Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
PlanningEnvironmentReal Estate

HEP Events Guidance Publications Awards Contacts

Conflicts on Multiple Use Trails

II. Research Needs in Avoiding and Minimizing Conflicts on Multiple Use Trails

Part I of this document reviewed and synthesized the existing research and state of the practice regarding conflicts on multiple-use trails. This review revealed gaps in our present understanding of how to avoid and resolve conflicts on multiple-use trails. The following section identifies research questions that could be examined in order to fill these gaps in what we know. Some of the suggested research is theoretical in nature, and some is suggested for applied experimentation by managers in the field. Part II is organized around an outline similar to that used for Part I:

  1. A. The Challenges Faced by Multiple-Use Trail Managers
    1. Maintaining User Safety
    2. Protecting Natural Resources
    3. Providing High-Quality User Experiences
  2. B. Ways to Avoid or Minimize Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails
    1. Physical Responses
    2. Management Responses
      1. Information and Education
      2. User Involvement
      3. Regulations and Enforcement
    3. Overall Approach
    4. Other Research Needs

There is some overlap among the research topics suggested in these sections, and no attempt has been made to put the suggestions in any priority order.

A. The Challenges Faced by Multiple-Use Trail Managers

Maintaining User Safety

Develop a more uniform and acceptable "passing alert" word or phrase for faster users to use to alert others (regardless of their activity) of their desire to pass. "Passing on the left," "Excuse me," "Thank you," and many others are possibilities (Kulla 1991).

How to pass other users (from ahead and behind) in the least intrusive ways possible should be examined. How to alert other users and when to do so should be examined from the perspective of the person being passed. This applies to passing other types of users or passing people engaged in the same activity.

What are the stopping distances and safe operating speeds of various trail travel modes under various trail conditions? These data could be used to better establish or justify safe operating speeds and speed limits.

It has been suggested that bells be supplied on new bikes as standard equipment (Kulla 1991). How accepted are bells by trail bicyclists? Are bells effective safety equipment when used? How should bikers be instructed to use bells to alert others of their intention to pass? Would a new, more stylish bell design (or other sound-making device) encourage more riders to install and use them? Would some other sound-making device be more effective or accepted?

Protecting Natural Resources

Better studies of the environmental impacts (on soils, wildlife, vegetation, water quality, air quality, etc.) of various trail activities in different environments and under different conditions are needed. Although some fear that such research would fuel unconstructive arguments about "who causes the most damage," a better understanding of what and how damage occurs under different conditions could help in designing and targeting physical and management strategies to minimize impacts.

A "Statement of Principles Concerning Multi-Use Recreational Trails by Non-Motorized Users" (as presented in Keller 1990, 39) calls on Federal and State land management agencies to "undertake a cooperative research project to comprehensively analyze the impact of different users on different types of trails and other users, together with the development of a handbook on trail design practices that can help accommodate multiple user types" (Keller 1990).

Guidelines and procedures for assessing environmental impact and public safety in an objective way are called for by Keller (1990). The Visitor Impact Management (VIM) (Graefe, Kuss, and Vaske 1990) and Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) (Stankey, Cole, and Lucas 1985) approaches would be excellent frameworks to apply to trail environments. Test applications of these approaches should be undertaken for trail systems of different types in different parts of the country.

More research and experimentation on the merits of dispersed versus concentrated use should be undertaken (Cole 1986). Experiments comparing these two strategies for trails are needed to better understand the relationship between trail use levels and impacts.

Providing High-Quality User Experiences

More theoretical research is needed to understand and define what conflict is. The best definitions should be refined and applied specifically to trail-based recreation so that managers, users, and researchers can improve understanding and communication in this area.

Better ways to actually measure and evaluate conflicts, as well as satisfaction, are needed. Meaningful comparisons across studies will not be possible until more valid and reliable instruments are available. Measurement tools more in line with the definition proposed by Jacob and Schreyer (1980) would be most helpful (Watson et al. in press).

We need to understand how recreationists go about determining how satisfied they are with a certain experience. In particular, how and to what extent are their feelings and emotions attributable to the product, the individual, and the situation (Williams 1988).

