Paths and Trails: To Divide or Not to Divide?

If you live in the Chicagoland area, you’d have to live under a rock, not to notice the variations and diversity amongst the types of road users that occupy communities. Traveling alongside cars, motorcycles, commercial trucks, and public transit vehicles, are commuting bicyclists and pedestrians; delivery/courier pedacyclists; and resident or tourist recreationalists, whether runners, joggers, walkers, moms with strollers, or children at play. Chicago has long recognized its need to account for its road-user diversity, the result of which has led to more marked and/or barrier separated bike lanes, increased enforcement in intersections and along sidewalks, as well as the construction of paths and trails that create throughways to increase accessibility and improve safety. However, as we push for more use of the pathways and trails, which are intended to protect vulnerable road users, another safety issue has begun to rear its ugly head, and increasingly so—that is, pathway and trail accidents.

There are more multi-use pathways and trails, as well as bike rental accommodations, in and around the Chicago area, than ever before. As more paths, trails, and bike sharing stations emerge, so have the numbers and types of people using them, validating the old saying, ‘If you build, they will come.’ However, long ago are the days in which trails were occupied by persons leisurely strolling by bike or foot. Nowadays, pathways and trails provide access to public transit, connection to adjacent communities, tourism opportunities, and alternatives for long-distance cycling enthusiasts, to name a few. Consequently, where once the primary concern was ‘sharing our roadways,’ this has now been expanded to include concerns over ‘sharing pathways and trails.’ Along with this has come heightened debate over whether our trails and pathways should be separated by specific user types, much like our roadways divide motorists from bicyclists and pedestrians.

Trail divisions use pavement markings to create a lane for cyclists, and one for pedestrians. In some cases, trail separations are further divided into four separate lanes to accommodate both types of users traveling in opposite directions. With hundreds of miles of bike pathways and multi-use trails currently in place, and more on the way, the risk of being injured, or even killed along a pathway or trail, has become a growing concern in recent years. Some say that separated lanes provide a solution to the problem; others say that this approach only partially addresses safety issues; and yet others contend that trail divisions are a waste of government spending altogether.

As injury attorneys, we do see the many advantages that separated lanes has to offer in terms of accident prevention. At the same time, we find that unfilled gaps and unanswered questions have generated much uncertainty for the safety of our trail and pathway users. Here we discuss just a few…

First, is the individuality of each path or trail being fully accounted for, as opposed to a ‘one-size-fits all’ type of approach? Just like our streets, different types of persons use paths and trails for different purposes in different areas. What may be an effective solution along one pathway or trail, may not necessarily be the best approach along another. The decision to separate lanes, and the method of doing so, needs to be assessed on a path-by-path and trail-by-trail basis. Doing so requires an evaluation of current data specific to each particular trail or path, including usage rates, purpose of use, type of user, and prior bicycle accidents or incidents, while also taking into consideration how infrastructure, planning, and community development efforts may impact future usage.

Second, are we being careful to ensure that incorporating trail divisions will not instill a false sense of safety by diverting attention from the core problems that cause many pathway and trail accidents? Just a few examples:

  • “The reckless cyclist”—this refers to fast-moving, speeding, racing, and/or careless cyclists (sometimes even a group of cyclists) that plow through trails with a vengeance, and have a general lack of concern for the safety of others.
  • “The inattentive or irresponsible trail/path user”—this refers to trail and path users that cause a cyclist, who is using the trail in a safe and proper manner, to fall or collide with a person or object. (i.e. roaming children; unleashed dogs; pedestrians in bike lanes; cyclists that stop abruptly/unexpectedly kids learning how to ride;
  • ‘Trail and pathway obstructions’—in some cases this can be misplaced, lost, or discarded items or debris left by trail users. In other cases, local entities fail to properly maintain trails and paths, whether in debris removal, or the repair of cracks, potholes, or other dangerous pathway surface conditions.

Third, will trail division efforts simple draw lines and leave users to fend for themselves, or will enforcement measures be taken? Clearly placing enforcement officials at increments along any trail or path is neither a financially feasible nor practical solution. What we can do is increase fines for existing violations; revisit local and state regulations that fail to address bicycling and pedestrian issues specific to paths and trails; and perhaps even perform random trail/pathway checks, particularly in areas with high incident rates, citing users for any and all violations pertaining to bicycle licensing; traveling speed, observance of others, lane crossovers; and general adherence to legally-enforceable trail rules and regulations.

As a further contention, we have dismay in discovering that many of Chicagoland’s pathways and trails constructed in recent years, failed to fully and properly evaluate, assess, or consider the use and methods of trail separation. For some localities, we find that path and trail division issues were more of an afterthought, rather than an aforethought in the planning process. We need to ensure that state and local funding allocated for our trails and pathways is spent in the most cost effective manner to address current concerns, while also keeping in mind that Chicagoland is undergoing a state of change and progress.