Further guidance on tagging Public Rights of Way in the United Kingdom

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Before reading this guidance, be sure to familiarise yourself with the Access provisions in the United Kingdom. The guidance on this page is for those slightly more complex cases that sometimes arise when mapping Public Rights of Way.

The best way to map a Public Right of Way (PRoW) is undoubtedly to undertake a ground survey of a route and upload a GPS trace. By doing so, you can verify the route exists (e.g. checking for appropriate signage), check its condition (and add appropriate surface=* or trail_visibility=* tags to the route), and add other items such as barrier=stile, bridge=*, and barrier=gate.

When mapping PRoWs, it is important to note that any route listed in a local authority’s definitive statement, or shown on its definitive map, is by law a highway with guaranteed legal access rights for specified users depending on its status. A highway, therefore, exists on a PRoW regardless of whether it can be seen on the ground or whether it is physically passable.

PRoW runs along the same route as another highway

In OSM, you should always map a highway by its highest classification. For example, if a public footpath shares its route with a service road you should map the service road and add the appropriate designation=* tags to that road. Do not draw both a highway=footway and a highway=service road. If the two highways diverge, even for a relatively short distance, you should then map them separately.

Access conditions

When adding access=* tags to a highway that is also a PRoW you should only add the tags granted to that highway by the PRoW status – unless other legal access restrictions are verifiably known. In our public footpath and service road example, the following is correct if we know nothing else about any other legal access restrictions on the road:

You should not assume that access is, or is not, permitted by other transport modes. It may not even be possible to determine this from a ground survey.

Although the legal access may not be explicitly covered by the PRoW type, other transport modes may still be allowed. For example, cyclists may still be allowed on a public footpath.

Furthermore, the access tag should only be used to denote legal access - not physical access. For example, a stile might restrict a cyclist, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are legally prohibited from accessing the route.

Impassable or blocked PRoWs

Some mappers may choose not to map paths that are impassable or for which there is no evidence of. Of course, this is fine. Equally, if you would still like to map this route you can.

By law, if a PRoW is blocked, you are permitted to take a reasonable diversion around the blockage. It is recommended therefore that you map the route with this diversion included. However, you should split the way and omit the associated PRoW tags from this diverted part of the route. Additionally, you should add notes or other suitable tags to the route/blockage to indicate what the issue is.

Remember, blockages such as overgrown hedges or swampy ground may only be temporary/seasonal.

Especially for more permanent blockages, e.g. farm buildings or new fences, or old routes that likely haven't been removed from the map in error (e.g. running through numerous houses on an new-ish estate with no on-the-ground evidence), you may wish to also map the section of the PRoW that is not passable but use a suitable tagging scheme to indicate the path cannot be used. There is no consensus on how to do this but options include highway=no, disused:highway=*, or simply not adding the highway=* tag at all.

It is highly recommended that you report any impassable or blocked routes to your local authority’s PRoW team, so that it can be investigated and hopefully resolved!

Note: local authorities can issue temporary closures of PRoWs for safety reasons. In such cases, you may wish to simply not map this route until the closure is removed. If the route is already on OSM, you can add temporary tags to indicate its closure. This should only be done if the intended closure is for a prolonged period (e.g. months rather than days) and, where possible, you should add an expected reopening date. Temporary closure details should be removed as soon as possible after the path is reopened.

On-the-ground route differs from official route

It is important to remember that digitalised versions of definitive maps, e.g. those on a local authority's website or from PRoW data layers (see Adding PRoWs from permitted sources), are not legal records and may contain inaccuracies or be outdated. Only the definitive statement and map are legally enforceable.

If you find that the "on-the-ground" route of a PRoW is different to that listed in the definitive statement or definitive map, there are two main options available.

  1. If the "on-the-ground" route and the official PRoW route are close enough (a subjective decision), you may choose to map either route. This will often occur where mappers have used signposts or "on-the-ground" evidence to trace a path, rather than the definitive statement or map.
  2. If the two routes vary substantially, you may map both routes. This may occur, for example, when the PRoW runs directly across a field but a well-worn path has been made around the edge of the field. The PRoW is still the legal route but walkers may chose the route around the edge. You must only add PRoW tags to the official PRoW route. The "on-the-ground" route would, by default, be a permissive path. It would also be beneficial to note this discrepancy on both ways.

Where official signage exists

In some cases, you may find that official local authority PRoW signage diverts the path away from the route outlined in the definitive map/statement.

Note: signage can be confusing! Official-looking signs may not be official at all (see UK Public rights of Way for examples).

In this case, the local authority may have altered the route of the path through a Public Path Order but this has not yet been updated on the definitive map/statement. However, it may also be that the landowner has moved the signs for their own reasons.

As such, you should verify the route with your local authority. If in doubt, map the route you took but, as above, treat it like a diversion. Only add the PRoW tags to the official PRoW route as defined in the definitive map/statement. You could also tag the diverted route as suspected:designation=*.

Adding PRoWs from permitted sources

If your local authority has provided a dataset of their PRoWs, with an OSM compatible licence, then you are permitted to add these to OSM (including both the route and prow_ref). However, you must not use any restricted sources to help you add the routes to OSM – for example, you must not use copyrighted maps (such as OS maps) to help draw on the route in OSM. Additionally, you should not bulk import PRoWs as there are likely to be conflicts with already present highways.

One possible permitted option, but only if the local authority's data licence allows, is to use a PRoW data layer (e.g. https://lists.openstreetmap.org/pipermail/talk-gb/2019-November/023785.html) in OSM to draw the PRoW route. You may need to use a permitted secondary source to add the prow_ref number. A good option for this, and for checking whether the local authority has provided their data with an OSM compatible licence, is https://osm.mathmos.net/prow/ which can also be used for identifying which paths in your local area that are missing from OSM or have other issues.

Such "armchair" mapping is discouraged by some in the community, since you cannot add useful "on-the-ground" detail. Also, since you will be copying from digitised sources, the accuracy cannot be guaranteed. But, so long as the data licence is permissible, you are perfectly allowed to do so. Indeed, OSM is an iterative effort. Your armchair mapped route may allow other users, who would not have known the path existed before, to explore and improve the route in the future.