OpenStreetMap

I’ve run across a few places where there seems to be some disagreement and confusion about how to distinguish between roads that should be tagged as highway=service versus highway=track. I see quite a few ways that get switched back and forth between the two tags each time a different mapper touches them.

So I figured I’d write up how I make the distinction. I understand that other mappers might think about these things differently, but here’s how I think about the two types of roads.

Service roads (highway=service) are:

  • used to provide motor vehicle access from a through road or a local road to a specific destination (building, etc.)
  • typically very short
  • typically used for a single purpose
  • often one lane (although sometimes wider)
  • typically not named or numbered (i.e. no name or ref tags)

Some examples of highway=service: a driveway, an urban alley, a parking aisle, a short access road for utility equipment, an access road leading to one or more campsites, or an access road in a municipal dump.

Track roads (highway=track) are:

  • local roads that are only wide enough for a single four-wheeled vehicle (i.e. dual-track on the ground)
  • can be short or long (i.e. many miles)
  • typically used for multiple purposes
  • typically named and/or numbered when they are approved public routes of travel

Some examples of highway=track: a dual-track dirt road, a remote single-lane paved road, a graded single-lane road along a canal or railway, or a dirt road along the path of a power line.

The place that seems to cause the most confusion is where a longer road is used to access some sort of infrastructure. For me, this is typically a highway=track. Although roads like this can be used to access infrastructure (e.g. towers for high-voltage power lines) they can also be used for through travel, recreation, and other purposes. Roads like this are often designated for multiple uses by the land manager responsible for them.

In contrast, highway=service roads are typically short connections from a local or through road to a specific structure or facility.

Both highway=track and highway=service roads can be any type of road bed or condition (i.e. any combination of surface, smoothness, and tracktype tags). Adding these tags where possible is helpful to further define the type of road.

Discussion

Comment from Msiipola on 9 January 2023 at 12:46

I agree with most of your text, but service road can be long. In forest areas in Sweden we have long service roads leading to a settlement deep in the forest. The road can often be 1 km or more. These road would be classifed as tracks if the settlement wasn’t present. Same can be said of lone settlements in farmlands where a long road leads to the settlement.

Comment from Kai Johnson on 9 January 2023 at 14:14

@Msiipola there are certainly cases where the good judgement of the mapper is the best guide. Thanks for the comment!

Comment from bradrh on 15 January 2023 at 15:53

Nice write up. That’s pretty much the criteria I use in Colorado.

Comment from VileGecko on 15 January 2023 at 17:27

I mostly judge by how roads/tracks work in Ukraine so that’s how I see it:

Tracks:

  • typically completely unpaved (only the segments directly adjacent to proper roads may be paved and tagged as tracktype=grade1)
  • are not bound by man-made features at least on one side and are therefore prone to drift over time
  • appear informally and typically unmaintained or maintained by individuals rather than organizations
  • may appear on settlements’ outskirts or even inside within large unbuilt areas (greenfields); these must be retagged as proper roads once paved or buildings appear on both sides
  • are essentially desire paths for vehicles

Service roads:

  • typically paved (including gravel)
  • do not drift over time
  • almost never have lane markings, sometimes might have traffic signs but mostly they don’t
  • can be found within or leading to dense residential, commercial, industrial properties
  • can be a narrow part of a named street where two buildings/fences are so close to each other that only one car can physically fit in
  • named/numbered lanes within allotment areas
  • theoretically maintained

Unclassified:

  • long (at least several hundreds of metres)
  • wide (5+ metres) graded or paved road connecting a settlement to some commercial, industrial or agricultural propertior another minor settlement
  • usually doesn’t have a name or an index
  • paved, often marked roads with restricted access within industrial complexes that are significantly wider and longer than service roads and with fewer turns
  • theoretically maintained
  • if indexed should be tagged as tertiary
  • if degraded to the condition of a track (e.g. the endpoint of a road is abandoned) but is indexed, a “virtual” highway existing only on paper

Comment from Msiipola on 15 January 2023 at 17:37

It’s important to notice how usually highways are tagged in a specific country. Same rules are not used in every country.

Comment from Kai Johnson on 15 January 2023 at 18:19

I was just going to say the same thing! I do have a particular perspective from the US and I don’t know how far that carries into other countries.

The comment from @VileGecko is a different (and valid!) perspective. It’s interesting to see how the nature of the highway infrastructure itself is different from one country to another. And of course that leads to differences in tagging conventions.

