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Difference Between Paths and Trails?

The terms path and trail are often used interchangeably.  However, many people will be surprised to learn that the two terms have different legal definitions, at least here in MN.  From MN State Statutes 169.11:

Subd. 6. Bicycle path. “Bicycle path” means a bicycle facility designed for exclusive or preferential use by persons using bicycles and constructed or developed separately from the roadway or shoulder.

Subd. 8. Bicycle trail. “Bicycle trail” means a bicycle route or bicycle path developed by the commissioner of natural resources under section 85.016.

Section 85.016 (and other subsequent sections) describes the circumstances under which a bicycle trail can and should be developed by the commissioner of natural resources.

The key aspect to understand from these definitions is that the word trail doesn’t describe what the facility looks like.  A trail is not a type of bicycle facility.  A trail is a set of facilities that have been given a legal designation as being part of a defined trail system.  A trail may be composed of several different facility types including bike lanes, bike routes, bike paths, and even roadways without any specific bicycle facilities at all.

Not all trails are composed of paths, and not all paths have been legally designated as trails.  Some highway shoulders are bike trails.  Some urban roadways with a few “Bike Route” signs are trails.

Also, just in case you’re interested:

Subd. 5. Bicycle lane. “Bicycle lane” means a portion of a roadway or shoulder designed for exclusive or preferential use by persons using bicycles. Bicycle lanes are to be distinguished from the portion of the roadway or shoulder used for motor vehicle traffic by physical barrier, striping, marking, or other similar device.

Subd. 7. Bicycle route. The term “bicycle route” means a roadway or shoulder signed to encourage bicycle use.

Subd. 9. Bikeway. “Bikeway” means a bicycle lane, bicycle path, or bicycle route, regardless of whether it is designed for the exclusive use of bicycles or is to be shared with other transportation modes.

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