Trail Safety: The Single vs. Multi-Use Debate

Thanks for dropping by the Avid Trails blog. For this post, we wanted to cover a topic that is the subject of passionate debate in the trail space: single vs. multi-use designations. Trail safety is a major priority whenever we design and build a new trail, but user satisfaction is also critical. Ultimately the goal is to create comprehensive trail systems that provide all types of users with a great experience, but as trail use continues to grow this becomes more and more difficult in practice.

Of course, this debate isn’t new at all. Trail use conflicts and appropriate solutions have been studied by the Federal Highway Administration, National Parks Service, state and local organizations and trail advocacy groups the world over. In the last decade, prevailing wisdom seems to have landed on the benefits of properly executed multi-use trails as they are often considered a great opportunity to create a sense of community, shared ownership, mutual respect and collaboration amongst users.

Unfortunately, with the continued growth of mountain biking, conflicts between wheeled and non-wheeled users seem to be increasing. In fact, as this piece on points out, some users have even resorted to sabotaging other users out of frustration.

So then, without getting into it too much deeper, we’re going to let Avid Trails company president and expert trail builder Troy Duffin give us his take. Having built over 650 miles of trail and been past president of the Professional Trail Builders Association, Troy is the perfect guy to provide some insight on this ongoing debate.

Q: Troy, why is the discussion about single vs. mixed-use trails so lively right now?

Troy Duffin: As you’ve already noted, the discussion has been around for quite some time, especially on trails where hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians all share the same space. I’d point to advances in mountain bike technology — specifically longer-travel and more compliant suspension systems — that has accelerated the discussion. In short, riders can go faster on the same trails than was possible (for most riders, anyway) a decade or so ago. Now that the user speed differential has changed from a few miles per hour to, in some cases, tens of miles per hour, it’s created new conflicts.

Q: Can you give us a little history about single vs. mixed use trails and how the theory has evolved over time?

Troy Duffin: For centuries, foot and hoof traffic has shared the same trails. It’s simply a matter of expediency that various users are on the same paths. Up until the 1980s, narrow or singletrack trails served both foot and hoof traffic well. On such trails, equestrian speed was generally kept to a walking pace, thus hikers and horses have generally had a peaceful coexistence. When mountain bikes became more common on trails, the speed difference was quickly apparent. Even those relatively primitive bikes were capable of being ridden at several times the speed of foot traffic, and they were often ridden much faster than horses. This led to differences in design of mixed use trails, including larger radius turns and increased sight lines. At the same time, many landowners and agencies began examining how to build trails designed to discourage speed, and even discourage bicycle use altogether. With advances in suspension tech, these strategies have generally become unsuccessful.

Q: What is the conventional wisdom today? How are most trails and trail organizations dealing with the issue?

Troy Duffin: Many organizations are now designing and building mountain bike-specific trails, in order to provide great cycling experiences. This solution reduces conflicting uses, especially when cyclists have been provided routes that are far more enjoyable than traditional foot and hoof-centric designs. In addition, many areas are experimenting with speed limits and directional trails, in order to keep conflicts to a minimum.

Q: Do you have some thoughts on the best solution?

Troy Duffin: I’ve always advised clients and agencies that, if possible, they should build separate trails for the various user groups. Unfortunately, due to budgetary or land constraints, that’s rarely possible. Speed limits are difficult to enforce, and have generally been unsuccessful across the board. (I know firsthand that they didn’t work very well even in the early 80’s on Mt. Tamalpias — the birthplace of mountain biking — due to the cost and complexity of enforcement.) Directional trails help, but there are still vast speed differences between different users when moving in the same direction. I continue to believe that separate trails are the best solution. We need to accept that hikers, runners, and horses generally move at under 10 MPH (and often at 2 MPH or even slower), while aggressive cyclists often top 30 MPH. This is a massive speed differential, and creates substantial safety issues. Building bicycle-specific trails helps solve the problem, and also results in more enjoyable trails for bikes.

Q: Any examples you can share of trails that have gotten it right?

Troy Duffin: In Park City, we worked with the City and the local advocacy group to make one of the most popular new trails, “Armstrong,” uphill only to bikes. It’s open to all other users in both directions, but bikes can only be ridden in the uphill direction. (This can, of course, only work in situations where riders have other downhill options.) This solution has been widely successful, as all uphill users move at fairly close to the same speed, and nobody has to worry about a rider coming down at a high rate of speed. It also allowed me to build it with a narrow, “singletrack” feel, since I didn’t have to worry about sight lines and tight corners. Other area trails restrict bicycles to only even-numbered days, and that has also worked well. Land managers just need to be aware that good signage is mandatory, and some enforcement may also be necessary.

Q: What about advice for trail users?

Troy Duffin: Our local advocacy organization has adopted a program it calls “10 seconds of kindness.” The concept is to get users to slow down, recognize that others are on the same trail, and simply be courteous to them. Bottom line, that’s all it really takes. Be aware of the basic rules of the trail, that hikers/runners yield to horses, and bicyclists yield to everyone. Also, downhill users should always be prepared to yield to uphill users. Cyclists can slow or stop, and pull to the side of the trail to allow others to pass. It’s really very simple, and the display of courtesy goes a long way to making sure everyone has a good time.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Troy Duffin: We need to educate younger users about access and closure issues that older mountain bikers have lived through. That is, respect and courtesy leads to open trails, while belligerent behavior will inevitably cause closures. If you love the multi-use trails you’re allowed to ride today, respect other users, or risk losing access!

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