Paths can be a pleasant way to get around - as well as get away from it all - but the rules about them are quite complicated

England has one of the most developed networks of public paths in the world. Rights of way (RoWs) developed over centuries of daily use for everyday trips but now tend to be used for leisure. They come in different shapes and sizes - they may be a road, a way through a private garden, an urban alleyway or simply a way across a field. Their physical form does not relate to the way they are legally classifiedinto four different categories:

  • footpath - where you can walk and, arguably, can push a bicycle
  • bridleway - where you can also ride a horse or a bicycle (including electic bikes but not tricycles)
  • restricted byway - where you can also take a horse-drawn carriage or anything other than motor vehicles
  • byway open to all traffic (BOAT) - the same rights of passage as a road, in other words for all traffic

More information from GOV.UK on rights of way.

Other routes where there is a public right of access are carriageways - commonly called roads - and cycle tracks, which almost always include a right of way on foot. Some roads, particularly in urban areas, have footways (pavements) running along one or both sides. Where such a path is further away from the carriageway, for example on the other side of a hedge, it may be a separate right of way. RoWs are sometimes called Public Rights of Way because there may be also private rights of way, for example the right of someone whose house is accessed via a footpath to drive down it. Most public RoWs are recorded by local highway authorities on what is known as the 'definitive map' though there are some that have been forgotten about. There is also common land, nature reserves and other places where there is a right or permission to roam, normally only on foot in England. Other countries have taken a more radical approach, for example in Scotland there is a widespread right to roam on cycle and horseback as well as on foot.

Even if there is not a right of way, the landowner give the public permission for access, though this can be withdrawn so long as it is clear that it was never given as of right. Similarly a landowner can give permission to for a higher class of use than there is a right for, such as cycling on a footpath. Examples of permissive routes include the following:

  • towpaths along canals
  • paths through parks
  • greenways such as along disused railway lines
  • access negotiated through government bodies, such as agricultural higher level stewardship schemes

Development of the network in the last fifty years has been limited and, as settlement and traffic patterns have changed, in many areas it no longer meets modern needs. Due to legal and historical reasons RoWs, cycle tracks, roads and other permissive routes all tend to be thought of separately, often by different bodies. What matters to the public is that there is a network of high quality paths and ways that functions well and this section of the toolkit goes through the joined up thinking necessary to deliver this. Detailed technical advice, such as in relation to the law or drainage, is available elsewhere and pointers are provided to it.

Maintenance can also be a problem, whether ensuring there are waymarking signs, gates, ensuring surface conditions are suitable (particularly in winter) or removing obstructions such as fallen trees. Just one problem can make a path inaccessible, so an issue at a single location can make a whole circular leisure walk or a safe route to shops impractical.

This section of the toolkit focuses on the first two of these three points:

  • improve maintenance, whether improving signage, tackling obstructions and repairing poor surfaces
  • upgrade the network of local routes, whether by adding new paths or upgrading the surface, or seeking higher rights to use existing paths
  • improve information and promotion such as through better mapping, publicity and events

The final point, promotion is really important and should not be forgotten. Just because you are aware of paths does not mean other people are and, even if they are aware of them, they may not think of using them. You can find out more in relation to promotion in these sections: mapping your area, creating travel information and organising events.

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