than three times more daily users than we've ever seen. Those numbers remain high -- regularly twice as high as our typical standard highs."

Input came from landscape maintenance, resource management and police departments, plus over 75 staff who volunteered to observe the most popular preserves.

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Stagner added that Trail Watch volunteers saw nearly twice as many trail users -- up 94% -- from March to August 2020, compared to 2019.

In the McHenry County Conservation District, Wendy Kummerer, director of marketing and education, pointed out that the north-south Prairie Trail extends 26 miles through the district, nearly to Wisconsin, and is the county's longest and busiest. With entry points in eight communities, collecting usage data is difficult. However, Amy Peters, planning manager for the district, provided two years of vehicle count data for April-August at 12 different trail sections, showing usage more than doubled -- up 116% -- from 2019 to 2020.

Laurie Metanchuk, director of community affairs for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, said, "Our staff can attest to the jump in preserve and trail use, during the pandemic. In fact, some of the preserves became almost too popular. We created a public-awareness campaign called 'Do Your Part.' We asked the public for cooperation to recreate on their own, spread out, and to visit different locations."

Cyclists ride the trails in St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Wheaton. Forest preserve officials throughout the suburbs report increased trail usage, by both cyclists and pedestrians, during the pandemic.
Cyclists ride the trails in St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Wheaton. Forest preserve officials throughout the suburbs report increased trail usage, by both cyclists and pedestrians, during the pandemic. - Daily Herald File Photo
Worried riders had to adjust

Anecdotes of peaceful trails morphing into arboreal expressways seem fact-based. Like other experienced riders who filled my ear, I also avoided trails, preferring lightly trafficked roads. As one female Palatine cyclist explained, streets felt more comfortable especially early on with less traffic.

Despite safety tips posted by many county preserves, rookie trail users, both on foot and on wheels, seemed to lack basic trail etiquette. Common safety issues included:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• Spreading across the trail versus staying on the right

• Not moving off the trail when stopped

• Unleashing pets or extending leashes across the trail

• Traveling too fast or maneuvering aggressively

• Overtaking others without warning

Naperville's Bob Thomson admitted to not liking riding the trails, especially on weekends.

"Trail users seem to be in their own world and often move in the wrong direction when I yell: 'passing on your left,'" he said. "Many are often wearing headphones so they might be unable to hear."

But Bob doesn't let cyclists off the hook either: "Biggest issues are riding on the wrong side, wearing headphones and not wearing a helmet."

Palatine rider Michael Kennedy sensed the increased traffic.

"Most do quite well but too many still stop on or, worse, perpendicular to the trail even with a generous shoulder," Kennedy said. "Others walk in the middle or multiple abreast, seemingly oblivious to traffic from either direction, wearing ear buds and unable to hear or respond to traffic."

Ed Breckenfeld of Batavia, a Fox River trail rider three mornings a week, commented, "Summer was definitely challenging, not only with an increased amount of riders, but many more walkers and joggers, too. New, unsteady bike riders, combined with pedestrians -- whole families with little children and dogs -- was especially difficult, though I never saw any major mishaps."

Let's hope that trail-sharing can be a safe experience for everyone.

Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove packed a truck full of used bikes for Chicago's West Town Bikes.
Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove packed a truck full of used bikes for Chicago's West Town Bikes. - Courtesy of Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove
Sharing more than the road

Eleven Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove collected over 85 bikes, 15 wheels, 20 jerseys, five helmets and other bike gear in a used bike collection Saturday, Aug. 29, to benefit West Town Bikes in Chicago.

Club vice-president Mike Cavallini noted, "We could not put one more bike in that truck if we wanted to."

Never Ending Cycles in Streamwood donated 56 mostly youth bikes to the drive.

Cavallini added, "The folks at West Town Bikes were very positive when we pulled up, especially about all the kid bikes. Bikes are very difficult to find these days, as well as tires and parts."

This was FCEG's third collection for West Town Bikes, a community agency in Chicago's Humboldt Park. Bikes are its tool for positive transformation of neighborhood youth, offering bike maintenance classes, and providing community members tools and facilities to do their own repairs.

• Join the ride. Reach Ralph Banasiak at alongfortheridemail@gmail.com.

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