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Pedestrian & Bicycle Sidepath Trail Design

As the Midwest’s leader in the development of multi-use trails, our planners are committed to advancing the safety and efficiency of active transportation networks. A sidepath trail provides safe, efficient routes for non-motorized travel along higher speed or high-volume roadways located within the road’s right-of-way. These shared-use facilities are particularly beneficial in areas with minimal intersection or driveway access, allowing unimpeded travel on the pathway.

In both rural communities and urban cities alike, trails are known as a mainstay for creating an active transportation and recreation network. Check out the following on-demand webinar as Mindy Moore, AICP, Planner for Snyder & Associates, explores usage options, proper intersection design and control, and the need for increased awareness among users of sidepath trails. As a biking enthusiast herself, Moore shares both personal and professional expertise on the subject, as she talks through different elements of sidepaths and the many benefits they provide to a community in pursuit of improved biking facilities.

Webinar Agenda

  • What is a sidepath? (0:18)
  • Why do people like Sidepaths? (1:03)
  • Concerns About Sidepath Trails (3:31)
  • Areas of Conflict (5:37)
  • Bicycle Crash Studies (7:07)
  • What to Consider When Planning a Sidepath (11:43)
  • Rural Sidepath Trails (13:23)
  • Improving Intersection Crossings (14:57)
  • Proposed Revisions to the FHA’s Manual and Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (17:20)
  • Sidepath Education and Awareness (22:44)
  • Key Takeaways (23:25)


What is a Sidepath? (0:18)

So issues and challenges that we have with sidepath trails. What I want to go over is, first of all, what do I mean when I say sidepath trail? Why do communities like to build them? What are some of the concerns, and what do we do about those concerns?

A sidepath trail is basically just a trail along the side of a road that parallels the road. They’re defined as shared-use paths, and shared-use paths are just another term for a paved trail. So pretty simple, generally they’re 10 to 14 feet wide. In some circumstances, eight feet wide is allowed. That is generally when there’s some constraint on the area that you can’t build it wider. So that would be like, if there’s a retaining wall that you don’t want to move, there might be utilities along the corridor, something like that, that you can fit a full 10 feet in.

Why do people like Sidepaths? (1:03)

Why do people like them? Well, they provide great access. They accommodate both people, biking and walking. So we kind of get a two for one there. They provide access to destinations. This trail is close to our office. I could walk or bike and go down to Pie Five or Jimmy John’s, and I could be on the trail and not have to worry about cars or anything. They provide great connectivity to other roads and sidewalks because they are just part of the normal street network, I should say. And sometimes they’re just really the only option that you have to create a through route in an area. So, sometimes that’s just kind of where you got to go.

Design-wise, they separate people biking from people driving. People like to have that physical separation. They require minimal to no additional property acquisition. Since you’re kind of building it in with the road within the road right of way and you can construct it along with the road project, get everything done all at once, you might be able to fit it within your existing right of way. Maybe you need a little bit of acquisition here and there, and they’re relatively easy. It’s just a wide sidewalk, right, and every engineer knows how to design a sidewalk. But, I put kind of the “or are they” as my son likes to say to me. You do need to think about some additional things that you don’t think about with a sidewalk when you start to consider the people biking along that corridor.

Why else do communities like them? Well, from the public perception, they’re relatively non-controversial. If people think of them as just a wide sidewalk, they are pretty non-controversial. So if it’s going in front of your home and where you didn’t have a sidewalk before, or even if you had a sidewalk and now it’s being expanded, some people feel like that’s an invasion of their space. So there can be some controversy over that. But, for the most part, it seems to be less than some other trail projects that might be going along a Greenway or behind people’s homes, that feel like more private space. And typically, the adjacent property owners don’t have to maintain them. And this is different in each community, but what I’ve seen for the most part is if it’s a trail, then the city or the local government will do the snowplowing. They will take care of regular infrastructure maintenance, whether that’s patching or reconstruction of concrete or whatever it may be. And they feel safe, you’re separated from traffic, so people feel safe on them.

This survey that I put on here for an example was done through the Michigan DOT, and you can see the orange is people that agree and the top two, this one has separated bike lane as the top one and sidepath as the second one, the other ones have sidepath as the top one, they’re all pretty similar. So people generally feel comfortable biking alone, biking with children, and driving with this type of facility.

