What is an Accessible Trail? Part Two

By John McGovern | Posted on September 26, 2013

Requirements for accessible trails are evolving and advancing and if you are in parks and recreation, it is time to get familiar with what’s to come in the next few years. In this second part of a two-part blog series, accessibility expert John McGovern, J.D., outlines what you need to know about coming requirements. 

In the first part of this accessible trails blog series, we explained that currently accessible routes are the only paths with enforceable requirements and that all other types – shared use paths, trails, pedestrian access routes, and outdoor recreation accessible routes – have detailed design guidance, but not yet enforceable standards.  

Let’s review the important guidelines park and recreation professionals need to become familiar with – PROWAG, Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas, AASHTO and MUTCD. 


This is a final guideline but is still several steps, perhaps 18 months, away from being a final and enforceable standard.


The Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way (commonly referred to as PROWAG) are intended to cover all elements used by the pedestrian in the public right of way.  Important to note is the Shared Use Path Accessibility Guidelines Supplement to the PROWAG guidelines. This provides a very important new definition as well as modifies some of the definitions previously established in the PROWAG document. 

Within these guidelines, the public right-of-way is defined as “public land acquired for or dedicated to transportation purposes, or other land where there is a legally established right for use by the public for transportation purposes.”  This document provides guidance on sidewalks, pedestrian street crossings, pedestrian signals, and any other facilities for pedestrian circulation and use within the right-of way.  These guidelines include important distinctions between different types of routes that are not included in the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design. 

The following are important definitions when determining what type of route is present:

  • Pedestrian Circulation Path - this is defined as “a prepared exterior or interior surface provided for pedestrian travel in the public right-of-way.”
  • Pedestrian Access Route - this is defined as “a continuous and unobstructed path of travel provided for pedestrians with disabilities within or coinciding with a pedestrian circulation path.”  It is required to be provided within sidewalks and other pedestrian circulation paths located in the public right-of-way, as well as within pedestrian street crossings, and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses. Section R302 outlines the various guidelines for pedestrian access routes including those for pedestrian street crossings and mid-block crossings.
  • Shared Use Path - this is defined as “a multi-use path designed primarily for use by bicyclists and pedestrians, including pedestrians with disabilities, for transportation and recreation purposes.  Shared use paths are physically separated from motor vehicle traffic by an open space or barrier and are either within the highway right of way or within an independent right-of-way.”  It is considered a type of pedestrian circulation path and is meant to have a pedestrian access route within it, spanning the full width.


Park and recreation agencies need to get familiar now with guidelines and coming regulations for accessible trails


This is, as of September 26, 2013, a final guideline, and it addresses only sites that are federally owned and operated.  It is several steps away from being a final and enforceable standard.  Following that, rulemaking on the same issue will be developed that will apply to title II entities (states and local governments) and title III entities (businesses and nonprofits).  That process likely ends four years from now, or sometime in 2017.

The Final Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas offer guidance for trails and outdoor accessible routes.  This document is intended for outdoor developed areas owned and operated by federal agencies.  However it is very likely that the scoping and technical requirements here will be proposed for units of state and local governments soon.  

The distinctions between trails and outdoor accessible routes, and the type of path covered by PROWAG, are significant. 

  • Trail - this is defined as “a pedestrian route developed primarily for outdoor recreational purposes.  A pedestrian route developed primarily to connect elements, spaces, or facilities within a site is not a trail.”  Specific guidelines can be found in section 1017 of this document.
  • Outdoor Recreation Access Route - although this is not clearly defined within this document, it is most similar to an exterior accessible route and connects multiple outdoor recreation features within a site, for example, it connects parking at a trailhead to the trail map and to the portable toilet.  Additional information can be found in section 1016 within this document.


Other Guidance

There are other guidelines and standards that may apply to a specific project or location. Two documents that are commonly referenced are the AASHTO Guide and the MUTCD regulations.

Many shared use path and bike trail designers will look to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities which provides useful and practical guidelines.  These are not an enforceable standard.  However, you may encounter a situation where a funder could require compliance with this guideline.   

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is an enforceable regulation that affects state and local governments, and is the national standard for traffic control devices installed on public streets, highways, and bicycle trails.  Unless your state has adopted more stringent requirements, or created its own manual, the national MUTCD is the standard that must be followed.  These requirements apply to any signs that are currently in use or may be installed.

So what do park and recreation agencies need to do now? Get familiar with the guidelines and ask yourselves some questions:

  • Is your agency making trails accessible to people with disabilities?
  • How much of your trail system is paved?  Unpaved?
  • Are you planning new trails in the next two years, and how will you make those accessible?


What guidance are you finding helpful? What questions do you have about accessible trails? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below.