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The successful and attractive lighting at the Chicago Lakefront Trail allows the trail to see 30,000 users a day, many of whom are commuters (2011 survey).



LED (light-emitting diode) – A semiconductor light source that produces light of many types and colors. They are considered an "environmental bulb" for their high versatility, efficiency and durability. Standard LEDs provide 60000 hours of light due to their electroluminescent technology.

CFL (compact fluorescent light) – Bulbs that produce light through a tube of gas. Like an LED, it is very economical, durable and versatile, coming in a variety of environmentally friendly and natural looking designs and colors. CFLs are potentially more efficient than LEDs when they are left on to reach their maximized brightness.

Fusing – The application of a fuse to an electrical circuit. A fuse is a safety device that protects against excessive current by melting when current exceeds specific amperage. Known as "blowing a fuse", the melting opens the circuit and deactivates any devices attached to it.

Circuit – An electrical device that, when closed, allows electrical current to flow through. It can be thought of as a pathway that the electricity travels through: if there is a block or hole in the path, the electricity cannot reach its destination.

Trails Glossary and Acronyms


RTC Resources

Ask Our Listserv: Learn about trail development from the experts! Join our listserv to be connected to more than 900 trail managers, advocates and builders across the country.

Go to RTC's Trails and Greenways Publication Library

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


Additional Resources

List of Confirmed Trails with Lights

Katy Trail Lighting: An outline of the lighting design for the Katy Trail in Dallas.

The Pros and Cons of LED Lighting


City of San Jose Reflective Striping Specifications: A document outlining the specifications, requirements and execution of retro-reflective thermoplastic pavement striping for the City of San Jose trail system.

Ski Trail Lighting Outline

Trail Design Guide: Violet Crown Trail final master plan.

AASHTO Resources

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design: The National Institute of Justice's comprehensive crime prevention strategy.

International Dark-Sky Association

The Chicago Waterfront Trail: The Chicago Park District and Active Transportation Alliance's article and report on the success of the trail.

More government funded trail programs

A full list of federally funded programs

Searchable database of government grants

Alliance for Biking & Walking

More about TAP


Plan, Design, Build


Explore the latest resources on this topic:

 Lighting in RTC TrailBlog
 Lighting in the Library

Many commuters and recreationists are troubled to find that some pathways that are convenient in the day close immediately following sundown. By placing the proper signage and enforcing after-dark policies, trail managers can extend the hours of operation. Installing lighting along a trail is another potentially 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.


Good lighting systems will help trail users feel more comfortable with their surroundings when natural light is not available. Darkness can produce deadly consequences: According to Bruce Mackey, former Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Officer for the State of Nevada and former bicycle coordinator for Lake County, Florida, more than 60% of fatal bike accidents in Florida occur after 6 p.m. Illuminating the path for pedestrians and cyclists greatly reduces the possibility of collisions with an object or with 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 alternative commuter routes 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 lighting is the most expensive to install and difficult to repair, but with good design and quality components, a wired lighting system 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 desicision. Wired lighting is not an option for riparian corridors either.

Battery powered lights are the cheapest to install and repair, but 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 could now 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 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, DC, can mean little to no cost of operation.

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 contain mercury as well, which complicates the disposal process and may contribute to pollution if improperly discarded.

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.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities also cites the option of using candles along a trail to provide the most natural, least invasive form of lighting.

Placement and Design

When considering lighting for a trail, always consult with a licensed lighting professional, as it increases safety and reduces energy and repair costs in the long term. 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 on only 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 for intended travelers. 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


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 the aforementioned 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 frequently oppose lighting as a trail feature. These concerns are often 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 is not only expensive, but can also have negative impacts.

Neighbors to the trail often fear the extraneous light and noise 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 prevents the illumination of private property or glare into windows. Lighting should increase overall safety, but the thought of trail night use might be a bit unsettling to those located nearby. By limiting trail hours or having police monitor the trail, neighbors can rest a little easier.

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 permitted.


There are many funding sources to support active transportation and trails, but available resources will differ by region and state. Nationally, the Transportation Alternatives Program gives support to programs and projects that are eligible under its list of activities. There is some stratification of subsidy allocation based on population density, making this program ideal for an urban commuter route.

The Recreational Trails Program is under the umbrella of the TAP program, and it specifically backs development and maintenance of trails and trail-related facilities. These federal transportation resources can benefit multiple forms of non-motorized and motorized recreation, including hiking, snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicles, biking and equestrian use. Trail administrators for each state manage the competitive program.

Private sources of financing include the Bikes Belong Grant Program, which gives to important and influential bike-related causes. Furthermore, biking organizations at the local level may 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 even more innovative ideas.

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