Canadian tagging guidelines

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This is a starting point for Canadian tagging guidelines and best practices. Specifics for each province can be found on the specific provincial page:


For naming roads, many Canadian cities and towns use the grid based structure, the presence of numbered streets and avenues is very common.

Suggestion: Name these streets/avenues with the full name (such as 51st Street Northeast) and let the renderer sort out the abbreviation where required. Where the numbering system ends below 30, consider spelling out the numbers.

Highway/Road/Carriageway Tagging System

Because Canada is such a big country, with roads of many types stretching from the Arctic Circle, to the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the ideas of how roads should be classified suffers from a long-standing debate.

The guidelines below have been derived from discussions on the talk-ca discussion list, so if you have more ideas, please share.


In Canada, before there were cars, roadways were called 'carriageways' with Wikipedia:Single carriageway and Wikipedia:Dual carriageway#Canada as this follows the British English standard. So from some data sources, you may see these terms used.

In Canada, both "divided highway" and "dual carriageway" may be used for this type of road, although "divided highway" is more common (as "dual carriageway" is an older term being used less than it used to be); however, the segment between the roadways is always a "median" rather than a "central reservation". More informally, a divided highway may be referred to as "twinned". This stems from the practice of "twinning" an existing two-lane highway (usually controlled-access) and converting it into a divided highway. On some portions of Ontario's 400-series highways network, the median may be either steel Wikipedia:guardrail or an Ontario tall-wall barrier rather than an unpaved strip.

Like the US, there are two types of divided highways, fully-controlled access divided routes known as Wikipedia:freeways, while Wikipedia:expressways includes both freeways and partial limited-access divided highways, and "expressway" is often used specifically to refer to the latter. Compared to the US, Canadians often use "highway" to refer to freeways, especially in the Greater Toronto Area. Partial limited-access divided highways such as the Wikipedia:Hanlon Parkway and Wikipedia:Black Creek Drive have at-grade intersections and private entrances but have sufficient right-of-way to convert them to full freeways if traffic warrants. There are also RIRO expressways, such as a portion of Highway 35, which are not full freeways since they allow access to existing properties, but traffic speeds are faster than regular roads due to a median barrier preventing left turns (motorists have to use a "turnabout" overpass to access exits on the opposing direction).[1]

Junctions may be at-grade or grade-separated, and there may be gaps in the median strip to allow turning and crossing. Divided highways are seldom equipped with Wikipedia:traffic circles, roundabouts, or rotaries.

Named major highways

For those that are named (e.g. the Trans-Canada highway or Yellowhead) should also have name=* tag. When a highway has a street name, the name tag is used for it, and the highway name is tagged using nat_name=*.

Where all of the segments should be included in a relation ((please expand me))

Divided highways / dual carriageways / motorways

A motorway is a road designed and built solely for motorized traffic. In English-speaking countries the term is used in the United Kingdom, some parts of Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, some other Commonwealth nations, and Ireland (a motorway is also called a mótarbhealach (plural: mótarbhealaí) in Irish). In Ireland, a road built to motorway standard, but without the designation (and the regulations and traffic restrictions resulting from that designation), is known as a High-quality Dual Carriageway. Motorways are identical to freeways as a road type, and comparable to the United States Interstate Highways as a classification.

In Canada, a highway=motorway is a controlled or restricted-access divided highway with two or more lanes in each direction, e.g. Highway 401 in Ontario, Autoroute 20 in Quebec, Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, Ontario.

  • Recommendation: These should be drawn as 2 separate lines, tagged as highway=motorway being drawn in the direction of the traffic flow. One line per direction, tagging each as oneway=yes. With the name=* and ref=* where appropriate on each way.

Why?: A highway=motorway is defined as restricted access by OSM. So that's what it's for.


A highway=trunk is a roadway that has limited access and is part of the national highway system, as defined by the Council of Ministers, an intergovernmental agency with representatives from each province and territory. Maintenance of these highways is under provincial jurisdiction.

The full inventory can be found in this PDF.

The surface=* does not need to be paved, nor is it assumed to be paved. As in many regions of Canada (far north in the Yukon / NorthWestTerritories, there is no need for it to be paved, as there is not a high volume of traffic. But it still has that national level of importance. This is the core cross-Canada road network, and it should be viewable at low zoom levels.

  • Recommendation: Tag these as highway=trunk, and list the name=*, and ref=* if available, and tag the surface=paved/unpaved/gravel. (see below). If non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians are prohibited, also tag as motorroad=yes.

Reference (ref tag)

On many major Canadian roadways, as the road passes through towns, the name of the road changes names along its length. Fortunately, these roadways are all numbered with a consistent highway reference number.

  • Recommendation: All of these highways should have the ref=* tag added indicating this highway/road number.


Highways should get a surface tag indicating paved or unpaved. If there is no surface tag, the assumption is paved.

  • Recommendation: Use the tag surface=unpaved, when you know that it is not paved, otherwise the default value (if not listed) is assumed to be surface=paved. The preference is to tag the surface=* when it has been physically verified. See verifiability.


