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Universal Access Trails and Shared Use Paths

Design, Management, Ethical, and Legal Considerations


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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 (145 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). 

A new edition of this manual, tentatively titled "Trails for People: Guidance for Inclusive Design and Accessibility," will be published and made available here later in 2021.

Excerpt from the Manual's Introduction

This manual reviews Best Management Practices (“BMPs”) to utilize when planning, designing, constructing, and maintaining pedestrian trails for universal accessibility—for providing trails usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without separate or segregated access for people with disabilities. These BMPs, which derive from federal regulations, are mandatory for federal entities and those working on their behalf but voluntary for all others.

This manual also discusses accessibility BMPs applicable to shared use paths (including rail-trails). These BMPs derive from proposed federal regulations, which will, if and when finalized, be mandatory for all government entities but not for private organizations.

Neither of these sets of BMPs applies to trails or paths not intended for pedestrian use—for example, ATV, mountain biking or horseback riding trails.

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

All trails and shared use paths—indeed, any areas open to pedestrians—that are owned or operated by a public or private entity covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act are subject to federal regulations on Other Power-Driven Mobility Devices (“OPDMDs”). These rules potentially greatly expand the types of vehicular devices that must be permitted on trails, shared use paths, other routes, and other areas open to the public. This publication discusses ways to manage access by these vehicles.

The manual also highlights as case studies several state-of-the-art trails among the many trails that provide universal access, as well as providing practical advice on technical standards, policies, and offering other helpful resources.

In summary, the manual:

  • Explores who are the likely users of trails and shared use paths that provide universal accessibility;
  • Identifies which entities are legally bound by the federal accessibility rules governing trails and the ones being developed for shared use paths, and which entities should regard these rules as BMPs;
  • Reviews accessibility laws, regulations, exceptions, and BMPs relating to trails, shared use paths, and other pedestrian routes used in outdoor settings;
  • Gives planning, design, and implementation guidance for developing trails and shared use paths that comply with accessibility standards and BMPs; • Shares practical ideas for developing policies and implementing practices in support of accessibility;
  • Reviews federal regulations governing OPDMDs and recommends what organizations may do to manage these devices;
  • Presents case studies highlighting successful trail projects that incorporate universal design; and
  • Recommends additional resources for trail and shared use path planning, design, construction, and maintenance.

There are many types of non-motorized, land-based recreational trails and shared use paths: hiker/pedestrian trails, mountain biking trails, equestrian trails, and multi-use trails designed for several user types. The companion guide to this publication, the 2013 Pennsylvania Trail Design and Development Principles: Guidelines for Sustainable, Non-Motorized Trails (the “Pennsylvania Trail Design Manual”), provides a great deal of guidance and detailed information about the characteristics of the various types of trails and paths. Readers should use that publication as a primary resource to help evaluate which specific type of route they want to plan, design, construct, and manage for their site. This publication focuses on the accessibility aspects of the most commonly constructed types. 

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Penn Trails LLC
Penn Trails has extensive experience in designing and building universally accessible trails. Larry Knutson, president of Penn Trails, is coauthor of the Universal Access Trails guide.
Penn Trails LLC
(717) 486-4455
Larry is coauthor of the Universal Trail Accessibility guide and has extensive experience in the development of universally accessible trails.
Conservation Matters, LLC
Goldstein coauthored PALTA's guide to Universal Access Trails and Shared Use Paths.

Featured Library Items

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? This manual a…
Excerpt from Americans with Disabilities Act rules pertaining to "other power-driven mobility device" issued on March 15, 2011.
A landowner may convey to another person the rights to create a trail, open it for public use and maintain it without the owner giving up ownership and enjoyment of the land through which the trail passes.
These guidelines address the Department of Justice’s regulations regarding wheelchairs and other power-driven mobility devices (OPDMD) for outdoor activities on Western Pennsylvania Conservancy lands
Trails and other areas open to the public for pedestrian use must also be open to motor-ized vehicles used by persons with mobility disabilities. Any type of motorized vehicle must be allowed unless the trail owner or operator creates specific written policies justi-fying restrictions. (10 pages)


Nothing contained in this or any other document available at is intended to be relied upon as legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship. The material presented is generally provided in the context of Pennsylvania law and, depending on the subject, may have more or less applicability elsewhere. There is no guarantee that it is up to date or error free.