Skip to content

Planning Basics

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

Prior to determining the design and construction specifications of a trail, it is important to engage in an extensive trail planning process. This will help you meet your short and long-term goals.  Trail placement should be carefully considered; design and building standards vary with factors such as the number of trail users, an urban vs. a rural setting, and proximity to sensitive environments. Creating a comprehensive trail plan, hiring a contractor or other professional, establishing a rail-trail committee and reviewing existing guidelines and standards can all help trail planning run smoothly.

To ensure that trail plans are upheld, language about proposed trails can be included in a region’s transportation plan. A comprehensive plan that communicates and supports the benefits of an actively maintained trail could improve funding for future projects. Establishing trail contacts for maintenance and improvements can also help the trail remain in good condition well into the future.

Trail sharing/co-use with a utility company can also be considered when planning a trail. This option often minimizes costs and usually benefits both the utility company and trail manager. Land use negotiations and easements must be settled beforehand, but co-use is usually a cost-saving strategy worth looking into. Establishing a rail-with-trail, a shared-use path next to an active railroad, is another concept worth exploring, as it can expand trail networks and enhance local transportation systems, offering safe, attractive community connections.

Trail and greenway planners and designers rely upon several comprehensive and authoritative resources to provide guidelines and standards. Foremost among these is the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, which is produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and is now in its fourth edition. Often referred to as “The AASHTO Guide” or “The Green Book,” this 2012 publication contains guidelines for both on- and off-road facilities for bicycle use, including recreational trails, and is available for purchase online in both physical and digital formats.

Also crucial to designers of trails, particularly those in urban areas, is the Urban Bikeway Design Guide created by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Now in its second edition, the 2012 publication expands on the information available in AASHTO’s guide, specifically as it pertains to urban areas.

In 2001, an updated version of RTC’s Trails for the Twenty-First Century was released. This helpful book is an introduction to converting unused rail and canal corridors into multi-use trails.


TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

Topics in this section: