E-bikes are exploding in popularity and promise access to a range of new users. It’s time we upgraded our trails to embrace these users, rather than shutting them out with regulations.
Multi-use trails are really popular for walking and cycling. They often pass through forests or fields, or along bodies of water, offering delightful views and experiences. Increasingly though, trails are getting busier, and are being used by a wider range of users for a broader range of purposes. A senior heading out for their morning walk might encounter a speedy cyclist commuting to work, or a student e-scootering to class.
With more user types comes more potential for conflict; while trails may seem like a happy place where everyone can get along, this is often not the case. These multiple users include people walking at 4km/h, people jogging at 10km/h, and people cycling at 15-30+km/h. Municipalities frequently grapple with issues of cyclists “speeding” on multi-use pathways and have tried varying levels of signage and pavement markings with generally limited success.
Enter E-Bikes and Micromobility
Active transportation is in the midst of a major shift as e-bikes and other forms of micromobility like e-scooters become increasingly popular. These devices promise to make cycling possible for those who’ve been unable to; for example, with older adults and those with reduced stamina. They allow people to travel longer distances (expanding the range of the possible bike commute) or to travel on-demand (in the case of bike share and scooter share), or to haul large amounts of cargo (or children). These new opportunities are not without challenges though; with faster speeds comes a greater safety risk for slower users on pathways.
What Causes Injuries on Trails?
According to a Canadian study that evaluated both user preferences and collision data, while trails are believed by users to be one of the safest types of cycling facilities, their safety performance data is worse than other types of separated cycling facilities. The leading causes of injuries on trails include:
- Surface conditions (bumps, potholes, gravel, ice, roots, etc.)
- Physical obstructions (curbs, barriers, fences, railings, boulders, speed bumps, stairs, etc.)
- Collision with pedestrian or falling to avoid a collision with pedestrian
- Poor forward visibility (blind corners)
Multi-Use Trails 2.0
It’s tempting to try and solve the speed issues through regulations. Many jurisdictions have banned e-bikes and e-scooters on certain pathways, or set maximum speed limits for trail users. Regulations are not only a challenge to enforce, they create barriers to people who would seriously benefit from being able to take their e-bike on a trail, like families using a cargo bike with e-assist, or seniors who need the electric support to get up larger hills. Banning e-bikes effectively means shutting out an entire segment of potential users.
So what can be done to make trails safer and more inclusive to all potential users? The right way to solve this issue is with good design and maintenance. Here are five straightforward measures to improve the safety of trails:
1. Remove the physical obstructions
This one should be a no-brainer. Gates and bollards are at best a nuisance, and at worse a serious safety hazard to a faster cyclist. They should be removed and replaced with “softer” measures like flex posts that don’t risk serious injury for cyclists. Light posts and signs should be offset at least 0.5m from the edge of the pathway.
2. Invest in good maintenance
Pathways should be kept in a smooth condition and be repaved or repaired as needed. Existing gravel trails should be upgraded to pavement if user volumes are high enough. Consider winter-maintaining trails to provide year-round access, and if trails are not winter maintained, consider including a “Spring cleanup” where lingering snowbanks and ice chunks are removed to extend the usage season.
3. Improve sightlines
Avoid blind corners in the design of new trails by offsetting buildings and trees from the travel surface. Sometimes improving a “blind corner” can be as simple as clearing out some low-lying brush, without any impacts to more valuable mature trees. New trails should be designed to support faster speeds, with wider corners and clear zones. A recent review of design guidance for bicycle pathways in Europe found that it’s most common to design “main routes” for speeds of 30 km/h and “side routes” for 20 km/h.
4. Build a wider pathway
While a 3m (10ft) trail only provides enough space for two cyclists to pass each other, a 3.5m (12ft) trail is wide enough so that two people walking side-by-side can be overtaken by a cyclist. At 4.0m (13ft), four people cycling abreast can pass each other. The range of possibilities continues to increase as the path gets wider.
5. Separate the users
Especially on pathways with high volumes of pedestrians, many conflicts can be reduced by separating the users. These can be separated by a small curb in constrained cases, or by a strip of grass or landscaping where more real estate is available.
Trails Can Accommodate Everyone
As the sales of e-bikes continues to explode, conflicts between users on trails are inevitably going to get worse. But instead of seeing this as a threat, e-bikes should be seen as an opportunity to get more people cycling. Instead of regulating them out of trails, we should be upgrading our trails to welcome them.