Concerns About Sidepath Trails (3:31)

So what are some of the concerns? They can encourage wrong-way riding where that path ends. So you get to the end of the sidepath trail, and maybe you have to get onto a bike lane. Maybe you get into a regular roadway or a sidewalk, but maybe you’re going in the wrong direction. So now you have to cross the street. But maybe you don’t want to, so you could end up with people riding the wrong direction on the road. As far as the site path trail, you’re only accommodating on one side of the road, so you may need to cross the street to get to destinations that are on the other side. Signage and signals are not oriented towards the people who are biking in the opposite direction that the people on the road are traveling. Also, left turns can be a little more problematic for people that are biking.

If the trail gets close to the curb line, it’s recommended to install barriers there. So if you’re like less than five feet, there’s a recommendation to have barriers. And the path width itself can be constrained by other objects. I mentioned earlier, you know, different utilities, retaining walls. If you’re in more of a commercial area, that could be outdoor seating or displays and mailboxes, all kinds of stuff that go into that sidewalk/sidepath trail space. And then the last one here is the main focus of what I want to talk although we kind of hint some of these other things. If you’re biking, you’re not in the normal scanning area of vehicles that are turning.

These are some examples from AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) that I’ve just copied that I wanted to go over. So before we get into the actual scanning part, the one additional issue is it creates a little bit of confusion about where bicyclists might want to ride. So if you are a strong and fearless cyclist, you might want to be on the road. Because on the trail, you’re going to have a few more conflicts with pedestrians or people with their dogs on leashes that go all the way across the trail or a slower cyclist and the ADA ramps as you go across each, each street, you go bump, bump, bump, bump. So, some people are just like, “Yeah, I don’t want to mess with all of that. I’m just going to ride in the street.”  The motorists, though, might be like, “Hey, what are you doing here in my space? You should be over there on that sidepath trail.” So it can create some conflict that way as well.

Areas of Conflict (5:37)

Another way is that motorists pull up and from the side street, and they might block that path, and then you have to decide as a cyclist, are you going to wait for them, go around them? There’s an expectation sometimes that that cyclist is supposed to stop that is not always effective as we know. And then where vehicles scan. I’m going to go into each one of these in detail.

This one here is the one that, from my personal experience, is the most problematic. This is when you’re leaving a side street or leaving a driveway and turning right. If you’re driving, your attention goes to the left to look for oncoming traffic. If a bicyclist is coming from the right, you might look right, not see anything, look left for cars and then go, and by the time you look left and then start to go, that cyclist you didn’t see originally is now in front of you. Because they move pretty fast.

The other scenarios are the drivers on the parallel street. The driver turning left might not notice the bicyclist coming here. Cyclists traveling in this direction are referred to as a contraflow bicyclist. They’re just driving in the opposite direction of traffic that’s going in that direction. So counter to that flow of traffic. In this scenario, I think we’re all probably pretty familiar with right hooks and that problem with cyclist and bike lanes that would be similar on a sidepath trail where they’re not really in the field of view. This cyclist, you might think, is a little bit safer in this scenario, but I’m going to talk about one of the studies that showed this cyclist is still getting hit or having conflict in this scenario, even though they’re in that line of sight.

Bicycle Crash Studies (7:07)

So there have been a few studies in the past. All of these are relatively old studies, and I think a lot of them involve sidewalks rather than sidepath trails. But basically, they’re all leaning in the same direction that your risk of a crash is greater than if you were on the road itself. And this diagram, also kind of old is from 1994, is the only one that I’ve found that lays out this level of risk in each one of these positions. So if this is your normal risk where you’re supposed to be biking, this is almost normal, just a little bit worse. This is double traveling opposite traffic and quadruple. So again, this is the cyclist that I’ve always been the most concerned about in my personal experience.

Since all of those research sources are pretty old, I was pretty excited to see that Michigan DOT had done this study with Toole Design Group in 2018. We have some new research to look at, and let’s see what they found out. So they studied over 2000 crashes in two counties, Oakland and Kent County in Michigan. These are some of their findings that I wanted to share if you hadn’t seen them already. They said kind of what we already knew. A bicyclist riding against traffic is at higher risk than those riding with traffic, and their risk was from right-turning vehicles. When I dug into that statement, where the cyclist traveling opposite the direction of traffic is in the field of view is one of the places where they saw higher crashes. I don’t know if motorists are misjudging the speed of the cyclist or just not realizing that they’re supposed to yield to them, or their cyclist isn’t noticing that the car is turning. But something’s happening there that despite being in the field of view, crashes are still occurring. And then driveways and signalized intersections had higher crash risk as well.

