Design Details

Width and clearance

Ten feet or 3 meters is the recommended minimum width for a two-way, shared use path on a separate right of way. Other critical measurements include:

  • 8 feet (2.4m) may be used where bicycle traffic is expected to be low at all times, pedestrian use is only occasional, sightlines are good, passing opportunities are provided, and maintenance vehicles will not destroy the edge of the trail.
  • 12 feet is recommended where substantial use by bicycles, joggers, skaters, and pedestrians is expected, and where grades are steep (see later).
  • 2 feet of graded area should be maintained adjacent to both sides of the path.
  • 3 feet of clear distance should be maintained between the edge of the trail and trees, poles, walls, fences, guardrails or other lateral obstructions.
  • 8 feet of vertical clearance to obstructions should be maintained; rising to 10 feet in tunnels and where maintenance and emergency vehicles must operate.

Design speed, horizontal and vertical alignment

The design of a shared use path should take into account the likely speed of users, the ability of bicyclists to turn corners without falling over, skidding, or hitting their pedal on the ground as they lean over. The AASHTO Guide for the Design of Bicycle Facilities has a number of tables, and equations to help designers meet the tolerances of a bicyclist based on the following key numbers:

  • 20 miles per hour (30 km/h ) is the minimum design speed to use in designing a trail
  • 30 miles per hour (50 km/h) should be used where downgrades exceed 4 percent
  • 15 miles per hour (25 km/h) should be used on unpaved paths where bicyclists tend to ride more slowly (and cannot stop as fast without skidding or sliding on a loose surface)

The result is a series of recommended desirable minimum curve radii for corners that should be safe for bicyclists.


Another critical factor in trail design is the grade or slope of the path. Generally, grades greater than 5 percent (one feet of climbing for every 20 feet traveled forward) are undesirable as they are hard for bicyclists to climb and may cause riders to travel downhill at a speed where they cannot control their bicycle. However, recognizing that trails cannot always remain quite flat, the AASHTO Guide offers the following suggested lengths for certain grades:

  • 5-6 percent is acceptable for up to 800 feet (240m)
  • 7 percent is acceptable for up to 400 feet (120 m)
  • 8 percent is acceptable for up to 300 feet (90m)
  • 9 percent is acceptable for up to 200 feet (60m)
  • 10 percent is acceptable for up to 100 feet (90m)
  • 11 percent plus is acceptable for up to 50 feet (15m)

However, slopes with 9 percent grade are not acceptable for inexperienced bicyclists and are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. Consider the ADA grade guidelines as a guide to better meet the needs of pedestrians or bicyclists with disabilities and inexperienced bicyclists.

And, suggestions are offered for ways to mitigate the impact of steeper slopes, such as:

  • adding 4-6 feet of additional width to the trail to allow sufficient space for a cyclist to dismount and walk their bicycle without blocking the trail, or to allow cyclists to pass each other,
  • alerting cyclists to the approaching grade with appropriate signs and markings * posting a recommended descent speed
  • exceeding the usual minimum stopping sight distances to allow for the higher speeds
  • exceeding the usual minimum thresholds for providing recovery areas, railings etc
  • using a series of short switchbacks to contain the speed of descending riders

Sight distances

The ability of a cyclist to stop or slow down to avoid a collision or crash is affected by many things. The rider must have time to identify a potential problem and react accordingly, which means that they must be able to see approaching intersections or corners in plenty of time even when they are traveling at the design speed of the trail. The bicycle itself must be able to be stopped or brought under control in time, which is affected by the braking ability of the bike, the surface material (a loose surface requires greater stopping distance), and the weather (wet conditions require greater stopping distances than dry). Once again, the AASHTO Guide and state/local manuals have tables and charts to enable the designer to calculate the appropriate sight distances in a range of situations.


In response to a message about trail maintenance posted recently to an e-mail listserv, one trail manager identified the three most important issues: drainage, drainage and drainage. Poor drainage can ruin a good trail. The AASHTO Guide recommends a minimum cross slope of 1 percent and the need to make trails accessible to people using wheelchairs demands a maximum cross slope of 2 percent. Other considerations to ensure adequate drainage include:

  • slope the trail in one direction rather than having a crown in the middle of the trail
  • ensure a smooth surface to prevent ponding and ice formation
  • place a ditch on the upside of a trail constructed on the side of a hill (where needed)
  • place drainage grates, utility covers etc out of the travel path of bicyclists, unless they can be made fully bicycle-friendly.
  • preserve natural ground cover adjacent to the trail to inhibit erosion


Another important consideration in trail design is the type of surface that will be provided. A hard surface, such as cement or asphalt, will generally see cyclists operating at a faster speed than a soft surface, but may not be as popular with joggers and is more expensive to install. A soft surface trail (i.e. crushed granite) will discourage or prevent in-line skating but may be less expensive to install (although it will require more maintenance than concrete). Factors such as weather conditions and soil types can affect the choice of asphalt, concrete, or crushed rock. Choices in surface will affect requirements for periodic monitoring of the path surface and appropriate levels of maintenance.

New Jersey's Introduction to Bicycle Facilities provides a comparison of different potential trail surfaces.


One of the great advantages and unique features of trails along former railroad corridors is that they often have grade separated intersections with the highway system, and have bridges to carry them over rivers or stream valleys. However, not all corridors have this asset and structures of all kinds are needed to carry trail users under or over obstacles such as highways, rivers, freeways etc. The critical dimensions to use in designing underpasses, overpasses, bridges and tunnels, include:

  1. the minimum width of the trail (usually 10 feet) should be maintained through the structure
  2. the clear distance of two feet on either side of the trail surface should also be maintained through the structure — otherwise, riders will tend to ride in the center of the trail to stay away from the wall or railing of the structure
  3. an overhead clearance of 10 feet (8 feet with good horizontal and vertical clearance, good sightlines etc) should be maintained through an underpass or tunnel
  4. railings, fences or barriers on both sides of a path on a structure should be at least 42 inches (1.1m) high, and where they are higher than this a rub rail should be provided at the approximate handlebar height of 42 inches.
  5. clearances should allow for maintenance and emergency vehicles, as should the strength of the bridge (live loading)

Obstacles such as major highways or rivers are hard to overcome and present the designer with many challenges. However, unless obstacles such as these are overcome, trails have limited value and use. Among the issues are: when should I recommend an underpass or overpass? The City of Portland's engineering guidelines (pp. 83–129) provide a brief description of the pros and cons of each.

Under-crossings are generally less expensive than overpasses and require less change in grade as a clearance height of only 10 feet is required. However, they may present security problems due to reduced visibility and drainage problems, both of which can be expensive to fix.

Over-crossings are more open and present fewer security problems but they require much longer approaches to achieve the minimum 17 feet of clearance from a roadway, and they are often more expensive. Overpasses also may result in complaints from nearby residences due to a loss of privacy or due to aesthetic concerns.

Another issue is when retrofitting a shared use path onto an existing highway bridge, should a separate path on one side, both sides, or an on-street facility be recommended?

The Florida DOT's Bicycle Facilities Planning and Design Handbook discusses the various options and recommends that:

  • the shared use path should be carried across the bridge on one side where:
    • the bridge facility connects to a shared use path at both ends
    • sufficient width exists on one side of the bridge, or can be obtained by widening or restriping lanes
  • provisions are made to physically separate bicycle and pedestrian traffic from motor vehicle traffic on-street facilities such as bike lanes may be advisable where:
    • the shared use path transitions into bicycle lanes at one end of the bridge
    • sufficient width exists or can be obtained by widening or restriping.

The AASHTO Guide also warns that this latter option must only be used if the transition from bike lanes to shared use path can be achieved without increasing the potential for wrong way riding or inappropriate crossing movements.


Shared use paths in urban and suburban areas often serve travel needs both day and night, for example commuter routes and trails accessing college campuses. Fixed source lighting improves visibility along trails and at intersections, and is critical for lighting tunnels and underpasses. The AASHTO guide recommends using average maintained illumination levels of between 5 and 22 lux, and the Florida DOT recommends 25 as the average initial lux. Also, there needs to be a periodic monitoring of the lights and a maintenance program.

Preventing motor vehicle use of paths

In some locations, shared use paths may be mistaken for motor vehicle roads or may suffer from illegal or unauthorized motorized use. At intersections with roadways, therefore, the path should be clearly signed, marked and/or designed to discourage or prevent unauthorized motorized access. A variety of alternatives exist to achieve this:

  1. bollards. Probably the most common device is the bollard, often lockable, collapsible or removable to allow for authorized access to the trail. Great care should be used in locating the bollard to ensure that they are visible, allow trail users through, and are not placed so as to channel both directions of trail users towards the same point in the trail. If bollards are to be used, they should be retro-reflective, brightly colored, and have pavement markings around them. On a ten foot trail, one bollard should be used in the center of the trail. If more than one bollard is necessary, there should be five feet between them.
  2. splitting the trail in two. Many manuals suggest the option of splitting a ten foot trail into two five foot approaches to an intersection, with a planted triangle between them. This may increase maintenance costs.
  3. medians. The Florida DOT manual notes that "curbing with tight radii leading up to the roadway can often prevent motorists from attempting to enter the path. Medians should be set back from the intersection 25 feet (8m) to allow bicyclists to exit the roadway fully before navigating the reduced pathway width."

Signing and marking

While fewer signs may be needed on paths compared to on-street facilities, adequate signing and marking are essential on shared use paths, just as they are on streets and highways. Trail users need to know about potential conflicts, regulatory information, destinations, cross streets etc. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides some minimum traffic control measures that should be applied and a range of options.

Striping: a yellow center line stripe is recommended where trails are busy, where sight distances are restricted, and on some unlit trails where night time riding is expected. The line should be dashed when adequate passing sight distance exists, and solid when no passing is recommended.

A solid white line may be used to separate pedestrians from bicycle/blading traffic, and solid white edge stripes may also be useful where nighttime riding is expected.

Warning signs: a range of warning signs can be used to inform users that recommended design criteria cannot be met, for example curve radii or grades or where unexpected conditions may exist.

Informational signs: trail users need to know where they are, where they are going, what cross streets they are crossing, how far destinations are away, and what services are available close to the trail. The MUTCD has information on the appropriate signs to use in these instances. Although not in the MUTCD, many trails post signs encouraging uniform trail user etiquette (e.g. "give audible signal when passing" or which type of trail user has the right-of-way).

Intersection markings and signs: pavement marking and signs at intersections should channel users to cross at clearly defined locations and indicate that crossing traffic is to be expected. Similar devices to those used on roadways (STOP and YIELD signs, stop bars etc) should be used on trails as appropriate.

The AASHTO Guide notes that in addition to traditional warning signs in advance of intersections, motorists can be alerted to the presence of a trail crossing through flashing warning lights, zebra-style or colored pavement crosswalks, raised crosswalks, signals, and neck-downs/curb-bulbs. However, some devices such as flashing warning lights are expensive to install and maintain and should be kept to a minimum.