United States Unpaved Roads Tagging

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There is conflicting information on this topic at several places. Please see Talk:Highway tag usage and the Talk-US Mailing List for discussion.


There are a lot of conflicting techniques for tagging unpaved roads in the United States. In the Mid and Mountain West states of the USA, the proportion of Unpaved to Paved roads gets very high, for example in Colorado, approximately 70% of all roads in the states are unpaved, and these roads are used for 'daily driving' as much as paved roads. As such, the importance of the use of high quality unpaved roads in routing is high. Dependence on paved roads for routes can add enormous times and distances for cross-country travel. Conversely, there are many unpaved roads that cannot be safely traveled in a Sedan, the base transportation level for routing software.

Where this guide conflicts with other pages

In general, the emphasis on other pages has been to tag all roads that do not have a paved surface as tracks. This page directly contradicts that statement. The emphasis is on the functionality and purpose of the road, rather than the quality of the road surface.

Unpaved Roads vs. Dirt Roads

The subject can be broken down into 2 broad groups, Unpaved Roads and Dirt Roads. Both types can have State or County designation. Here is a comparison table

Description Unpaved Dirt Discussion
Other Names Graded Road, Gravel Road Jeep Trail Most unpaved highways in the Mid-West are graded, that is they are levelled and widened using locally extracted and crushed rock, and the surface then smoothed with a grader. Routine maintenance involves cutting off the top layer to eliminate the washboarding effect. Jeep trails, if there is any maintenance at all, tend to be repaired using materials available in-situ. There may be no requirement for local authorities to maintain Jeep trails, and are sometimes repaired by volunteer organizations associated with off-roading
Number of Lanes From narrow 2 to wide 2 1, with passing places
Speeds Speeds up to and above legal maximum are often obtained Speed tends to be below 20 mph
Routing Software should use route at almost same priority as paved route Software should ignore road for routing purposes

Identifying the road type from Imagery

Generally, distinguishing the two types is easy. Unpaved roads look similar to paved roads in their construction, but appear paler in the image. Dirt roads tend to have 2 distinct tracks, where wheels have cut through the groundcover. Their appearance is described in tracktype=*

Tagging Comparisons

Tag Unpaved Road Dirt Road Associated Tag
Surface Unpaved,Gravel Dirt surface=*
Tracktype Always grade1 Appropriate tag tracktype=*
Lanes 2 1 lanes=*
Smoothness bad Appropriate Tag smoothness=*
4wd_only no maybe 4wd_only=*

Seasonal Access

Roads may be closed seasonally, especially in mountain areas, use access=* with the conditional option, e.g. access:conditional=no @ winter to improve usability of the information

Tiger Data

Naming errors in Tiger imports

Bulk imports of Tiger data consistently produce the following errors.

Tiger Name Actual Name Ref
Road North County Road N CR N
Road West County Road W CR W
Road South County Road S CR S
Road East County Road E CR E
Road Railroad County Road RR CR RR

Abbreviations For Ref Tags

Description Name Ref
Roads with county designation County Road N CR N
Roads with US Forest Service designation Forest Road 123 FS 123
Roads with Bureau Of Indian Affairs Designation Indian Route 456 IRR 456

To tag routes with multiple designations, separate ref with semi-colon: CR N;FS 123;IRR 456

Fixing Tiger Data

Tiger Data Before And After Edits

This example shows imagery of the intersection of 2 county roads in Baca County, Colorado. Both roads are tagged by tiger as residential. Based on the above criteria, The East-West route (County Road Q) should be changed to unclassified, the North-South route (County Road 21 5/10) should be changed to a track.

Mineral Exploitation Roads

Screenshot of Fracking access for OSM wiki page

Tracks serving Mineral Exploitation sites should be tagged as service roads, unless they are noted by Tiger import as County Roads. Roads may be gated, use barrier=gate. On access roads on agricultural properties, they may also have need barrier=cattle_grid, use in conjunction with fence locations

See also Category:Highways.