What they said in this study is that one reason they thought there might be a higher crash risk at signalized intersections was due to higher volume. So I was thinking about that, and I thought, yeah, that makes sense. Of course, there are more cars and more bicycles at that location, so there could be more crashes. I wondered if there were other factors at play at the signalized intersection. So motorists assume the right of way with green light. Sometimes people see the green light, and they’re like, “okay, well now I’m not looking to yield to anyone anymore. I’m allowed to go.” Cyclists themselves, if they’re subject to a pedestrian signal, might not realize that they’re supposed to obey that, and the pedestrian signal doesn’t work for them. When you get like a walk light, it turns to flashing or turns to red pretty quickly because they don’t want more pedestrians to enter the intersection since pedestrians take a long time. Cyclists, though, go pretty fast. So you can enter the intersection after a pedestrian does, but the light would have already turned on you. So they just don’t really work, and if they follow the vehicular lights, then that also can be problematic. So the signals just aren’t designed for people biking for the most part.

Back in 2019, I went to Toronto, and they have an amazing bicycle infrastructure. So having the bicycle signals makes it pretty clear who did that signal is for whether you have a green light or not. They also had crossing guards posted at a lot of intersections during the rush hours. And it didn’t appear to me to only be school routes, I think this particular intersection might have been part of a school route, but they were in several places downtown, just kind of keeping an eye on things. So they were there to help people navigate everything that was going on in that scenario.

Most crashes, whether signalized or unsignalized, are with the turning vehicles more so than the vehicles that are moving straight. So you might say, “Well, okay, Mindy, but isn’t it still safer to be on the sidepath than it is on the road?” Yes and no. The studies show that you’re more likely to be in a crash if you’re on the sidepath than if you’re on the road, assuming it’s a road that’s suitable for bicycles to be on. However, if you’re in a crash on the roadway, it’s going to be more severe. So the crashes on the sidepaths are pretty minor. The roadways had 16% of their crushes resulted in incapacitation or fatality. Whereas only 5% of sidepath or sidewalk crushes were that severe. Looking at this 65% sidepath or sidewalk crashes, two-thirds of those involve the bicyclist traveling against traffic. So that’s where again, we’re always thinking that that cyclist is in the most vulnerable position.

What do we do about this? How do we mitigate all of these issues? Consider alternative facilities. But like we said in the beginning, there are a lot of reasons that people like and implement sidepath trails. So can we improve the intersection design or the intersection control and just spread education and awareness about the issue of conflict at these intersections?

What to Consider When Planning a Sidepath (11:43)

When we consider a side path, first let’s look, is there an opportunity for an on-street facility? Whether it’s through shared lanes, bike lanes, separated lanes, or whatever the case may be. Is that an option or not? And we can always do one of those options in addition to a sidepath trail, instead of in lieu of, and see if that’s an option for that corridor. Is there also an ability for cyclists to use a different route, and if there’s a parallel route, that’s a lower volume and lower speed that could be more like a bike boulevard or something like that would be a nice alternative. It’d be important to not sacrifice connectivity in that scenario. So if you’re on a busier street that has a lot of destinations that people want to be able to get to, you’re still going to want to have a facility to get to those destinations. Then the number of pedestrians and cyclists, like in a downtown area where you have a lot of pedestrians, a lot of downtowns do not allow you to bike on the sidewalk. So your sidepath trail scenario doesn’t work very well if you have a lot of pedestrians and vice versa. If you have a lot of cyclists is kind of hard to integrate the pedestrians into that scenario. So we might need to separate those uses, and they could still be separated as like a sidewalk facility and a protected bike lane facility on the side of the road. And then the number and frequency of intersections and driveways. So like we’re saying, most of the crushes are at these intersections. So if there were fewer intersections, theoretically, we would have fewer crushes.

And where are the destinations? This is kind of more about which side of the road do you choose to put your facility? You want to be able to get to wherever it is that people are wanting to get to and provide opportunities to cross the road to get to those places. So I have a couple of examples of sidepath trails.

Rural Sidepath Trails (13:23)

If you know, Snyder and Associates, we do a lot of trails and a lot of work for a lot of County conservation boards, so we ended up doing trails in rural areas. This is one of our trail projects that you can see is separated from the highway. There are very few driveway crossings. There are fewer pedestrians. You might get some pretty intense runners out here, but obviously, there are not a lot of pedestrian destinations along the route. And there’s not really an alternative to put people biking on this highway, so this seemed to be a good solution for this corridor. Here’s another one where we have the sidepath trail and a bike lane. This is Ewing Park in Des Moines. This works because there’s actually the bike lane on both sides of the road, and there’s a sidewalk on the opposite side of the road. So people have the choice to be where they are the most comfortable. There are few intersections since this is along a park space, but really everyone has their choice of where to go in this scenario.

