Forward & backward, left & right

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Logo. Feature : Forward & backward, left & right
One example for Feature : Forward & backward, left & right
Used to describe position or direction relative to a way.

*:forward=*, *:backward=*, *:left=*, *:right=*

When adding details to highways or other ways, it is often important to differentiate between the direction of travel or the side of the way. To do this we define the four terms forward, backward, left and right, which all depend on the direction in which the way is drawn in OpenStreetMap.


It is important to know the difference between backward/forward and left/right.

Forward and backward

Forward and backward describe a direction along a way, but not a side of the way. Forward means the direction in which the way is drawn in OpenStreetMap, while backward means the opposite direction. The oneway=yes tag is a good example of a direction-dependent feature: if this tag is added to a way, it becomes a one-way in forward direction.

Left and right

Left and right describe a side of a way, but not a direction along the way. Left means the left-hand side of the road when looking in forward direction (as defined above), while right means the right-hand side.


Depening on the key both includes either both (left and right) sides of a way - for example in sidewalk=*. Or it includes both (forward and backward) directions - for example in overtaking=*.


As part of the key

Forward, backward, left and right are often appended as a namespace to a tag's key. This is done by adding a colon and the desired direction or side to the key.

Examples include:

As value

Forward, backward, left and right are also sometimes used as a tag's value. In this case, no additional namespace is added to the key of the tag.

Examples include:

Identifying the direction of a way


In iD the direction of a selected way is indicated by the triangular midpoints half way between each pair of nodes on a way (note that clicking and dragging these midpoints will add a new node to the selected way). Furthermore grey arrows are shown on the way (even when not selected) if it is tagged with a oneway=* tag. The arrow direction is the opposite of the way direction if it is tagged oneway=-1.

Potlatch 2

In Potlatch 2 the direction of a selected way is shown ...

  • In Potlatch 2 the direction of a selected way is shown in the toolbox.
    ... in the toolbox in the bottom right hand corner (the arrow will rotate to indicate the selected way's direction, calculated by using the first and last node, arrowhead at last node equivalent).
  • ... if you choose the "Enhanced" map view in Potlatch 2 the direction is indicated by small, light grey arrows on the way itself. This only works if the way is tagged with key highway, railway or waterway (+ maybe also some other keys) and is currently not tagged as oneway street (reason follows).
  • If ways are tagged as oneway streets then they always show bigger, grey arrows which indicate the allowed oneway direction (which is the opposite of the way direction if it is tagged oneway=-1).


In JOSM arrows are shown on the selected way. To show arrows for all ways, go to menu Edit → PreferencesDisplay Settings page → "OSM Data" tab: check "Draw Direction Arrows".


In Merkaartor, you can switch way direction display between always-on, always-off and only-oneways in the View menu.

Data view on

The node list of a way in the data view on is sorted with the top/first node in the list being the start/first node of the way respectively the bottom/last node in the list being the end/last node of the way. Way Example way data view (XML, iD, JOSM, Potlatch2, history). The data layer helps you to get to such a page.

See also