The Trouble with Rights of Way

We've improved the Huli routing engine by taking rights of way in England and Wales into consideration. This means you can rest easy with the knowledge that you'll not be appearing in a land owner's crosshairs when exploring on your gravel bike.

4 mins
Written by
Steve Owens

I wanted to write a short blog on rights of way in the UK; what they are, where they exist and what they mean for cyclists. 

In the UK, each region (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) have different rights when it comes to roaming in the countryside. These things are a bit of a minefield to negotiate, particularly, if like me you are from Scotland, and then head South of the border to explore. That’s because in Scotland a cyclist is generally free to go most places without much hassle due to the land reform act. 

Here’s a snippet from the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society that sums it up pretty succinctly. 

The Land Reform Act 2003 gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly. These rights are sometimes referred to as 'freedom to roam'.

The team over at Apidura did a deep dive on the history of this here with the help of Markus Stitz, the founder of Bikepacking Scotland. I’m not going to repeat that here, but basically it was created as the people of Scotland wanted more access to the land*. This law single handedly allows for some incredible cycling experiences in Scotland, as it allows for you to explore very liberally, while also allowing you to wild camp. It enables some pretty awesome adventures, like the Badger Divide as per:

The Badger Divide

However, when you go South of the border to England and Wales, the guidance changes and you are restricted to a network of paths, most commonly bridleways and byways. SUSTRANS give a good overview of the hierarchy here, and summarise it with this graphic below. To make things even more interesting, there are some footpaths that also allow for bikes. Even more confusingly in Northern Ireland, cyclists aren’t allowed on bridleways, only on rights of way called carriageways. The number of horse references gives an indication into how old some of these laws are.

Sustrans infographic on rights of way access

So you can quickly see how it becomes a nightmare for cyclists to figure out where they can go (outside of Scotland). At Huli, this is an issue we also face when it comes to creating routes. In a previous post I dived into The Data Powering the Huli Routing Engine, and that data captures a lot of the above information. Until now, we’ve not had to deal with many routing issues regarding rights of way due to our small but growing user base that has been primarily been in Scotland. However, as we grow we’ve had more users signing up in the rest of the UK (which is fantastic, tell yer friends!), but has meant we’ve had some issues with rights of way and routing. As we’re being transparent about what we are doing, I’ll discuss how we are now addressing that. 

1. Firstly, we’ve identified the problem data. We have a lot of open sourced data, so this has involved diving into the database deep end  to figure out what’s what. The primary issue we’ve faced is dealing with routing people on footpaths that don’t allow cycling. The plot below shows the paths I’m talking about, and to give you some high level numbers, there are 2.6M (13% of the entire network of paths and roads in England and Wales!!) footpaths in England and Wales that cyclists can’t use. ☹️

Footpaths in England and Wales that unfortunately can't be used for cycling

2. Secondly, we’ve had to understand how to handle these data. We can’t simply delete these as that would create data routing gaps that would ultimately result in the routing engine not working in these areas. So we’ve re-adjusted how our routing engine handles these to only use these as an absolute last last last resort. Basically, never, unless you are starting your route from the middle of a field. Shout out to the cycling farmers. You probably own the land so we’re not too worried about this case. 

3. Thirdly, we’ve been testing the impact on our routes, and also gone back out to users that had issues previously. So far so good on this front. 

So what’s the ultimate change to the Huli Routing Engine? 

Well, nothing in Scotland, but if you live elsewhere then you’re likely going to see more road in your gravel routes. There’s nothing we can do on this front I’m afraid, but you can rest easy knowing that you’ll not be angering any landowners. We set out with the aim of being the most-trusted cycling route planner out there so this is another step on that journey.

Zoom out, and there’s a few things worth noting from this:

1. Personally, I didn’t realise that this was such an issue until fully investigating the data. There’s organisations out there trying to increase access for bikes in England and Wales, so you should get behind this effort if you can. More info on OpenMTB’s website here. You can also follow them on Twitter. The benefits of cycling have been more than amplified over the last few years so let's hope that that materialises as real change on access rights.

2. On a lighter note, you should consider Scotland for a gravel bike holiday 😉

This change will role out into the main Huli app on the 16/03/2022 so we’d love to hear your thoughts on this as you start creating your new gravel routes. We’ll also be following up with another article soon detailing how you can find the best routing areas in the UK using Huli, as with this it seems even more important!

If you like this, then follow me over on LInkedIN, Twitter or Instagram for more soon.

*Further information on Freedom to roam can be found on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website here, while Cameron McNeish also looking at the history of it here , It's really quite fascinating.

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