There’s no reason that roads in Ukraine should fit neatly into a classification that works for the US. And many of the roads I’m working with don’t fit neatly into @VileGecko’s scheme.

Take this road for example. This road is 6.5 miles long and connects to other roads in the area so it can be used for through travel. It is reasonably well maintained in comparison to other roads in the area (probably by the utility company) and the location is relatively fixed by that maintenance. It’s comfortably wide enough for heavy utility vehicles, but just a single lane. The road is on land managed by the US Bureau of Land Management but they have not published a name or reference for the road. I haven’t been there in person and there is no street-level imagery for the area but I would be surprised if there was any signage.

So, that’s not a perfect fit for either my scheme or @VileGecko’s scheme.

I’ve mapped this road as highway=track. If I were to map the small stubs going out to the individual pylons, I would tag them as highway=service. I think that makes sense in the context of other roads in the area. But if this was another country with different conventions for tagging roads, I would follow those other conventions.

Comment from Janjko on 16 January 2023 at 09:43

I treat tracks as service roads for farmer and forestry vehicles. Everything else is highway=service or something else. If it goes to a settlement, it’s highway=unclassified + surface=unpaved. The general rule for highways is to map road usage with the highway=* tag, and map the road surface with the surface=* tag. So don’t just put the highway=track tag just because it’s unpaved. That’s what surface=* is for.

Comment from Zify on 15 February 2023 at 11:44

Very interesting subject. Regarding all that you have said. What should be the correct tag for this way (https://www.openstreetmap.org/way/35923714#map=17/48.37300/16.61657&layers=D)

Thank you!

Comment from Msiipola on 15 February 2023 at 12:33

@Zify I would set it “track”.

Comment from Zify on 15 February 2023 at 13:08

@Msiipola Why not service or unclassified? Looking on Wiki after the definition of track it says “Roads used for access to permanent human settlements or facilities should generally not use this tag.” Or our way is leading to some facilities. Thank you very much!

Comment from Msiipola on 15 February 2023 at 13:26

Yes, service is probably better. Not unclassfied, because the road is probably not used by others then workers/farmers. But track could alos be a option. There are no hard rules!

Comment from Kai Johnson on 15 February 2023 at 15:02

I like to consider the classification of roads in the context of their relative importance in the overall road network. An unclassified road provides more connections and carries more traffic than a track.

For me, in the context of US highway tagging, service roads are a lower classification than either unclassified or track. As the Wiki says, service roads provide access to or within a well defined area like an industrial park or campground. So, driveways or alleys would be service roads.

But of course you want to make your tagging consistent with local usage. That means looking at what other mappers have done in the area and considering the accepted local tagging schemes for highways.

I haven’t done much mapping in Austria, but based on the context, it looks like the current tagging is good.

Here’s an example of a road that has been classified as service but that I would consider a track. Looking back at the history, you can see that different mappers have different ideas of how this road should be classified. That’s why I figured I would write this up.

Comment from Zify on 16 February 2023 at 15:17

Thank you all for the answers. One more case, what do you think about this one? https://www.openstreetmap.org/way/30575802#map=18/47.92742/16.17948&layers=D ? The track is ok? Or should be more appropriate to change to service?

Comment from Msiipola on 16 February 2023 at 15:27

Service

Comment from Kai Johnson on 16 February 2023 at 15:41

Yes, service. It’s hard to see why it would be any different from the two-node way at the end near the gate. Or, except for the access restriction, why it would be any different from the way on the other side of the gate.

But take a close look at that way’s membership in route relations. That seems a little odd.

Comment from Kai Johnson on 16 February 2023 at 15:45

I take that back. After looking more closely, there’s a track that continues around the gated property. It’s not immediately visible in aerial imagery, but it is mapped.

That’s why this way is part of the route relations. In which case, track may in fact be more appropriate.

Comment from Zify on 16 February 2023 at 15:51

Thank you! So what are you saying is that service usually stops at something, it ends at that facility whatever it is, but track has a higher function regarding the connectivity? It leads and connect something more, no?

Comment from Kai Johnson on 16 February 2023 at 16:11

That’s the general idea, although some service roads can be used for through traffic (e.g. alleys). And, of course, there are plenty of tracks that go somewhere and stop.

Different regions have different conventions, so you want to consider what’s right for the local area. As Msiipola and VileGecko mentioned above, the considerations for track versus service are different in Sweden and Ukraine than what I would use for the US.

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