Photo CC JD Hancock via Flickr

Some pathways that are convenient in the day close immediately following sundown, limiting their utility to trail users. By placing proper signage and enforcing after-dark policies, trail managers can extend the hours of operation. Installing lighting along a trail is another effective way to enable safe night use. Trail lighting that is well placed, properly installed and frequently maintained can improve visibility, increase overall trail access and convenience and give trail users a sense of security while passing through at night.

Benefits

Darkness can produce deadly consequences: According to Bruce Mackey, former bicycle coordinator for Lake County, Fla., more than 60 percent of fatal bike accidents in Florida occur after 6 p.m. Illuminating the trail greatly reduces the possibility of user collisions with an object or each other. Deformities and unevenness in the path become visible, which prevents falls and crashes as well. Lighting also allows trail users to recognize potential threats to their security. Although there have been very few surveys indicating a reduction of crime on-trail with the addition of trail lighting, bright lights are generally recognized as deterrents of criminal activity in other environments.

While after-dark policies, bike light initiatives and police monitoring also allow trails to see night use, proper nighttime etiquette is difficult to enforce. When a pedestrian or cyclist fails to wear bright clothing, or carry or wear a light, it can result in a dangerous collision on trails without lighting. The advantage of trail lighting over other methods is the lack of monitoring required for extended hours of use. For instance, the lighting installed along the Katy Trail in Texas in 2006 shines directly on the trail for most of its length from 5 a.m. to sunrise and from sunset to 11 p.m. This lighting promotes commuting and recreation during the extended trail hours.

Types of Lighting

There are several options for trail lighting. Factors that influence lighting choices include soil content, overhead clearance, trail location, trail features, types of trail users and weather.

Wired

Wired lighting is the most expensive to install and difficult to repair, but with good design and quality components, it can be the easiest to operate and maintain. The wires, depending on the trail’s needs, may be strung overhead or underground. Buried lines are the most expensive to install but are replaced the least often, even in locations with poor weather conditions. Overhead lighting is cheaper but more vulnerable as the wires must be strung directly from fixture to fixture. In the case of wired lighting, fusing is a factor. Giving each circuit its own fuse will make problems along the line easy to identify. However, this is a pricey decision. Wired lighting is not an option for riparian corridors either.

Battery Powered

Battery powered lights are the cheapest to install and repair, but they are very difficult to maintain. Depending on the brightness of the lighting, batteries may need frequent replacement. If dead batteries go unnoticed, it presents a danger to trail users who must face a completely dark section of trail. Lights of this kind are usually only practical on trails with high traffic where a dead battery is likely to receive notice before an emergency.

Solar

Solar lights power themselves and are the most environmentally conscious option. There are no interconnecting wires with solar lighting, which means repairs are contained to a single fixture at a time. However, solar-powered lights are not recommended in places with significant tree canopy or in northern regions where natural light is limited. Photovoltaic cells of any size can also be very costly upfront. Still, installing solar lights on trails in more sunny regions, like the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., can mean little to no cost of operation.

LED

No matter what the power source, LED bulbs are a strong option. In comparison to standard incandescent bulbs, they produce much more light with very little power. In addition, LEDs need to be replaced far less frequently thanks to their efficiency and durability. LEDs do have a greater initial cost than standard bulbs. Some common complaints about LED bulbs include uneven or unnatural lighting, flickering and change in color over time. CFLs are similarly effective and expensive, but they contain mercury, which complicates the disposal process and may contribute to pollution if improperly discarded.

Reflective Striping

Reflective striping is not a source of lighting in and of itself but supplements already existing light. If a trail runs near enough to a lit street, the use of these white, flat and narrow reflectors that stick to the path can increase the amount of light cast onto the trail. Trails with individual dark spots but overall limited night use might benefit from reflective striping, as it is a cheap and effective alternative to lights. Another advantage of the striping is its dual use in dividing trail traffic or marking where the path ends.

Placement and Design

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities includes a section on lighting along shared-use paths and is a decent design resource. However, when preparing to install lighting along a trail, it is best to consult a licensed lighting professional. Such authorities are able to evaluate the trail for the best use of lighting in terms of type, placement and design.

In contrast to highway lighting, trail lighting should be done on a small scale and only where necessary. On paths like the Oceanside Coastal Rail Trail in California, low-level bollards cast just enough light. To preserve dark skies and wildlife, lenses should be flat in order to shed light only on the path below. Round lenses, comparatively, shine light in all directions. Fixtures should be selected to reduce loss of light or glare in any way possible.

Lighting fixtures should be shorter and closer together then streetlamps. In other words, they must be of an appropriate scale for the trail’s users while still providing an appropriate amount of horizontal and vertical clearance. Along the Chicago Lakefront Trail, lighting fixtures are 50 to 100 feet apart, depending on tree placement and the curve of the path.

Lights on a trail should, at the very least, be installed at the following locations according to AASHTO guidelines:

  • Always in a tunnel or at overpasses
  • Trailheads
  • Bridge entrances and exits
  • Public gathering places
  • Along streets
  • Crosswalks
  • Where the path crosses another path or sidewalk
  • On signage

Maintenance

The largest issue with lighting maintenance is tracking and fixing outages. This presents a particular challenge with wired lights: A whole string of lights can go out when there is a problem with one. By installing individually powered lights like solar or battery-powered options, these kinds of problems may be avoided; however, when these fixtures break, they sometimes need to be replaced entirely.

Bulbs need to be kept clean to maintain desired luminescence. To prevent bulb breakages or theft, bulbs may be installed in wire cages. Consider posting signage on fixtures and trailheads requesting that trail users report any outages along the trail.

Addressing Concerns

Communities occasionally oppose lighting as a trail feature. These concerns are sometimes realistic, and the trail management agency has to be flexible. Solutions must take into account the neighbors to the trail, dark-sky initiatives, local ecology and trail users. If a trail is in a rural or undeveloped area, or sees infrequent use, lighting may not be necessary or ideal. Instead, funding for trail improvements might better be focused on other proposals. Lighting a trail and keeping it lit are not only expensive, but they can also have negative impacts.

Neighbors to the trail often fear the extraneous light and noise from nighttime trail use flooding their homes. A compromise could be to light the trail, but only within designated hours, such as from one hour before sunrise and sunset to 10 p.m. Having flat lenses on downward-facing lights also prevents the direct illumination of private property.

Many communities have dark-sky regulations in order to reduce light pollution and enable stargazing. These regulations differ from community to community, so local dark-sky advocates should be consulted for appropriate compliance. To avoid conflict, consult the International Dark-Sky Association's list of approved outdoor lighting. Installing sensor controls on lighting may help with this as well.

Lighting a trail that runs in or near wildlife areas may cause issues, particularly with nocturnal creatures. In most cases, low, minimally used lighting will leave wildlife undisturbed. In very delicate areas, lighting should not be installed.

Funding

One private source of financing is PeopleForBikes' Community Grant Program, which gives to important and influential bike-related projects. Biking organizations at the local level may also be willing to fundraise for a lighting project. Many bikers recognize dark trails as a danger but still want to use them for their commute home. If a lighting project is not too involved (e.g., does not require wiring and is for a short section of trail), the installation process and supply acquisition may be undertaken as an Eagle Scout Project according to the guidelines presented in the Eagle Scout Service Project handbook. Local businesses, such as hardware or outdoor furniture stores, may provide sponsorship in the form of goods or services. This gives them advertisement and can enhance their image in the community.

See our pages on funding for corridor acquisition and management and maintenance for more financing ideas, including federal sources of assistance.

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