Charles A. Flink, FASLA, President, Greenways Incorporated
There are millions of bicyclists that enjoy and prefer riding on off-road trails rather than sharing the road with trucks and cars. Off-road trails present a different set of design challenges for planners, designers and bicycle advocates. This paper offers a summary of elements that constitute good trail design and defines how such trails can be created within a given community.
Successful, functional, and shared-use (those that accommodate a variety of trail users) trails are, for the most part, the result of good planning and design. Properly planned and designed trails take into account how an individual trail fits into a comprehensive trail network, offering transportation as well as health and recreational benefits to a community. Most importantly, well-designed trails serve the needs of trail users, limit conflicts among user groups, link popular destinations, are successfully integrated into the existing built environment of a community, and are sensitive to the surrounding native landscapes and environment.
There are many factors that go into the development of a functional and successful shared-use trail. This paper does not make an attempt to address all factors. The most important factors have been selected and described herein.
The most important consideration for the design of a trail is the accommodation of the trail user. Most shared-use trails will need to serve the interests of a wide range of users, including people who want to walk, jog, bike, and in-line skate. Most shared-use trails will be developed at a minimum width of 3 m (10 ft). This is done to accommodate two-way traffic on the prepared trail tread surface. It may be necessary to increase the width to 3.7 or 4.3 m (12 or 14 ft) in order to accommodate heavy traffic on a given trail. It would also be advisable to divide the trail into “wheeled” and “non-wheeled” treads if the right-of-way and landscape can support two trail treads. The wheeled tread should be 3 m (10 ft) wide. The non-wheeled tread can be 1.8 or 2.4 m (6 or 8 ft) in width.
All trails must be designed and constructed to be accessible to all persons regardless of their abilities. There are very few reasons why a given trail cannot be built to be fully accessible. The best guidebook on this subject is Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access: Part 2, Best Practices Design Guide. Every trail designer and manager should have this reference book on hand to ensure that trail projects are accessible.
The best trails are those that link people to popular destinations. Each trail segment should have logical and functional endpoints. Trails that serve as links throughout a community are the most popular for trail users. While this seems obvious, sometimes off-road trails will end abruptly, especially in urban areas. It is very important that trails be linked to other trails, to parks, and to an on-road network of bicycle facilities and sidewalks.
Multi-user conflict is regarded as the most serious safety concern for off-road trails. Conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians are the most prevalent and are usually caused by reckless and unsafe behavior, incompatible use values or by overcrowding. The most effective remedies for this conflict begin with design and management. Trails can and should be designed to reduce conflict by widening the trail tread or by separating the trail tread for different users. Single tread, multi-use trails can also be managed to reduce conflicts, sometimes by separating users under a time of use policy. Involving user groups in the design of a trail is the best way to both understand local needs and resolve the potential for shared-use conflict. Posting trails with a trail use ordinance and providing educational materials on how to use the trail is also important.
The most enjoyable trails to use are those that celebrate the natural landscapes and native environments traversed by the off-road trail. This is one of the most popular reasons outdoor advocates choose to use off-road, shared-use trails. Trails should have rhythm and syncopation, and flow within their surroundings so that they captivate users. Trails should follow the natural contours of the land and take advantage of native landscape features such as water, groupings of vegetation, scenic views, and interestingly built features.
Trails should also celebrate the built landscapes they traverse. Often we try to hide viewsheds deemed unpleasant. This may not always be a good idea. Since trails are designed to be used by people, it is much better to keep viewsheds open. Trails through urban landscapes provide an opportunity to interpret the surrounding environment. Great care must also be taken to successfully fit a new trail into the urban fabric. For example, the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors has been the greatest resource for new urban trails in the past 20 years. It presents challenges for trail designers because these corridors supported a different type of transportation activity. Creating new intersections between roads and converted rail-trails is the greatest challenge for these urban trails. It is important that intersections be designed to clearly determine who has the right-of-way. Intersections should also be very clearly marked for all groups to delineate crossing zones for trail users. Pavement markings, signs, lighting, and textured pavement can all be used to make intersections safer.
Incorporating public input into the design of a trail is one of the most important steps in the process. Landowners who are adjacent to trail corridors should always be included in the design process. Finding the most appropriate method for involving the public in the design of a trail is important. A list of involvement techniques is provided below:
One-on-one meetings are the best way to approach people who might have opposition to a proposed trail. These meetings offer opportunity to calmly discuss alternatives, as well as specific needs.
It may be advantageous to convene a group of citizens to help decide elements of the trail design. This can create community buy-in and advocacy for the project. Be certain to have balance on this committee among user groups, as well as advocates and possible opponents.
Perhaps the best method for soliciting input is to invite the public to attend an open house or trail workshop. These meetings can be held during the week or on a Saturday. Provide opportunities for attendees to write on trail design maps and participate in other elements of the design process.
Some local governments may require a formal public hearing or presentation to an elected council or board. These official meetings are important to providing legal foundation for future trail development.
It is also advisable to conduct a public survey, either an opinion poll or a statistically valid survey, to better understand interest and level of support for the trail project.
All public input should be recorded and made part of a permanent record with respect to the final design for the trail.
Good trail design is influenced by many factors. This paper has defined the most important components of good design. Within the context of our modern world, trail development is actually a fairly complex undertaking. It requires that we understand the opportunities and constraints of the natural and human-made environments and that we account for the diverse interests of trail users. Defining a logical process for planning and designing every trail is one way to ensure that all factors influencing trail development, function, and safe shared use, have been appropriately addressed and resolved.
Charles A. Flink, FASLA, RLA
5850 Fayetteville Road, Suite 211
Durham, NC 27713
(919) 484-8448 (voice)
(919) 484-3003 (fax)