Roads and Trails

Roads and Trails

In the board meeting two weeks ago I introduced Trail Topics, with the goal of providing information about trails and spreading trail advocacy. As I mentioned in that meeting, the board has provided a forum for discussion with staff, so these topics are just informational. Tonight I’d like to speak about the differences between roads and trails.

By my count, there are over 240 miles of pathways in the Midpen system. About 45% of these are what we normally mean when we say trails, which is to say they’re designed for people. In most cases these are narrow, though there are some good uses for wider purpose-built trails. About 55% of the pathways in the system are roads that have been opened for recreational use. Those were originally designed for vehicles and in our area they are often steep, as they were intended to move a vehicle efficiently up to a ridge or hilltop.

Purpose-built trails enhance a user’s experience. They wind through the natural environment and take us to interesting places. They have gentle grades, which not only makes them more pleasant, it makes them more sustainable. We feel more connected to nature when we traverse these trails. We can also design these trails to help manage multi-user interactions, for example by limiting speed when nearing blind turns or intersections.

On the other hand, roads detract from a user’s experience. They commonly have steep grades. This makes them hard to go up and dangerous to come down, whether you’re on foot, a horse or a bike. It also makes them less sustainable. They commonly have poor surfaces. Steep grades and straighter roads also lead to higher speeds when users cross.

Now, it’s common for trail systems to make use of roads. There are lots of reasons why we might need them, for example a lot of our trail systems include roads that are used for fire management and for PG&E access and maintenance. Sometimes those roads also provide good multi-use connectivity. But when we think about trail system design we shouldn’t confuse these with trails. Roads are not a substitute for good trails, and a good trail system should have a substantial set of trails that are purpose- built for people. In my opinion, this is critical to keep in mind when planning Measure AA projects. It’s important to clearly distinguish between these types of pathways in planning. When thinking about trail systems, we should be asking questions like “which of these pathways are roads?”, “Which ones are built for people, and which users will be able to access them?”

Thanks very much for your time and the opportunity to speak. I’ll speak to another trail topic soon.

These comments were provided to the Midpen Board of Directors during the public comment portion of their August 11, 2021 meeting.