Another example would be okay, well, let’s just put side path trails on both sides of the road. This is in Ankeny. At least now you can choose to bike in the direction of traffic. There’s space for biking and walking on both sides, and this probably would work well for routes to school, especially when you have everyone going in one direction around the same time, and you have larger groups of children or people that are moving together.

Of course, an alternative would be to build a separate bike lane. If you do this, be sure that there’s a sidewalk as well to accommodate pedestrians. And a lot of people, like in this photo, they feel comfortable with their children there. Certainly, not everyone does, but kids can still bike on the sidewalk if they want to.

Improving Intersection Crossings (14:57)

Looking back at that Michigan study, they also said, “Okay, well, we can’t just say yes or no, a sidepath works or doesn’t work.” There’s a lot of planning that goes into this. There are a lot of other things to consider. So we can’t just make this a list that you check off to know whether or not it works. So instead, they focused on how we can improve these intersection crossings.

Here’s an example. This photo is a trail crossing also in Ankney, and you can see in the picture, obviously, the cars have to stop. The bike warning sign is a little awkwardly placed, but the idea is that you have the bike warning sign there, the stop bar, and a marked crosswalk. This is saying, “Hey, there are people crossing here.” It may still be a little bit confusing because the sidepath trail users have stop signs also in this scenario, but the cross traffic does not. There are a couple of other things that we can talk about of how to make that right of way assignment clear, keep everyone visible, and possibly slow the traffic just as they approach the intersections.

One alternative for awareness was being used by the Colorado DOT, and so this is not in the MUTCD  (Manual and Uniform Traffic Control Devices), and I did not see it in the proposed revisions either. But it’s basically just warning the motorist that, “Hey, there’s a parallel sidepath here, and there’s going to be bikes going both directions.” And this looks familiar because there are the railroad warning signs, and they can be done in different configurations based on where the railroad is. So something like this could be considered, and it would have to go through an FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) experimentation or be added to the supplemental MUTCD. Another idea that was in the Michigan study was to use this sign, which is an approved sign, but it’s a sign that’s for use at signalized intersections.

Their idea is to use this sign instead for the traffic not at a signalized intersection but just to kind of warn them to yield to people on the sidepath trail. So in that scenario, that sign would be used as an advanced warning as motorists are coming this way before they try to turn, and we talked about the bike warning signage this is the newer version, the bike-ped combo sign as a warning sign, which is another option, but keep that in mind because there’s going to be an alternative to that in a couple of slides. As far as unsignalized crosswalks just more signs for motorists to let them know where to yield or to stop depending on what the state law says.

Proposed Revisions to the FHA’s Manual and Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (17:20)

Some of these are going to be updated a little bit. This, I found in the proposed revisions to the MUTCD, now they have the bike-ped combo sign. They changed the word within crosswalk to in crosswalk and added in crosswalk to some of the other signs. So I think it’s great that they’re adding the bike-ped combo so that we know that we’re looking for both bicyclists and pedestrians because they do travel at very different speeds and so we have that option for some of those crosswalks as well.

A couple of other things in the MUTCD proposed revision. There’s a left turn yield to bicyclists. So we saw that as one of the potential conflicts cars from the parallel street turning left across the sidepath trail. It’s giving some more guidance on how to use that left turn yield to bicycles. It’s limited only where you think that there would be an unexpected bicycle movement. Something that you’re not expecting to see, and it’s for signalized intersections. That’s one thing that I wonder if it could be used at unsignalized intersections as well. It does say on here if you have a bike signal at the intersection, you would then not use this sign, which makes sense because if you have the bike signal, then hopefully your bike signal isn’t telling you to go while the left turn light is telling the cars to also go.

And then this sign is what would be the alternative to the bike/ped warning sign that we saw on those other crossing applications. This sign, the two-way bicycle cross-traffic, could be posted as a plaque under a stop sign, and then we wouldn’t have to do the warning signs. That’s a new thing that I think could come into play and is a great addition to our toolbox. And then, we have signs oriented for trail users. And here’s another example from Virginia DOT, another non-MUTCD sign just to warn people to watch for turning vehicles. This could be posted only for contraflow cyclists if that seemed to make more sense since they seem to be more highly at risk.

