Route Mapping

The 5 Golden Rules for Route Maps

OpusMap gives you the cartographic tools to design and publish any kind of interactive map from your GIS and digital mapping data. However, the way you design a Local Plan proposals map isn’t the same as how you design a cycling route map or a map for hill walkers. As part of OpusMap’s support services our team of GIS and cartographic experts can help you make the right choices so that your route map is as accessible and easy to use as possible for your customers.

Rule 1: Carefully define your end product(s)

Often customers define their map product or project requirements by how their own map data is structured or by the GIS routines with which maps and data are maintained in-house rather than by how to meet the needs of the map’s intended audience or by considering the formats in which the map is to be presented. Knowing how to use a GIS doesn’t automatically mean knowing how to make a cycling map for a website or for an A2 poster. Maintaining an interactive web map will require different considerations to maintaining a GIS map.

Thinking about your map in terms of its final format and your target audience will help you to determine what resources and workflows you can support in-house and which ones need to be outsourced or covered by other software.

Rule 2: Use a database to record and store all locations

In some ways this turns rule 1 on its head by focusing on where and how you start your project but in truth it highlights the importance of carefully defining the methodology to bring together all the data and content associated with your route map. A GIS provides tools to accurately digitise routes which in turn are relatively straightforward to turn into layers of a final map. A route map often includes other content such as:

  • a route description or a series of route sections with descriptions
  • points of interest on or near a route
  • waymarkers (which may be linked to route descriptions and/or points of interest)
  • surface grading – e.g. road, off-road, surfaced track, unmade path

If that content isn’t part of your GIS data you should consider using a database to capture and maintain it. A database approach will not only make it easier and more efficient to produce your final map in its required formats but will also make it easier to maintain the map in those formats over time. For example, if you have to change a route section ID, change a waymarker or add a new point of interest then having all that data interconnected with your route data via a database will ensure you know where and how the change affects the entire map product, not just the route itself. A database approach also makes it easier to generate value added content to the route map such as a route profile or a distance and time calculation.

Using Open Source GIS software such as QGIS is a neat solution to creating both your routes and the locations and points of interest associated with the route. QGIS will provide both the drawing tools for route capture and the database for the content and points associated with the route. It allows you to feed in multiple mapping sources – whether OS OpenData, OpenStreetMap or aerial photography – which is useful when checking and quality controlling route accuracy. QGIS also allows you to reproject data across different base maps so you can, for example, digitise your route over aerial photography in lat/long coordinates but then simply reproject the route for display over Ordnance Survey mapping in national grid coordinates.

Rule 3: Keep route grading and symbology simple and relevant

How is your route map product to be used? Do you want cyclists to use the map when they’re cycling or to use the map at home to plan ahead what routes they will take? Do you want users to print the map or to access the map via their mobile? Do you want users to download the route to an app? The answers to these questions will influence how you grade routes and what symbology you use.

Whatever formats you make your map available in it’s important to keep symbology simple, logical and consistent. What an experience cyclist or walker demands of a route – in terms of complexity, distance and climb – will not be the same as for novices or for a family on a weekend break but the symbology on those routes should be the same so people can make like-for-like judgements about what route to choose. If you over-complicate symbology you will clutter the route map and make it unusable as a navigation aid which may deter cyclists and walkers from going out on the route. An experienced cyclist will find the appeal of the route is diminished if too much information is  shown because it diminishes the challenges discovered on the route while a novice will shy away from the route because the symbology implies the route may be too difficult or demanding.

Rule 4: If you’re using “free” base mapping, use Ordnance Survey’s OpenData

What? Why not OpenStreetMap? The simple answer is you can use either product and we have used both across a number of route mapping projects but in our opinion using OpenData gives you a more consistent set of data with which to design and built your route map. This is particularly true if you are producing multiple route maps across a significant geographic area and/or if those routes are predominantly in rural areas or off-road. Completeness of base mapping is important to maintain consistency across all route maps and formats.

Over time it is likely that updates in base mapping will have more of an impact on your route map than changes in the route itself. If you need to maintain route maps for a website then the expectations will be higher from customers that the base mapping displayed with your route map is as up-to-date as it can be. The user experience should be considered in conjunction with how your route map is designed to be used. For example, is it primarily for route planning or for route navigation? If the latter then the demands for being up-to-date are even higher. If a user loses faith in your mapping they will also lose faith in your website or in the appeal of your area as an outdooe activity destination?

There are ways to offset the impact of this problem. They include:

  • making the route available to download in open standard formats so users can easily add the route to their own base mapping – e.g. in a cycling or walking app
  • keeping the route description up-to-date even if the base map isn’t; for example, tell people if a road has been resurfaced or a gate added and include grid coordinates and route IDs with the route description as part of the database approach to maintaining your maps
  • having a disclaimer and advising people which Ordnance Survey sheet map should be used in conjunction with your route map so people have something to fall back onto
  • configuring your map in such a way that changing or updating the base map can be done easily without affecting the map layers on top. See the paragraph about QGIS and changing base mapping under Rule 2.

Rule 5: Contours or layer tints? Use both!

How a project is funded or what outcomes are being targeted for a project will often directly influence how a map is designed and published. The purpose of a route map may be to increase footfall by tourists in a particular area as part of a Destination Management Plan or it may be to encourage local residents to be more active as part of a Well Being Plan. In either scenario it’s important to include features on your map that enhance the appeal of the area as well as the route itself.

In simple terms a route map should be both attractive and functional. This gets to the heart of cartographic design and why it is a different discipline to GIS and digital mapping.

Contours help people assess the route difficulty and calculate the amount of uphill and downhill travelling involved. Using contours in a database approach also means you can easily generate a route profile for each route map so people can assess how much of a challenge the route presents and whether they attempt only a part of the route rather than all of it.

Layer tints makes the route map more attractive and interesting. It enhances the value of the map itself, both in terms of users referencing the map when out on the route as well as when planning how and where they might go for a bike ride or a walk as part of their holiday or keep fit programme.

There is evidence that exercising outdoors burns more calories compared to indoor exercise and contributes to a greater sense of mental as well as physical well-being. Using layer tints and highlighting other features of the landscape in your route map will make people associate the benefits of exercise with the benefits of using your map.

Go further

Here are some examples of route maps we’ve created for our clients’ websites. Links will open in a new tab.

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