Studies that determine the types of experiences different types of users are seeking would be useful to managers as they attempt to provide opportunities for those experiences. For example, are the users of a particular park more interested in solitude or challenge on the trails?

What are the norms (standards of behavior) of various trail groups? How consistent and stable are these norms among participants in various activities and within various geographic trail areas? How different are these norms among conflicting groups? We cannot effectively attempt to modify behavior or influence norms until we have a better understanding of just what each group considers to be inappropriate behavior in various situations. How are the normative "rules" for trail areas established (Owens 1985)?

Substituting another site or activity is thought to be a common coping strategy employed by trail users who experience conflict. More research, especially leading to improved theory, is needed on recreation substitution.

What factors are most important to how sensitive a trail user is to conflict-individual differences, situational factors, or activity influences?

Do individuals and groups that are experiencing conflict perceive trail areas and the purposes of these areas differently? In what ways?

Existing theoretical models of what causes conflict need to be better tested so that managers can understand and thereby anticipate conflict before it becomes entrenched (Owens 1985).

What is the relationship between satisfaction (and conflict) and the density of other users? Is the behavior of other trail users more important than the number of others on the trail (Owens 1985)?

Research involving long-term monitoring of areas is needed to see if conflict is really distinct from crowding. Owens (1985) suggests that this would be best undertaken in intensively used areas where some users are dependent upon that particular resource.

More research should examine the relative importance of social and psychological aspects of conflict versus the physical aspects (e.g., competition for resources) of conflict.

What psychological processes take place when the normative "rules" of an area are broken (Owens 1985)?

A better understanding of the coping strategies trail users employ is needed. What are these strategies; how and when are they triggered? How can we better predict displacement, substitution, and dissatisfaction caused by conflict so we can manage accordingly?

Coping strategies to reduce conflict are thought to change the recreation experience for those needing to employ them. What are these changes, and how do they occur?

More studies of conflict are needed in nonwilderness and nonbackcountry locations.

Who are the most conflict-sensitive users, and what makes them different from others (Owens 1985)?

What is happening to the most conflict-sensitive users? Are they being displaced, accepting second-rate places and times, or staying and having less satisfying experiences (Owens 1985)?

Studies of the long-term users of an area might be revealing. Are they continuing to use the area because they are the most tolerant and are experiencing little conflict, or are they experiencing high conflict and are just unwilling to substitute other times or places (Owens 1985)?

To what extent is conflict related to personal characteristics, level of commitment, and level of experience (Owens 1985)?

B. Ways to Avoid or Minimize Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails

Physical Responses

The best and most natural ways to screen trails for sight, sound, smell, etc., should be determined. This could help reduce the level, duration, and intensity of trail-user contacts.

Better research should be conducted regarding the durability of different trail surface materials.

More research into the best ways to control and repair erosion is needed along with a better understanding of how to protect and restore vegetation. Important criteria for all these techniques are that they be natural-looking, safe, and as unobtrusive as possible.

How are speeds and use patterns affected by different trail widths, surfaces, shoulders, signs, etc.? For example, what are the best widths for greenways in various environments and at various expected use levels?

A thorough review of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) standards should be conducted to determine if they can be improved to avoid and reduce trail-user conflicts more effectively.

Better empirical data on the behavior of trail users is needed to improve design and safety standards. Some of these could be modeled after studies conducted by the auto industry.

Continued advances in reducing noise and pollution levels of motorized trail vehicles are needed.

Management Responses

Information and Education-What are the best and most cost-effective means of communicating with trail users? What are the most effective means of unobtrusively influencing the attitudes and behaviors of trail users? Research should be conducted on which modes (e.g., brochures, signs, volunteer trail patrols, uniformed officers, etc.) and what messages (e.g., positive, negative, short, long, etc.) are most effective in influencing attitudes and changing the behavior of trail users.

Better ways to provide information to users early in their trips and during their trip-planning process should be developed. Computerized systems should be considered for this purpose (Roggenbuck and Ham 1986).