Following precisely the tagging procedure described at Key:lanes, a roadway with one lane in each direction should be tagged as lanes=2, as this is the assumption, that all roadways are 2 ways. (Otherwise, it would be a 1-way road and would be marked with oneway=yes)

  • Recommendation: Roadways with two lanes in each direction should be tagged as lanes=4, etc. A divided highway with two lanes on each carriageway should have two separate ways, each tagged with lanes=2. If there is no lanes tag, the assumption is 2.

Sub-national and below

This is where it gets confusing, as the exact usage of highway=primary, highway=secondary and highway=tertiary varies from province to province. However, the commonality is that these are all maintained by the provincial governments, with provincial jurisdiction.

Most provincial highways would have a reference numbering system. These would get a ref=* tag with their highway number.

Highways can also have a surface=* tag, with values surface=paved, surface=unpaved or surface=User debated.


A highway=primary is a major highway linking large towns, normally with 2 lanes. The traffic for both directions is usually not separated by a central barrier.

Recommendation: Tags the ways as highway=primary, name=* & use the surface=* tag to indicate surface.

To link primary roads in an intersection, use highway=primary_link.



A highway=secondary is highway which is not part of a major route, but nevertheless forming a link in the provincial & national route network. It normally has 2 lanes. The traffic for both directions is usually separated by a central painted line on the road.

To link secondary roads in an intersection, use highway=secondary_link.


  • Secondary, tertiary: Major roads that are not part of the highway system

Provincial secondary highways, county/regional roads or suburban and urban arterial roads. Toronto survey grid roads (Steeles, Finch, Bayview...) are an example of secondary.


A highway=tertiary is a class of road between secondary and unclassified. There are a number of roads that are not secondary roads but are far to big/fast to be labeled as unclassified, most of which turn out to be C roads (tertiary). In rural areas, these roads are usually not painted.

However, this varies province to province.

  • Suggestion for urban areas: Tertiary roads are through roads, but of lesser importance than secondary roads. They usually have some of these characteristics:
    • Narrow: mostly no more than four lanes wide.
    • Local: broken up by major barriers such as rivers, freeways, and railways.
    • Traffic calming: speed limit slightly lower than secondary roads, more traffic signals, physical measures like curves and distinctive pavement.
  • Suggestion for rural areas: Tertiary roads are either rarely-frequented through roads or branch off from secondary roads to a notable settlement. Pavement, if it exists, does not go beyond the travel lanes, and jogs are often unrectified.


Regional roadways (below provincially controlled)

To make it more confusing, regional roadways also very from region to region.

Recommendation: Tag the roads as you like locally. YOU are the expert for your own area, the people who have actually been to the region, knows the area best, & can say what local people know the roads as best. Over time, as the map gets more developed, you will notice trends in the map, so you can adjust the road classification accordingly. Discuss on the talk-ca list if you are unsure.


An highway=unclassified road would be considered rural roads that are not provincial or national highways network. Similar to a highway=residential but used for through traffic.

However, some map it as unclassified if they are unsure. This is not the purpose of the tag. The best practice would just be to ask around (on the talk-ca discussion list) as perhaps someone can help. Otherwise, use highway=road so then someone else can come along and tag it appropriately.

Recommendation: In a large suburban area, there are numerous residential roads that lead nowhere significant; in order to get to the nearest arterial road, there are through roads. These should be tagged as unclassified. Once you get out of the suburb area, these become tagged as highway=tertiary. Unclassified roads in residential suburbs are usually physically distinguished from residential roads only by the presence of non-residential uses; if the road is built as a minor arterial, tag it as highway=tertiary.

Recommendation: Use this tag if it is outside of a residential area & none of the other (above) road classes would fit. An example would be the main roads within the suburb to get to the local primary school, but again, this varies. Indicated the surface=* when it is known.


A highway=residential road which is used for accessing or moving between private residential properties (homes). Otherwise called a 'suburb'. This tag should be used for roads that have residential properties, but not if it is on a classified or unclassified highway.

This is a useful guideline if you are not sure whether to use "residential" or "unclassified" for streets in towns:

  • unclassified - a road used by through traffic
  • residential - a road generally used only by people that live on that road or roads that branch off it.

From the available data sources, this one is consistent. Residential roads should be marked as highway=residential


  • Service: Back lanes, alleys.

Used for access roads to a building / business which is on private property. An example would be the roads accessing a shopping mall, or a big box store complex with Wal-Mart or Best Buy, etc.

Lanes and other narrow, usually one lane and usually unnamed roads. For example, roads leading to a carpool lot.

The purpose of each lane should be tagged, e.g. service=parking_aisle, service=driveway, service=alley, service=drop_off.

If a private road has a name and buildings front onto and address it, consider tagging it as highway=unclassified or highway=residential and indicating that the road is private using access=*.


A highway=track is roads for agricultural use, gravel roads in the forest etc.; usually unpaved/unsealed but may occasionally apply to paved tracks as well. If a track is used for recreational purposes, it should be tagged as leisure=track.

