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Trails for All People

Guidance for Accessibility and Inclusive Design


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How can trail groups, local governments, and land trusts responsibly plan, develop, and operate trails that are accessible by all people, including those with limited mobility? What are best management practices? What is legally required? When is universal accessibility not appropriate?

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Due to its length (133 pages) and graphic complexity, it is impractical to present this manual in HTML format. Please view or download the PDF of the manual (6 MB). 

The prior edition of this manual was published in 2014 under the title "Universal Access Trails: Design, Management, Ethical, and Legal Considerations."

Excerpt from the Manual's Introduction

This manual explores best management practices (BMPs) for pursuing the inclusive planning, design, construction, and management of pedestrian trails that are usable by all people, including people with disabilities, to the greatest extent possible within the constraints presented by the terrain and the intended trail experience for users. It follows the principles that everyone should have access to trail opportunities and that the planning and design of trails should account for the great variation in abilities, cultural backgrounds, and other facets of the human condition.

While the manual addresses requirements of the law, it primarily focuses on helping people create trails that are as welcoming as possible for any particular set of circumstances. The BMPs contained within derive from federal regulations that are mandatory for federal units of government and those working on their behalf but not for private organizations working independently of the federal government.

Although the bulk of the manual focuses on pedestrian trails, it does additionally address accessibility BMPs applicable to shared use paths (such as rail-trails) intended for pedestrian use but not exclusively so. These BMPs derive from proposed federal regulations, which will—if and when finalized—be mandatory for all government entities but not for private organizations.

Also discussed are trail heads and related facilities as well as the federal accessibility rules applicable to the pedestrian routes that connect parking lots, shared use paths, and other accessible facilities to each other.

Improving trail accessibility for people for people of various abilities and disabilities was the motivating force behind the first edition of this manual and continues to be for this new edition. This new edition additionally calls on trail planners and builders to consciously engage with communities other than their own—to explore and work with people unlike themselves—to create trails that are optimized to provide a shared sense of place for people of many walks of life.

This manual, which was first published in 2014 and substantially revised for a new edition in 2021, shares practical and emerging ideas for developing policies and implementing practices in support of accessibility. In summary, the manual also:

  • Gives planning guidance for creating trails, covering the concepts and principles of accessibility, sustainability, universal design, and inclusivity in order to meet the diverse needs of different user communities in an equitable manner (Chapter 2);
  • Explores physical specifications for trail accessibility (Chapters 3 and 4);
  • Addresses trail signage as a key aspect of trail development (Chapter 5);
  • Introduces trail management and maintenance practices (Chapter 6);
  • Reviews accessibility laws and regulations and identifies which entities are legally bound by them (Chapter 7);
  • Looks at the use of federal accessibility guidelines as BMPs specifically for pedestrian trails, including the identification of conditions where their use as BMPs would not be appropriate (Chapter 8);
  • Reviews the pending rules for shared use paths which, until finalized, should be viewed as BMPs (Chapter 9);
  • Identifies rules and BMPs relating to other types of pedestrian routes as well as trailheads and trail amenities (Chapter 10);
  • Presents several case studies highlighting projects that incorporate universal design principles and accessible design standards (Chapter 11);
  • Provides a glossary addressing commonly encountered terms, bewildering jargon, and abbreviations (Glossary); and
  • Recommends additional resources for trail and shared use path planning, design, construction, and maintenance (Resources).