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Theme: Trails and the ADA

Trails and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Universal Trails Assessment Process

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The Trail Companion

Fall 1999

Theme: Trails and the ADA

The Universal Trail Assessment Process: Current Status

     As trail managers and planners work to bring outdoor parks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the first steps are not to "pave the wilderness," but rather to evaluate current conditions and provide better information about levels accessibility for all users. Very little standardized data is available for the typical park or trail-most often mileages and trail names are the only information available. Some maps such as the Krebs Cycle Maps note steep trails with special symbols, but most require guesswork and the information found in guidebooks tends to be subjective, rather than standardized. Beneficial Designs, located in Santa Cruz, CA, has been a leader in developing standard methods to collect and provide data since 1991. Beneficial Designs created an information-collecting system called the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) and developed a protocol for measuring trail characteristics and distilling that data into simple maps, grade profiles and symbols that can be posted at trailheads or visitor centers (earlier described in the Aug./Sept. 1996 issue of the Trail Companion. See also an example from Alaska's Chugach State Park)
     Beneficial Designs regularly conducts UTAP workshops for park agency personnel and volunteers interested in accessible trails. They train the data-gatherers to measure four specific characteristics of trails which most affect users: grade, cross slope, trail width and surface type, using clinometers, tape measures, inclinometers and measuring wheels. Each characteristic is then measured at regular intervals. They also note other characteristics including length and hazards such as protruding rocks, steps and clearance.

Grade: How steep is the trail? The grade of a trail is measured at intervals to determine an average, as well as a maximum. This information is very useful to all user groups, especially mountain bikers, families with strollers, and anyone with limited walking mobility.
Cross slope: How much does the trail slope from one side of a trail to the other? Cross slope measurements are most useful to a wheelchair user. Both average and maximum cross slope are noted.
Width: Wheelchair users need to know if and where a trail is narrower than the average manual wheelchair wheelbase width of less than 28 in. Average and minimum widths and locations of narrow spots are noted. This information is also useful for walkers and strollers; trail users in all these groups can tell how much of the trail they will be able to travel, even if the entire trail is not accessible.
Surface type: Is the surface hard dirt or sand? The type of surface is recorded, as well as description of its characteristics. Trail surface can be a major limiting factor for all kinds of trail users.

     The UTAP measurements are then combined to give a difficulty rating. In this context, broad terms such as "Easy" and "Difficult" have specific meanings. A flat trail with deep sand could be as difficult for many users as a steep trail with a hard surface; likewise a slowly climbing or dropping trail with a severe cross slope could be rated as very difficult.
     The end result of all the data collection is the standardized Trail Access Information (TAI), which will help any trail users to make their own decisions about traveling a trail-including wheelchair users, but also families with children, people with other physical limitations, mountain bike riders, inexperienced hikers, horseback riders, et al. In short, anyone who isn't already familiar with a trail and who want to experience the challenges of an outdoor environment. Although the date could be used to simply describe existing conditions, for park managers and trail planners, the TAI can guide future decisions on trail improvements and design to minimize the barriers to access.
     Beneficial Designs has teamed up with many park and trail agencies to collect data and create a searchable trail database on the Web-the TrailExplorer-which will give Trail Access Information for a large number of trails. In addition to the specific trail information, the database will also have links to park information, photos, and historical and cultural information. They are currently processing data sent by the agencies and plan to have the database running by June 2000. A demo is available on their website
     For more information on Beneficial Designs, visit the on the Web at , or contact them at:

Beneficial Designs, Inc.
5858 Empire Grade
Santa Cruz, CA 95060-9603
(831) 429-8447 phone
(831) 423-8450 fax

     Although we have not been involved in their data gathering efforts in the past, we may collaborate with Beneficial Designs, particularly on trails we have constructed or repaired. If you would be interested in volunteering, send us an e-mail or a note.

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Trails and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
A Man with a Handcycle
Building Access

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