Planners Struggle With How to Keep Our Trails Safe

Government officials and planners are struggling with how to keep our trails and throughways safe as they become more crowded.

CBS recently reported that in August of 2022 the city of Carlsbad declared a state of emergency after a spike in crashes involving bikes and e-bikes that has led to calls for traffic safety changes. The city cites a 233% increase in traffic collisions involving bikes and e-bikes since 2019. Since the beginning of 2022, there have been 57 collisions involving bikes and e-bikes reported in Carlsbad. Of the collisions this year, two of have been fatal crashes, both in the past 17 days according to Carlsbad city manager Scott Chadwick.

Carlsbad enacted a series of laws in the hopes of creating a safer environment for people in the North County city, according to city officials. As a part of the new ordinances riders are banned from sidewalks, ditches, sports courts or gyms, and they also must get off their bikes, e-bikes and other devices on any trails narrower than five feet or if they’re within 50 feet of a pedestrian or person riding on horseback.

This change in law is for just one city in California, but laws vary far and wide for multi-user trail use on state and federal lands. Even if multi-user trail safety laws exist, are they being enforced?

How can designers make trails safe to pass as well as mix fast and slow users?

Front-Country Trails
  1. Where mountain bikes are accommodated, but not equestrians: minimum tread width is 30 inches;
  2. Where equestrians are accommodated: minimum tread width is 48 inches;
  3. Where hillside slopes are steep, passing spaces are provided at regular intervals (the interval depending on the sight distance available):
    • A minimum of 48 inches wide and 60 inches long where mountain bikes are accommodated, but not equestrians; 
    • A minimum of 60 inches wide and 60 inches long where equestrians are accommodated.
Back-Country Trails
  1. Where mountain bikes are accommodated, but not equestrians: minimum tread width is 18 inches;
  2. Where equestrians are accommodated the minimum tread width is 36 inches;
  3. Where hillside slopes are steep, passing spaces are provided at regular intervals (the interval depending on the sight distance available):
    • A minimum of 36 inches wide and 60 inches long where mountain bikes are accommodated, but not equestrians;
    • A minimum of 60 inches wide and 60 inches long where equestrians are accommodated

As trails are designed to be wider so that users may safely pass each other, the unfortunate consequence is that cyclists may take this opportunity to travel faster.  Per California State Park’s Trails Handbook:  “making trails wider and straighter with greater sight distances and broader turning radii can encourage cyclists to ride faster, which diminishes the effectiveness of design elements intended to slow users”.

Additionally, the handbook states:   “Multi-use trails accommodate three different use types. Each has its own design needs and user expectations. (See Chapter 6, Mountain Bike Trail Design, and Chapter 7, Equestrian Trail Design.) When all of these groups share the same trail, not all of the design needs and expectations can be met. Multi-use trail design and construction represent a compromise between the different groups. This compromise can often result in less user satisfaction and greater difficulty in the design and construction of a sustainable trail.”

The compromise that the handbook alludes to is a compromise to the user’s safety!   Or in other words, some trails are just not acceptable as multi-user trails if they jeopardize the safety of slower moving traffic.