As user conflicts occur on trails throughout the country, trail managers question whether the implementation of speed restrictions will abate these issues and increase user safety. Such speed restrictions on trails are complex to put in place and difficult to enforce. Additionally, most bicyclists do not have speedometers and would be unaware as to whether or not they were speeding. So how can trail design and user guidelines create and maintain safe paths without deterring use?
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities does not specify a maximum speed for bicyclists along trails. Instead, it outlines that shared-use paths should be designed for a speed that is “at least as high as the preferred speed of the fastest common user.” The guide recommends that design on long segments in flat areas accommodate users at 18 mph and that sections of trail with hilly terrain accommodate riders at up to 30 mph.
The AASHTO guide is clear that designing for slower speeds—by decreasing sight distance, for example—should not be selected to artificially reduce user speeds, as the result can make conditions unsafe for fast riders. Instead, design elements such as road curvature and a centerline stripe can both slow bicyclists and decrease user conflicts. Wider trail widths can also ease conflict by allowing for more types of users simultaneously.
Surface treatments, such as speed bumps, are another option for decreasing trail user speeds, yet these features almost always detract from trail users’ experiences. Bicyclists and inline skaters prefer a relatively smooth surface and may avoid a trail completely to sidestep these road conditions. Alternatively, gravel and other unpaved surfaces can lower bicyclists’ speeds, but they will likely deter inline skaters and some cyclists from use as well.
Signage and Trail Etiquette
Clear signage is one of the most important attributes to reducing user conflicts on trails. Stop signs and indicators of a stop ahead when approaching intersections allow for appropriate stopping distances of all speeds of riders. Signs reminding faster users to keep left and to announce when they are passing can also decrease conflict along the trail.
Instead of imposing formalized restrictions on trail users, Portland’s Share the Path Campaign emphasizes trail etiquette. Guidelines advising to “use safe speeds at all times” and reminding that “slower traffic has the right of way” stress to faster users that it is their duty to slow down and be mindful of others. This approach allows for more flexibility, and it accommodates the varying traffic of the trail throughout different seasons, times and days. It does not restrict fast riding entirely, but instead allows for higher speeds when the conditions are appropriate.