Example: Small roads in parks, dirt trails in fields, etc. Speed limits are probably 30 km/h or less; roads may be maintained privately.

Recommendation: The easiest way to remember this one is for a tractor, as it would have 2 ruts, where a tractor would be able to use it, or an ATV/Horseback/mountain bike/hiking would be able to use these roads.

Ottawa Bus stops

Use the four digit number (GTFS stop_code) as the name, followed by the GTFS stop_name if available. The number is visible on the stop and allows the Route Planner to be used, the GTFS stop_name is displayed to the bus driver before the stop. Two stops may have the same stop_name but different stop_codes.

Recreational Trail Tags

See Tagging Recreational Trails in Canada. However, because the methods vary from region to region. It's best to look around to other areas of Canada, ask around on the talk-ca list or meet-up with other trail mappers to learn the best methods.


Generally, if it is known as a 'bicycle path/trail/track' as its designated use, then tag it as highway=cycleway. Sometimes the actual name of the route gives it away.

For example, with the Trans Canada Trail the definition of what is meant when it says the trail/path/route/track is bicycle friendly, the type of bicycle that it is friendly to is not so clear, as there are different types of bicycles, each with its own need.

General tags

If a road has dedicated bicycle lanes, the road itself is tagged with cycleway=lane. If a lane permits cyclists to go in the opposite way on a one-way street, the tag is cycleway=opposite_lane.

For roads meant principally for bicycle use that are separate from general traffic, the tag is highway=cycleway, with optional specification using cycleway=*. If pedestrians and cyclists are given equal access, the road should be tagged highway=path foot=yes bicycle=yes.

Signed cycling routes are tagged using the Cycle routes#Relations scheme. network=lcn is used for routes within an urban agglomeration, network=rcn between agglomerations, and network=ncn for routes spanning an entire province or more.

Hybrid or Touring Bike

A bike with tires about 32mm wide (700 x 32c), it is designed primarily for use on paved surfaces, but can also handle some off-road dirt/gravel and cycle roads. This bike is not designed specifically for mountain biking.

Road Bike

A bike with tires about 23mm wide (700 x 23c) intended for use on paved surfaces, lightweight and fast, used in road racing.

Mountain Biking

A bike with tires about 2 inches wide (26" x 2", 29" x 2", etc). Various Mountain Bikes can handle a wide variety of off road road trails, from well packed soil to large rocks, and jumps.

highway=path sac_scale=mtb surface=* slope=*

There is a tendency to want to use the grade_level system of 1 being the easiest & 5 being the hardest.


If it is hiking on dirt Template:Highway sac_scale=hiking

If horses are allowed on it, it should be highway=track


highway=footway. When the pavement is adjacent to a street, tag it footway=sidewalk. When unpaved or recreational, highway=path is probably more appropriate.






Could be on water (winter frozen) so it would be like a ferry route.


Tim Hortons

In Canada there are Wikipedia:Tim Hortons As of January 3, 2010, Tim Hortons has 3,578 systemwide restaurants, including 3,015 in Canada and 563 in the United States.

There are some variations of tagging.

amenity=cafe is often used for single locations, and almost always when there is no drive-thru.

amenity=fast_food is used for combined Tim Hortons-Wendy's locations. It is also often used where there is a drive-thru; such locations should also be tagged drive_through=yes.

  • Flammable suggestion: Tag according to surroundings: if there is a more café-like place in the immediate area around the Tim Hortons, then it's an amenity=fast_food. When combined with Wendy's, it's also an amenity=fast_food. In all other cases, use amenity=cafe. Victor Bielawski 17:30, 26 April 2010 (UTC)

The name should be tagged as name=Tim Hortons, with no apostrophe and no abbreviations, except in French-speaking areas, where name=Tim Horton can be used.

  • recommendation: use the tag operator=Tim Hortons TDL ?
    • But many Tim Hortons locations are franchises... Victor Bielawski 17:30, 26 April 2010 (UTC)
    • How about franchise=Tim Horton? --Gorm 13:45, 9 June 2010 (UTC)
  • If the building is a mixed use building, 'building=yes' should be used, with nodes representing the different uses, or area=yes and draw each use within the building outline area as they are separate businesses (each with it's own address label).

--acrosscanadatrails 12:16, 27 April 2010 (UTC)

Community mailboxes

Use the amenity=post_box tag to identify mailboxes. However, add the additional tag post_box:type=* to identify the type of mail box:

  • No post_box:type=* tag will assume that the mail box is a regular red mailbox.
  • post_box:type=community This is for the community mailboxes, where you can send outgoing letter mail and receive incoming mail at the same location. Most new neighbourhoods have this type and many individual roadside mailboxes in rural areas have been consolidated into these as well. Note: This tag has very little traction currently -

Community Mail Box


Carpool Lot

Parking lots are tagged with amenity=parking, and can be named.

Perhaps we need a standard tag for carpool lots? parking=carpool might do.


  1. "RIRO". Retrieved 2009-07-31.