Highway guidance in England and Wales for remote mappers

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England and Wales have complex laws that govern what types of users (motorists, cyclists, horse-riders, pedestrians) are allowed on roads, paths and tracks.

OpenStreetMap mappers in the UK have accurately recorded this information on many thousands of miles of roads and paths. As a result, OSM is used in many walking and cycling maps and apps, enabling walkers and cyclists to plan their journeys.

Changing the highway tag of a way alters the meaning of what users are allowed. If you change highway=bridleway to highway=track, for example, you are removing the information that walkers, cyclists and horse-riders are allowed on that way. In this way, well-meaning but misguided edits by large companies have caused significant damage to the map of the UK, requiring volunteer mappers to tidy up after them.

If you are changing highway types in the UK, please read this page - in conjunction with the others linked from United Kingdom#Guidelines - and adapt your editing practices accordingly.

Practical advice

What does this mean for remote mappers?

Tags like highway=footway or highway=unclassified tell us what type of user can use that way. So if you change the highway tag, you're changing what users can use the way. Getting this wrong breaks walking and cycling maps and apps, and can destroy volunteer-collected information.

  • Don't change highway=footway, highway=bridleway, or highway=unclassified to another tag, unless you add extra tags to retain the information about who's allowed to use the way
  • Don't change another tag to highway=footway, highway=bridleway, or highway=unclassified, unless you add extra tags to clarify who's allowed or not allowed
  • Be really careful with highway=service and highway=track: these are often used for private roads, so changing to/from these will affect routing
  • Where available, you can use open data to verify who's allowed to use a way

Resources you can use

(Note that data is not available for all parts of England and Wales.)

Understanding the background

(Editing team leaders are recommended to read this section to understand the issue.)

What is a "public right of way"?

England and Wales have many thousands of miles of path which are known as "public rights of way" (PRoWs).

Each PRoW falls into one of several main categories: "public footpath", "public bridleway", and (less common) "restricted byway" and "byway open to all traffic". These categories dictate what type of user has a legal right to use that way. Public footpaths are open for walkers only; bridleways and byways can be used by horse-riders and cyclists; "byways open to all traffic" can be used by motor vehicles.

You can tell what type of PRoW a path is by looking at special signs on its route. Some local councils (who administer PRoWs) also publish open mapping data which we can use.

Is this just about paths?

No. Something you might think of as a "service road" or a "track" can also be a public right of way. It's important that we record this information in OSM, to distinguish from the many service roads and tracks that aren't open to the public.

How is this mapped in OSM?

There are three main ways of recording a public right of way.

If there's no other tagging, the highway= tag usually implies a right of way:

  • highway=footway implies it's a public footpath (so walkers can use it)
  • highway=bridleway implies it's a public bridleway (so walkers, cyclists and horse-riders can use it)

Note that highway=path, highway=track and highway=service do not usually imply any right of way. So if you're changing to/from one of these, you need to make sure the public right of way is still recorded.

The standard access tags are often used, of course:

  • a public footpath will often be mapped with foot=yes
  • a public bridleway will often be mapped with foot=yes,horse=yes,bicycle=yes
  • a restricted byway will often be mapped with foot=yes,horse=yes,bicycle=yes
  • a byway open to all traffic will often be mapped with foot=yes,horse=yes,bicycle=yes,motor_vehicle=yes

You can also record the right of way status directly with the designation= tag:

  • designation=public_footpath
  • designation=public_bridleway
  • designation=restricted_byway
  • designation=byway_open_to_all_traffic