Trail Design

Safety and Design

Is Liability a Problem?

Occasionally trail skeptics and opponents claim that the liability risks posed by multi-use trails are so great that the community cannot afford the insurance necessary to protect itself from lawsuits and legal judgments.

However, virtually all the managers of existing trails dismiss the liability problem as negligible. Since most trails are owned or operated by a public entity such as a county park and recreation agency or a state department of natural resources, the risks associated with the trail are folded into the overall insurance policy of the county or the state. When asked, most trail managers are not even able to identify what percentage of their insurance premium is due to the trail.

Obviously trails need to be properly and safely designed. Bridges need adequate planking and standard height railings, tunnels need protection from rock falls and trestles need certifications of safety. Nevertheless, within the spectrum of public facilities, trails are inherently safe and less dangerous than roads.

Crushed Limestone or Asphalt?

Crushed Limestone Asphalt
PRO: Cheaper than asphalt to build PRO: Holds up under maintenance
PRO: Fewer problems with weeds PRO: Handles heavy rains without eroding
PRO: Few potholes; no seams, patches or cracks PRO: Ideal for all bikes, roller blades, wheelchairs, and scooters
PRO: Moderate and light rains generally soak in CON: Weeds and cracks require patching
PRO: Preferred by snowmobilers CON: Not “natural”
CON: Heavy rains can cause significant erosion CON: Disliked by snowmobilers
CON: Maintenance vehicles on the trail may create ruts CON: More expensive than limestone
CON: Difficult for thin bike tires and wheelchairs, and impossible for roller blades PRO-CON?: Snow melts faster

According to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) bicycle guidelines, under most conditions, a recommended paved width for two-directional bicycle path is 10 feet. Eight feet is considered the minimum width but this width should only be used when there is low bicycle usage, little expected pedestrian use, and no anticipated maintenance vehicle loading conditions causing damage to the pavement edges. Many states have gone to a 10 feet minimum width for bike paths and 12 feet in high use areas.

The AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities is the primary guidebook for facilities built with transportation funds. The Guide is available for $30 from AASHTO at 202-624-5800, 800-231-3475, or visit

Prepared by Kevin Struck, UW-Extension with revisions by the Oneida County Biking