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Michael Tormey: How off-road are Slow Ways routes, really?

10th September, 2021 by Guest

Hello again, Slow Ways! You may remember my recent blog post investigating How direct are Slow Ways routes, really? Today, I’m back with more, this time answering the question, How off-road are Slow Ways routes, really?

Part of my MSc dissertation has been studying how Slow Ways can track the quality of its routes over time. One challenge, however, is that many of the routing standards are difficult to evaluate across a whole network. How could we objectively, for example, classify routes based on how “enjoyable” they are?

That’s why I’ve focused on directness and off-road travel, as these are two route features that are measurable across the network.

Compared to routes for people driving, for example, I shared in my last blog post how the average Slow Ways route is only 8% longer. I also shared a priority list of the 50 least direct routes, and there was some great conversation in the forum page about what sorts of trade-offs might be required to create more direct routes.

How off-road are Slow Ways routes?

To investigate the level of off-road travel of Slow Ways routes, I calculated an “Off-Road Proportion” for each route based on how much of it is in close proximity to a road. Network-wide, Slow Ways routes are, on average, 53% off-road. Three out of every five routes are more than half off-road.

In December, I walked the Hadrian’s Wall Path from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway with some friends. These same friends joined me on a Slow Ways journey from Oxford to Swindon in June. We were all amazed by how comparable the two journeys were in quality. It was as if someone had designed a personalised National Trail just for us, and just for our specific end points!

How does the Slow Ways network compare to National Trails?

This got me thinking: could Slow Ways routes be compared to the long distance routes of the National Trails network based on Off-Road Proportion? 

When I performed the same analysis for National Trails, I calculated that they are, on average, about 72% off-road. This is much more off-road than the average Slow Ways route, though about 1,000 Slow Ways routes (14% of the network) are more off-road than the average National Trail. 

Of course, National Trails are much longer than Slow Ways routes. Slow Ways also has much greater coverage in built-up areas. Still, this comparison suggests many Slow Ways routes, especially the 1,200 that are less than a third off-road, may benefit from focused attention to identify any available off-road local routing alternatives.

What does "on road" really mean?

One other caveat here is that, for this analysis, all route segments near a road were classified as “on road.” This is because, in the UK, while we can know where all the roads are, data on what it’s like to walk along them is not available. A route segment near a road, then, could mean any number of things for walkers. The segment could be an unpaved footpath, totally separated from a nearby roadway, for example, a safe and pleasant pavement along a quiet residential or urban street, or it could be along a major A road with no pavements! 

That means “on road” doesn’t necessarily mean “dangerous.” Romlor two, for example, is only 14% off-road and nearly the entire route runs along busy roads between Romsey and Lordshill, but the walking is safe with continuous separated pavements. 

“On road” also doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Whisun one, for example, received a one-star review by someone concerned by the level of on-road walking. Another person responded that the available off-road paths in the area can get very muddy, and the on-road option is likely desirable for those hoping to stay dry after heavy rain! (This is also a great example of how route reviews and surveys can be really helpful to tease out the quality of on road walking experiences offered by various routes).

That said, some routes really are insufficient with respect to on road travel. Tools such as Google Street View can help us identify particularly unpleasant or dangerous road segments, and these routes in particular might benefit from attention to bring walkers in other directions. Glawel one, between Glastonbury and Wells, is a great example of one such route.

Overall, I think this analysis shows that Slow Ways routes are less off-road than one might think, even if many of the network’s on road segments are actually quite comfortable for walking. This might be one area of focus for us, as system users and route plotters, moving forward. 

50 least off-road Slow Ways routes

To this end, I’ve compiled a Waylist of the 50 least off-road Slow Ways routes. The same disclaimer I gave for indirect routes applies here, too: just because a route has a lot of near-road walking doesn’t mean it’s a dangerous or bad route. It does, however, suggest we may want to take a second look at it to see if we can make any quick improvements. 

So now, your task is two-pronged! As you’re planning and taking your Slow Ways journeys, are there particularly indirect or on road segments? Could routes be made more direct and/or more off-road without negatively impacting how pleasant they are? (For the many highly on road routes in Scotland, could the new Ramblers Scottish Paths map prove useful for this task?

For many routes, it’s possible a trade-off exists: routes can be made more direct by introducing more road walking, or they can be made more off-road by introducing big diversions. For some, it’s possible they can be made more direct and more off-road. Let us know what sorts of creative route solutions you’re able to develop for highly indirect or off-road routes near you by uploading new alternatives, sharing your thoughts at this forum page, or by reaching out on Twitter!

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