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Aerial view of an abandoned rail line in northern Passaic County that will be transformed into a trail for hiking and cycling. July 3, 2019. NorthJersey

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Your best socially distanced recreational opportunity might be in your own neighborhood.

The coronavirus pandemic has given bike rides new momentum.

Sales of bicycles and accessories have accelerated as Americans seek ways to get exercise, get outdoors and keep an appropriate distance from others.

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According to NPD Group, a data firm that analyzes consumer trends, sales of bikes, helmets and other accessories reached $1 billion in April, nearly double the typical $550 million to $575 million.

The increase in sales of bike-related gear have accompanied a surge in trail use, said Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for Rails to Trails, a Washington-based advocacy group that aims to convert former railroad tracks to walking and biking trails.

"Trails became one of the few places in the country that were open," Horton said.

Horton said trail use is nearly double what it was a year ago, and heat, rain and cold haven't deterred trail users.

"People are discovering trails in their backyard," Horton said. "They’re looking at a close-to-home outdoor space where they can be active. Trails have become essential for recreation and transportation."

There are 40,000 miles of multi-use trails across the country, Horton said. (By comparison, there are nearly 47,000 miles of interstate highways.) Nearly 24,000 of those trail miles are converted railroad beds, and Horton's group has long advocated for investment in those projects.

Federal, state and local governments have invested more in bike infrastructure in the past three decades, especially since the Great Recession.

The largest source of funding for trail infrastructure comes from the federal government, Horton said. Legislation moving through Congress includes a substantial increase in funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, she said. If passed, such projects can count on more than $1 billion a year.

The federal investment in bike infrastructure has made a difference, said Bill Nesper, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group that was founded in 1880.

"Cities are more bikeable now than they were 10 years ago," he said. "We’ve seen a lot more communities invest in planning for bicycling."

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Nesper said a bicycle boom took place in the 1970s during that decade's energy crisis. It didn't stick. This time could be different, Nesper said.

"We keep hearing from people that they’re rediscovering their communities in a new way," he said. "People are saying, 'We like this.' "

One way they've been doing that: bikeshare services. In 2018, Americans took 36.5 million trips on shared bikes, up from 321,000 in 2010, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Though most bikeshare use is concentrated in just five metropolitan areas — New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago and the Bay Area — smaller communities across the country are considered bike-friendly.

This spring, the League of American Bicyclists recognized four cities for their bicycle infrastructure for the first time: Detroit; Lawrence, Kansas; Asheville, North Carolina; and Boise, Idaho.

The group designates 482 communities nationwide as bike-friendly, with at least one in every state. The group deemed Washington State, Oregon and Minnesota the three most bike-friendly. 

Nesper said the easiest thing for people to do is take a ride through the neighborhood.

"Do a loop around your neighborhood," he said. "Find a quiet street where you can go ride."

For a longer ride, Horton recommends checking the Rails to Trails TrailLink guide to see what's open and what amenities are available.

Trailside services may be limited because of the pandemic, she said. Also, with cities and towns facing pandemic-related budget difficulties, trails may not receive the same level of upkeep as they usually would, including services such as trash collection.

Horton noted that experienced trail users may encounter newcomers who may not be as familiar with trail etiquette. If you are one of them, here's a piece of advice: She suggests avoiding crowds at first and always being mindful of what's ahead of you.

An influx of new cyclists is to be expected, Horton said. "The trail user community looks a lot different now. The demand is surging and not waning."

Top trails

Rails to Trails has a list of the top 100 trails in the country. Here are a few:

Atlanta Beltline, Georgia, 10.9 miles

Capital Crescent Trail, Maryland and D.C., 11 miles

Cowboy Trail, Nebraska, 203 miles

Elroy-Sparta State Trail, Wisconsin, 34 miles

Great Allegheny Passage, Maryland and Pennsylvania, 150 miles

High Trestle Trail, Iowa, 27 miles

Hudson River Greenway, New York, 13 miles

Katy Trail State Park, Missouri, 240 miles

Monon Trail, Indiana, 27 miles

Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, Washington, 224 miles

Paul Bunyan Trail, Minnesota, 119 miles

Schuylkill River Trail, Pennsylvania, 72 miles

Silver Comet Trail, Georgia, 61 miles

Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia, 33 miles

Washington and Old Dominion Regional Park, Virginia, 45 miles

Basic bike etiquette

  • Wear a helmet.
  • Stay to the right and use your bell or say "on your left" when passing pedestrians or other cyclists.
  • Slow when approaching groups of people or children.
  • Carry a small bike pump or CO2 cartridge in case your tires need air and a spare inner tube in case you get a flat. 
  • Pull off the trail if you need to stop.
  • Don't try to multitask: Stay off your phone while riding and resist the urge to walk your dog at the same time.

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