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Capital Crescent Trail, Washington, D.C., and Md. © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
With good trail design, your rail-trail can accommodate multiple user types.
 

Definitions

Heavy Use – 300 or more users per hour during peak periods; typically found on urban trails.

Trails Glossary and Acronyms

 

RTC Resources

Book: Trails for the Twenty-First Century, second edition

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Go to RTC's Trails and Greenways Publication Library

For more information, please contact the appropriate regional or national office.

 

Additional Resources

American Trails: Trailbuilding Library

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA): Shared Use Path Level of Service Calculator

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA): State Trail Administrators

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA): Trail Design for Access

Iowa Department of Transportation – Trails Plan 2000: Trail Design Guidelines for Multi-Use Corridors

Massachusetts Highway Department: Project Development and Design Guide, Section 11.4, "Shared Use Path Design"

Missouri Department of Conservation: Equestrian trail guidelines for construction and maintenance

 

Plan, Design, Build

Design for User Type

Explore the latest resources on this topic:

Design in RTC TrailBlog
Design in the Library

Rail-trails attract a diversity of user types (e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians) and often seek to accommodate them all. Typically, allowed trail uses are determined in the rail-trail planning phase, and good trail design balances the needs of the users with the unique characteristics and goals of the project.

Recommended Width for Multi-use Trails

Trail designers often look to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) design guidelines as the standard for multi-use trail widths. AASHTO recommends a minimum of 10 feet for multi-use trails; however, where heavy use is anticipated, a 12 to 14-foot width is recommended.

Occasionally, providing separate, parallel paths (or treads) for different users may be desirable. For example, a primary, hard-surfaced path can be provided exclusively for bicyclists, with softer shoulders set aside for pedestrians and equestrians. In rural areas, the width of the primary tread should be eight or more feet, and 10 feet in urban or suburban areas. Single shoulders should be at least five feet wide, while dual shoulders (one on each side) should be between 2 and 2.5 feet wide.

Understanding Trail Users

In addition to trail width, accommodating the many users of a multi-use trail requires planning for surface type, vertical clearance and trail amenities. Some uses may seem incompatible with the desired design and feel of the trail; however, when properly planned, trails can effectively accommodate a variety of users. The most common types of trails users include:

Pedestrians

  • Description
    Walkers, hikers, joggers and bird watchers.
  • Design needs
    Pedestrians tend to have fewer design requirements than other users. Most prefer softer surfaces (such as rubber, mulch or crushed rock) to lessen impacts on their knees, though some users, such as power walkers and those pushing strollers, may prefer more compact surfaces. The minimum recommended vertical clearance for pedestrians is eight feet.
  • Amenities
    Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas and restrooms. Where dogs are permitted, consider providing dog-friendly drinking fountains, bag dispensers and trash bins to encourage people to pick up after their dogs.

Bicyclists

  • Description
    Recreational, commuting and touring cyclists.
  • Design needs
    The AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities is viewed as the national standard for bikeway design. Note: If your trail project receives federal or state transportation funding (such as Transportation Enhancements funds), you will most likely have to adhere to AASHTO guidelines. Consult your local department of transportation before beginning design. Bicyclists prefer hard surfaces and require a vertical clearance of at least eight feet, with 10 feet needed for overpasses and tunnels. Adequate sight distances for cyclists are critical for user safety; AASHTO recommends that multi-use trails provide a minimum sight distance of 150 feet. Ideal grades for bicyclists, over long distances, are less than three percent (typical for old railroad beds), although up to five percent is acceptable.
  • Amenities
    Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas, restrooms, bicycle racks and bicycle lockers (located at transit nodes or places of employment).

Mountain Bikers

  • Description
    Mountain bikers are considered a separate user group as they tend to seek out more challenging trails with steeper grades and uneven surfaces.
  • Design
    With mountain bikers making up a large segment of the bicycling population, it is wise to accommodate this group with mountain bike parks along the rail-trail. The rail-trail can be used to access these parks, which are specifically designed for mountain bikers, featuring rugged terrain and challenging obstacles. Contact your local mountain biking organization or the International Mountain Bicycling Organization for more information on constructing mountain bike parks.
  • Amenities
    Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas, restrooms and mountain bike parks.

Equestrians

  • Description
    Horseback riders.
  • Design
    Suitable trails for equestrians have become increasingly hard to find, particularly close to urban areas. Many trails prohibit equestrian use, fearing conflicts with other users and damage to the trail surface. However, with proper design, a multi-use trail can accommodate equestrians while minimizing user conflicts. Hard surfaces (asphalt and concrete) and coarse gravel can injure horse hooves, so equestrians prefer loose or compacted dirt trails. If you plan to use a hard surface, consider placing a softer, separate five-foot-wide tread for horses alongside the main path. Vertical clearance should be at least 10 feet, with a horizontal clearance of at least five feet. Sight distance should be at least 100 feet, and proper signage is needed to indicate which user has the right-of-way priority.
  • Amenities

    For Horses
    Parking and staging areas, water for horses, hitching posts at any area where the rider may stop to take a break (e.g. rest areas, restrooms). It is advised to consult local equestrian groups to develop equestrian-friendly facilities.

    For Riders
    Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas and restrooms. [Note: Equestrians often prefer water crossings to bridges. If this isn't practical, provide mounting blocks at the ends of bridges so that riders can dismount and lead their horses across the structure.]

Cross-Country Skiers

  • Description
    Recreational skiers who traverse the countryside rather than make downhill runs.
  • Design
    Many multi-use trails that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and equestrians during warmer months are ideal for cross-country skiing during winter months. A minimum of six inches of snow on a trail offers excellent skiing without damaging the trail or ski equipment. If the trail sees other winter use, cross-country skiers will often ski off to the side to avoid having their tracks trampled.
  • Amenities
    If you anticipate heavy ski use on a long-distance trail, consider placing warming shelters along the trail. These can besimple structures that provide a fireplace and small shelter.

Inline Skaters

  • Description
    Inline skates are particularly popular in urban areas.
  • Design
    Multi-use trails that accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists are likely to attract inline skaters as well. Inline skaters require the same trail width (minimum of 10 feet) and hard surfaces as bicyclists, and the same vertical clearance as pedestrians (seven feet).
  • Amenities
    Benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas and restrooms. Consider locating benches at trailheads to facilitate changing in and out of skates.

Motorized Users

  • Description
    All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and Snowmobiles (which can be used on multi-use trails with as little as six inches of snow, without causing much damage to the trail surface). [Note: Trails that receive federal funding (except through the Recreation Trails Program) may not permit ATV use, though in some instances snowmobiles are acceptable. For more information, contact your State Trails Administrator.]
  • Design
    Trails should be at least 8 to 10 feet wide to accommodate one-way traffic. For two-way traffic, trail width should be at least 12 to 14 feet. As motorized users travel at much greater speeds than other users the trail should be free of obstacles and provide good sight lines. Branches and other debris should be cleared at least two feet on each side of the trail with a 10-foot vertical clearance (factor in anticipated snow levels) and a minimum of 400 feet in sight distance. If the trail features bridges or tunnels, they must be at least eight feet wide with a minimum carrying capacity of five tons. Intersections can be dangerous for these users, so where possible it's best to double the trail width at intersections to improve maneuverability.
  • Amenities
    Benches, drinking fountains, restrooms, shade shelters and rest areas.

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