Trail Safety: The Perception and Reality

July 1, 2014, Department, by Mark Alan Young

Trail maintenance crews can increase safety for trail users by reducing dense vegetation along pathways, which provides cover for visitors with malicious intent.It seems that every spring, as soon as the weather warms and bicyclists, walkers and joggers hit recreational trails, a spate of stories hit the media warning us of danger along our trails. An article published in The Washington Post April 22 reported multiple incidents of violence on D.C. area trails. The article, titled “Assaults on D.C. region’s trails reported as more people head outside,” cautioned trail users to be wary of lurking dangers. These stories get your attention and can create the perception that our recreational trails are not safe.

Recreational trails are proliferating across the country, connecting urban centers, suburban communities and rural areas. When park and recreation agencies update their master plans, greenway trails and rail-trails are ranked as highly desirable amenities by community members. Increasingly, cyclists and walkers are using trails for transportation to businesses, schools, parks and the workplace.

Are trails safe? There is the perception and there is the reality. Both are important to today’s trail manager. The most recent comprehensive trail safety report was issued by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1998 when the trail movement was in full stride. The RTC study included major crimes such as assault and minor crimes against property including graffiti and sign damage. Overall, the results from the study indicated that trails are safe places to be. Of the 372 trails surveyed in the study, only 3 percent experienced any type of major crime. The RTC study found the crime rate on urban trails surveyed was very low compared to the national crime rate for urban areas. It’s a reassuring report, but trail managers take both major and minor crimes seriously. Trail managers are taking measures to prevent accidents, injuries and crimes — and promote an enjoyable and safe trail experience.

Design for Safety

Trail safety begins with thoughtful engineering and design. From the Requests for Proposals through engineering and design, personal safety must be a trail sponsor’s highest priority. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a concept that takes a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior in the design process. While its roots are in the 1960s, CPTED is being embraced by more and more park and recreation agencies. CPTED designs the built environment to mitigate the occurrence of crime and the perception of danger. Jim Schneider, former trail manager at Greene County Parks in southwest Ohio, oversaw 60 miles of multiuse trails, including the highly acclaimed Little Miami Scenic Trail. Schneider, now the president of Trail Works and an expert witness on trail-related legal issues, stresses that the trail manager must work with contractors to ensure that the trail is designed for the maximum safety and enjoyment of bicyclists, walkers and other recreational users. 

Policies and Rules

Park and recreation agencies set policies and post rules to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for bicyclists, joggers and walkers of all ages and abilities. Posted rules related to trail etiquette and accident prevention are common, but some agencies are hesitant to post recommendations to protect the user from personal assault, because it can create the perception that the trail is a dangerous place. Park and recreation agencies can include trail safety tips alongside other trail information on signage, in brochures and online. Doing so in a neutral way equips trail users with important information without unnecessarily alarming them or deterring them from using these facilities. Mark Westermeir, director of Carmel-Clay Parks and Recreation in Indiana, emphasizes that trail users should take precautions for their safety on the trail, e.g., carrying a cell phone with GPS location capability.


To improve emergency response to trail incidents, many park and recreation agencies are installing emergency call boxes and emergency locator systems. The Alpharetta Parks and Recreation Department in suburban Atlanta has placed 13 call boxes along its eight-mile Big Creek Greenway Trail. The call boxes connect to a dedicated center for public safety. Alpharetta has experienced success with their emergency call boxes, but other agencies have suffered from vandalism, such as Indianapolis Parks and Recreation’s experience that resulted in costly repairs of the call boxes along the Monon Greenway. Other cities have pulled their emergency call boxes because repeated vandalism has made them unreliable for distressed trail users.

Sophisticated emergency locator systems use signage markers with unique location identifiers placed at intervals along the trail. In Dallas, Texas, the city is expanding an emergency locator system initially used on the Katy Trail to trails throughout the city. Markers are placed so that at least one is visible at any point along the trail. The locator signs are joined to nearby addresses with caution notes so emergency personnel know where and how to access the trail. This system gives law enforcement and emergency medical services an accurate location and access to the trail without delay.

Trail Patrols

Trails, like neighborhood streets, are linear public spaces used for transportation and recreation. A dedicated trail patrol benefits public safety. The recreational trail system in Columbus, Ohio, is patrolled by Franklin County Metropolitan Park District park rangers on bicycles day and night because the trails are never closed. The Metro Park rangers are certified law enforcement officers, and their presence is a deterrent to any type of criminal activity. The Big Creek Greenway Trail in Alpharetta is monitored by a dedicated bicycle patrol unit in the Department of Public Safety. George Gordon, Alpharetta’s public information officer, asserts, “While crime on our trails is negligible, we do not take trail safety for granted. Our dedicated bike patrol officers play an important role in preventing crimes of opportunity.” Volunteer groups with names such as Trail Ambassadors, Trail Watchers and Trail Sentinel monitor trail systems across the country.

From design to operation and maintenance, trail managers have an influence on a user’s experience — perceived and real — on our trails. All credible studies indicate that trails are as safe as any public street or roadway. Multiuse trails will continue to gain popularity as a recreational amenity, so park and recreation agencies and their trail managers must continue to ensure that trail users have a safe and enjoyable experience.

For more tools and resources on this subject, and to share your agency’s or district’s experience in trail safety, visit NRPA’s Parks and Conservation Network.

Mark Alan Young is a consultant with Parks Forever Consulting.