Motor vehicle and bus use dropped with the coronavirus, but trail use – by bicycle or foot – soared, according to statistics tracked by the Wilmington Area Planning Council.
And the council, which focuses on New Castle County and Cecil County in Maryland, is encouraging people to walk or pedal even more.
The most far-reaching idea out there to “to relieve crowded areas to support physical distancing” is called slow bike/walk streets. Westside Grows and Urban Bike Project in Wilmington and BikeNewark in Newark have promoted such plans, said Heather Dunigan, the agency’s principal planner.
They basically call for banning motor vehicles on some streets at some times.
Large-scale examples elsewhere of that trend include weekend closures in New York’s Central Park and Washington’s Rock Creek Park.
A local example: Newark has begun hosting pedestrian-oriented alfresco dining events, with another Main Street Alfresco planned 4-9 p.m. Aug. 12. Main Street between Chapel Street and South College Avenue is shut down, the Newark Post reported, allowing restaurants to expanding outdoor seating.
BikeNewark has talked about improving the events for bicyclists by expanding bike parking and identifying low-stress bike routes to Main Street.
The Healthy Streets plan in Wilmington proposed weekend-only “soft closures” of selected stretches to through traffic. If adopted, parts of South Park Drive – and perhaps Lovering Avenue and 16th Street – would be left for bicyclists and pedestrians. If successful, the plan would expand.
But those ifs are in the future.
“The Wilmington concept was put on hold by the city Public Works because of concerns about resources needed and traffic impacts,” Dunigan said. “But there’s still a lot of community interest to get out and recreate in a safe manner.”
What the numbers say
“We’re working more than ever to serve the community,” said Rob Garrison, owner of Garrison’s Cyclery, which is moving by Christmas from Centerville to Yorklyn. He said he’s seen double-digit growth in new customers and in searches for sales and service.
At the start of the pandemic, many bicycle shops closed.
“All the shops that I’m familiar with – say 30 in the tristate area – all canceled their orders. Then by April, they tripled their orders.”
Bicycle shops by then were deemed essential businesses, and people denied many other things were bicycling instead. But there was a global shortage of bikes and parts.
“Everything 26-inch is sold out. We can’t keep up with the repair load and what people want to buy. We’re a month and a half out on
service,” he said.
Garrison’s is sold out of lower-priced bikes, he said, adding that used bikes are selling online for two and three times their value.
The council has compiled statistics that substantiate that interest in bicycling.
Trail use in Delaware State Parks, measured by infrared and magnetic counters, has soared, the council reports. The White Clay Creek State Park’s Tri-State Trail saw use in May up 456% from the
year before, and the park’s Bryan’s Field Trail had use up 412%.
Dramatic growth was also noticed on the Jack A. Markell Bridge just south of Wilmington. The count on May 2 was 2,190, compared to a weekend average of 593.
“It’s been really exciting to see the increase in bicyclists out on our state’s trails and pathways,” said Mary Roth, executive director of Delaware Greenways. “We’ve had people who have haven’t been on a bike for many years, reach out to us for information on rideable trails. … It’s great to see people biking for their mental and physical well-being during these tough times!”
“When out on trails I have seen a large increase in folks cycling and walking,” said Adam Crosby, GIS community outreach coordinator for Delaware Greenways. “I also personally have done
maintenance on five bikes to get friends out on the trail or neighborhood rides. These were bikes that were sitting in friends’ garages for years, but now they were keen on getting outside to explore during the pandemic.”
Delaware Greenways offers important advice on trail safety. The council is also promoting moves for safer outdoor recreation. To reduce contact, it is encouraging automation of buttons to request
pedestrian crossings and for signs to indicate they’re automated. It’s also asking for clear signage for government policies and guidelines on trail usage.
Fewer people in cars
As more people took to two wheels and 10 toes, they drove less. In New Castle, the average daily vehicle miles traveled was 19.7 million the week before the coronavirus emergency was declared on
March 13. The figure quickly fell, hitting a low of 4.5 million miles the week of April 6, or 24% of average.
As restrictions eased, it’s risen to about two-thirds of the average.
In Cecil, the mileage fell less and has more quickly returned to normal flow. The average the first week in March was 4.4 million miles, and the low was 1.4 million miles the last week in March (32%). The figure hit 95% of average by June.
Usage of park and ride lots plummeted, with figures down 90% or more in April, compared to April 2019, at the Claymont Train Station, Fairplay Station, Newark Train Station, Smyrna Rest Stop and Prices Corner. Two lots near parks drew more cars, with use up 224% at Brandywine Springs Park and 64% at the Delcastle Recreation Center.
Transit service and use fell in both counties. Bus ridership fell from 520,000 in January in New Castle to 182,000 in May and from 5,900 in Cecil in January to 1,500 in May.
Council leaders are concerned that changes in bus systems and usage fall harder on those with lower income and those in areas of “social determinants of health concern.”
Basically, it’s harder to get reasonably priced groceries in areas labeled “food deserts.”
A council PowerPoint analyzing “bus access and connectivity [among] vulnerable populations” ends with a giant question mark.