Now I mentioned earlier that a lot of times, we install a stop sign on the sidepath trail when the bicyclists cross a side street. This is something I think that should be discussed because I’m not sure that this actually helps clear up the right of way. Basically, you’re saying if the motorist is coming here and they have to stop, they have to stop to wait for the traffic out here on the road before they can go. Let’s say the cyclist comes after them, and they’re technically supposed to stop and wait for the car to go since the car got there first. However, the car can’t go because there’s traffic out on the road, and so then the bicyclist is supposed to wait until the traffic on the road clears so that the car can go? So it just doesn’t seem to make sense. Obviously, in practice that doesn’t happen.

Another idea to raise awareness of the crossings is to add the yield lines, which are these little triangle markings. We usually see them at mid-block crossings like this one. So the idea in the Michigan study was to add them at this type of crossing instead, which is not a mid-block crossing, and that would help for the turning motorists to know this is just not a normal type of crossing, pay a little more attention.

And then, of course, bike signals, which I mentioned earlier, have interim approval with FHWA. There are a couple of ideas here. Provide a leading interval for bicyclists, which you can also do for pedestrians so that they can enter the intersection before the cars are given the green light to go. The Massachusetts DOT has guidance on what that leading interval timing should be.

You could also add, as far as that signalized intersections, a flashing yellow, right turn arrow. We see this a lot with left-turn arrows. But, if you do it on the right turn arrow that tells the motorist to be a little more cautious, there might be something for them to yield to when they turn. You can also use the blank-out signs for no right turn. So these just are not lit up most of the time, and then they only light up when they want to be sure that motorists are not turning right. That could work in conjunction with that leading interval if the bicyclists or the pedestrians are given the green light to go the no right turn light would light up so that the motorists know that they can not go yet

The other idea would be to slow speed as much as possible. So we can do that through our traditional traffic calming measures that we use in different scenarios, such as bump-outs. A raised crosswalk is a great idea to improve the visibility of the trail users and slow the traffic.

Truck aprons, like they’re showing here, basically allow the truck to make the turn and drive over that. But people in a passenger vehicle are going to try to go around that because they don’t want to want to have to drive over it. So that slows the vehicular traffic as they’re trying to make that turn.

Another idea is to offset that sidepath. This doesn’t really work as well at signalized intersections. This would mostly be at an unsignalized intersection. The motorists turn, and then they have a better view of what’s going on, on the crossing and they have space to yield so they can turn, they can get out of the flow of traffic and they can kind of wait there while the people cross.

Sometimes if the cars back up, they start to queue, and then they block that path because it takes them a while to get out onto the main street. So that is a side effect that you would try to mitigate in another way. Maybe if that was a raised crossing, people wouldn’t feel comfortable waiting on top of the raised crossing. One possible pro to a design similar to this is if that trail curves down and then curves back up, that might slow down your bicyclist a little bit too, depending on how that curve is designed. If you’re slowing the cyclist, they can be more aware and responsive and also give more time for the motorists to see them.

Sidepath Education and Awareness (22:44)

Our final mitigation element would be just to spread education and awareness. So we’re looking at bicyclists, motorists, and of course, planners and engineers. Referring back to the Michigan study again, they did a great job with this creating these little flyer summary sheets of what’s going on at sidepaths. This one is oriented towards bicyclists, telling them where to look, how to be aware, what to be concerned about. Then they have another one targeted towards motorists. Again, telling them where to look that there might be a bicyclist coming and that they should yield for them. Finally, some design best practices, targeting our planners and engineers. So this is what we need to do to make these a little bit safer. Here are some options.

Key Takeaways (23:25)

So just a quick summary of my takeaways for you. What I want you to learn from all this is just the awareness that sidepath trails can be problematic at driveways intersections for people biking, particularly for those who are traveling in the opposite direction of traffic. And then to consider what the alternatives are. If you can’t find a suitable alternative on the corridor, then really work to improve the intersection design and the control and continue to spread education and awareness.

I listed a lot of my resources here. Obviously the Michigan study, there’s a crossing treatment guide done by Toole as well, the AASHTO bike guide, of course. Then some of my other favorites, the NACTO (The National Association of City Transportation Officials) and the small-town rural design guide and that concludes my presentation.

Mindy Moore, AICP

Multimodal Planner

Mindy Moore, AICP

Multimodal Planner

Project manager for numerous projects including trails, on-street bicycling, wayfinding signage, parks, comprehensive plans, & development.

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