Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Trail Guide

Building multiuse trails and bridges

By Kyle Ryan

Planning and funding good trails and bridges

Trails come in various flavors, from mountain biking to equestrian, but multiuse trails and bridges, which combine numerous activities, are the most common. Using them are people from four main groups: hikers/walkers/runners, mountain bikers/cyclists, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts and equestrians.

Depending on the season and trail restrictions, though, the trails could be used for everything from bird watching to cross-country skiing to inline skating to snowmobiling. That's a lot of people doing a lot of different things, and, not surprisingly, sometimes it doesn't work so well.

A bridge at the Manela Bay Hotel in Lanai, Hawaii

According to Rob Holmes, director of marketing for Trails.com, hikers and cyclists coexist the best. Horses tend to tear up the trail the most. But with proper trail design, the challenges presented by multiple users can be minimized.

What makes a good trail depends on a couple of factors, according to Holmes: activity and audience. For example, a good walking trail would be smooth and mostly flat—not necessarily ideal for a mountain biker.

What's your audience? Young people? Middle aged? Elderly? Disabled? Youths would want the trail to be interesting. For older people, you'll need more benches to rest and amenities such as toilets or water. For the disabled, you'll want to avoid steps and use a hard-packed trail surface.

Combining those interests may sound daunting, but it's possible. Pete Webber of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) offers the trails of Jefferson County, Colo., just outside of Denver as an example.

The trails there routinely see more than 1 million users a year on fewer than 100 miles of trails, all of them shared use.

Besides good trail design and educational outreach, Webber says, it's the attitude: "The government officials said, 'Look, we have a limited number trails and a lot of people. Everyone needs to get along. The trails are going to be open for everyone, so we have to learn to share them.'"

Jeff Ciabotti of the Rails to Trails Conservancy has a couple in mind, too: the Pinellas Trail, a 47-mile asphalt rail-trail in central Florida and the Minuteman Bikeway, a 10.5-mile asphalt trail in Massachusetts. Both support a variety of activities (all wheelchair-accessible) and, importantly, go somewhere.

"They're useful because they connect so many things," he says, such as public facilities and other trails.

That was the idea when designers were planning Prairie Crossing, a neighborhood development in suburban Chicago. The 677-acre residential development and self-described "conservation community" has more than 10 miles of trails, which go to busy areas like train stations but also link to regional trails in a nearby nature reserve. Within the development, there are two circulation systems: one for cars (streets in front of the houses) and the other for people (trails behind houses).

Garden of the Gods multipurpose trail in Colorado Springs, Colo., is a commercial horse trail through the scenic park with a view of Pikes Peak.

The trails are funded through home sales, and they play a large role in the marketing of the community. Underwriting messages on the local NPR station focused solely on the trails as the development's selling point.

"They are in and of themselves an amenity in civic space," says Michael Sands, environmental team leader. "You don't really connect with a place by looking at it from a road or car window. It's really when you get out and walk through it that it becomes more real."

Funding that reality can be problematic, though. While Prairie Crossing has home sales to help, most trail developers look to Washington, D.C.

Every six years, the federal government re-evaluates the money it spends on transportation. Starting in 1991, the government began allocating money for pedestrian and bicycling facilities—trails were beginning to get a piece (however slim) of the $6 billion pie shared among 12 transportation-enhancement categories. The money has increased with each successive reauthorization, with the next one set for this fall.

Federal money, when combined with funding generated locally by public agencies and private groups, can cover trail expenses.

"It's one of those things where you're always keeping your eyes open looking for grant money," says Sands, who has used such money to help pay for trail projects with local groups. "It's a matter of staying involved within the region and community so that you are constantly talking to people and keeping those things in the forefront of your mind and, to a certain extent, the forefront of conversation."