Moving Forward with Multi-Use Trails

Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) manages parts of seven multi-use trails in Seattle – paved trails that are at least five feet wide and allow multiple types of users. Some of the most well-known are the Burke-Gilman and Elliott Bay Trails. These popular recreational trails not only act as linear parks, but also routes for people travelling around the city; routes that are away from cars.

In early 2018, Washington State passed a law that allowed some electric-assisted bicycles (e-bikes) on these trails unless there was an existing local regulation against motorized vehicles; in Seattle that was only true with SPR. Multi-use trails in Seattle are owned and managed by a cornucopia of entities, including the Seattle Department of Transportation, Port of Seattle, Washington State, University of Washington, and others. So, to create consistency in the user experience and gather data to inform future policy decisions, SPR conducted a year-long Multi-Use Trail Pilot (Pilot) starting August 1, 2018.

The Pilot had three main elements: Allow Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes, set a 15-mph speed limit, and educate users on proper trail etiquette.

  • E-Bikes: Before the Pilot, no motorized vehicles were allowed on any trail managed by SPR. The permission of Class 1 and 2 e-bikes (see sidebar) aligned with the state law and all other multi-use trail owners in Seattle. No other motorized personal vehicles were allowed.
  • Speed: In reviewing our policies we also realized that no speed limits were ever placed on these trails in Seattle. For the Pilot, SPR set a 15-mph speed limit for all users, consistent with King County, who owns some of these trails beyond the City of Seattle boundaries.
  • Education: To increase safety and enjoyment on these trails, we recognized that education was key. SPR partnered with SDOT to install signs on trail etiquette and worked with community partners to get the word out about how to be a respectful trail user.

What we learned

To understand what is happening on the trail and how people feel about their experience, we conducted research on 9,500 trail users and gathered 1,400 responses to public surveys both online and on the trail. We also reached out to 40 organizations and made 15 presentations to various stakeholder groups.

Here is what we learned about trail users on the Burke-Gilman, Elliott Bay, and Alki Trails during the pilot.

  • Pedal bikes are the greatest users of these trails overall, but each trail is unique. Trails such as the Alki Trail are mostly used by pedestrians while trails like the Burke-Gilman are mostly used by bikes.
  • On average e-bikes and pedal bikes go similar speeds (14.8 & 14.9 mph), although private e-bikes generally go a bit faster than private pedal bikes (16.8 versus 15.0 mph).
  • Bike shares go slow compared to other wheeled users.
  • Personal mobility devices like e-scooters and e-skateboards are still small in number but increasing.

Here is what we learned from the surveys, which were voluntary and came primarily from cyclists. 1,200 surveys were conducted online and 200 were gathered in person on the trails.

  • These truly are multi-use trails.
  • Respondents support the 15-mph speed limit and e-bikes being allowed on the trails.
  • Users generally feel safe on the trails and believe others follow the rules.
  • But the greatest concerns are with other people and at road crossings.
  • The greatest concerns came from conflicts on the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Beyond our own research, we also continue to collaborate with other jurisdictions who manage multi-use trails and are grappling with emerging technologies and the increasing use of these recreational assets. Other cities in the region and around the country are also updating their policies, and we are working with the Regional Trails Coalition to create some degree of consistency in our regulations.

What’s Next?

Seattle Parks and Recreation has extended the Multi-Use Pilot to the end of 2019 as we create a policy update using the information that was gathered over the last year. Our intent is to provide a policy proposal in October to the Board of Park Commissioners. For questions, contact Todd Burley at todd.burley@seattle.gov.