We need to improve our understanding of users' characteristics, behavior, and information needs. This will aid in the development of information programs (Roggenbuck and Ham 1986).

Who are the users within each user group who are most in need of behavior changes? Which users are most likely to be uninformed or commit unintentional, unskilled, or careless acts that lead to conflict?

What are the characteristics of "renegade" users, and how can they best be targeted and reached?

What are the best ways to break down false impressions different user groups often hold of one another? How can we get users to appreciate (or try) activities that are new to them?

Research on the extent of crossover among different trail activities is needed. Watson, Williams, and Daigle (1991) found that mountain bike riders in certain parts of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area were similar to hikers in many respects. Determining the similarities among different user groups and documenting the extent to which trail users participate in multiple trail activities could ease "us and them" feelings and reduce conflict.

How can manufacturers of trail-related equipment and supplies be encouraged to become more involved in education programs, resolving conflicts, and helping to address other trail issues? Is a bike shop or manufacturer "tax" on new mountain bikes or a license fee feasible and acceptable (Kulla 1991)?

More uniform trail ethics or etiquette guidelines should be developed (Kulla 1991). The perspectives of all major user groups need to be considered when drafting these.

User Involvement-What are the barriers to users becoming involved in trail clubs and trail coalitions? What are the best ways to involve the public in long-term, constructive trail efforts? How effective are trail outings, on-trail work projects, meetings, working groups, etc., in this regard? What skills do managers need to involve the public effectively in planning and managing trails for shared use?

Regulations and Enforcement-How can trail speed limits most effectively be enforced?

Experiments with personal identification of trail users (suggested by Sharon Saare and related in Keller 1990) should be carried out. Name tags, license plates, or other means could be tried in problem areas to encourage accountability and responsibility. It might also be worth experimenting with messages similar to the "I'm a professional, how's my driving?" stickers on many commercial trucks. Trail groups might produce and market tee shirts, buttons, etc., with an "I'm a Responsible Trail User-How's my Riding (Walking, Skiing, etc.)?" statement.

Overall Approach

What are the tangible issues that result in conflict among and within trail uses? These facts could help users and managers get beyond stereotypes and identify the issues among and between activities that most commonly result in conflict.

Case studies should be conducted comparing approaches and conditions between areas where conflict has been avoided (or managed well) and areas experiencing severe problems with user conflict. Such research could begin to objectively identify promising approaches and favorable conditions for successful trail sharing.

Conflict resolution and conflict avoidance success stories for multiple-use trails should be better documented and publicized.

Chavez, Winter, and Baas (1993) suggest a national exchange of ideas among land managers to help establish what works regarding mountain bike management in various areas and under various conditions.

How effective would various professional conflict resolution and binding arbitration techniques be in cases of intense conflicts between user groups in particular areas?

Other Research Needs

More accurate and cost-effective ways to measure trail use levels are needed (Krumpe and Lucas 1986). Similarly, more accurate and cost-effective ways to gather trail use and trail impact information need to be developed. These methods should gather information on manageable user characteristics such as party size, length of stay, activities, time of use, distribution of use, etc. (Kuss et al. 1990).

What are the long-term participation patterns of trail users in terms of frequency, types of trips, and activities? How common is it for users to change activities over time?

What are the trends in terms of trail activities and patterns of use? What will be the most popular activities at various points in the future? What new activities are emerging that managers will need to plan for?

What are the best ways to anticipate how popular particular emerging trail activities will become? What are the best ways to predict the levels and types of use particular trails will receive?

C. Conclusion

The research suggested above covers a very wide range of topics. Some of these topics will interest university-based researchers while others will be more intriguing to trail managers working in the field. Some will be priorities for both. Identifying the most pressing studies and forging the partnerships necessary to carry them out will require communication, cooperation, and time. It will also require resources in terms of staff, money, and equipment. Improving our ability to avoid and manage conflicts on trails will not be easy, and it will not be quick. However, improved trail safety, natural resource protection, and trail experiences for users will make it worth the effort.

Updated: 02/11/2014
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000