Home‎ > ‎General information‎ > ‎

Are these roads motorways or not?

Last updated 7-2-10

  1. The definition of a motorway
  2. Motorway numbers
  3. Other road types
  4. Road types in different languages
  5. Motorways on maps
    1. Norway
    2. Greece
    3. Lithuania
    4. Belarus
    5. Austria

The definition of a motorway

In many countries, certain roads are officially designated as motorways. Special rules and regulations apply to these roads, and in most countries the sign

is used to indicate that one is accessing such a road.

One might define a motorway as follows:

A motorway is a road which is accessible only to motorised traffic and which does not have crossings at grade.

Usually a motorway is a dual carriageway, but there are exceptions. Sometimes the sign above also appears with a single carriageway under the bridge. Motorways are normally accessible only via slip roads (except at end points). However, there are exceptions. In the United Kingdom and Cyprus, there are many roundabouts in junctions between motorways. In the Netherlands there used to be many as well but most of them have been reconstructed. There are still relatively many crossings at grade in the Dutch motorway network. There are even a few in Germany. It seems that some countries, for example Lithuania, have a different definition of motorways. According to the Lithuanian road authority, the A1 Vilnius-Klaipeda and the A2 Vilnius-Panevezys are motorways, though they have (some) level crossings according to most maps.

Motorway numbers

Many countries have a separate numbering system for motorways, for example Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Argentina and Gabon. In the United Kingdom, Ireland and Argentina, the road number appears in the motorway sign as follows:

A special class of road numbers are the A(M) roads in the United Kingdom. These are motorways like any other and motorway regulations apply to them, but they are part of a route that is only partly a motorway and it is easier for motorists to follow the same number, albeit with the suffix '(M)'. This way situations like in Germany, where one follows the B80, then the A38, then the B80, then the A38 again etc. are avoided, though such a situation is usually only temporary. A(M) roads are officially referred to as 'A roads with motorway regulations' which should not be confused with 'Dual carriageways with motorway characteristics': characteristics are not the same as regulations.

Sometimes motorway numbers form an integrated system with other road numbers. For example, in the Netherlands, national road 7 has motorway sections A7 and ordinary road sections N7. Similarly, in Ireland, the N1 from Dublin to the north has sections of motorway numbered M1. In Hungary a similar system used to exist but this was changed recently.

Motorway numbers are used for other roads in exceptional cases, for short gaps in motorways. An example is the Dutch A59, which has one section that is an ordinary two-lane road with level crossings and a section that is for motorised traffic only and has motorway characteristics but it does not quite meet the motorway standard.

In Spain, however, the A numbers were originally used only for motorways, but they are now also assigned to many dual carriageways with motorway characteristics.

Other road types

In many countries there are roads which look just like motorways, but they are not officially motorways, and therefore motorway regulations do not apply to them. This is clear from the road number if separate motorway numbering exists.

For example, in Germany, many motorways have been created by upgrading an existing dual carriageway (usually a Bundesstraße). In some cases, this 'upgrade' consisted of nothing else than simply changing the colour of the road signs from yellow to blue and changing the road number. Suddenly different regulations apply and the road is officially designated as a motorway but in a physical sense the road has stayed exactly the same. The most recent example of this is the A270 which was formerly the B74. In this case (and some others), this upgrade was announced by the authorities but the road signs have not yet been changed so motorists can not even see the difference unless they happen to know about the change. Many more times, German motorways were downgraded to federal highways. The following table shows some of these downgrades. Most of them occurred in the early 1980's. The 1974 motorway numbers were assigned to many roads which were later apparently deemed not appropriate for the motorway network or not up to motorway standard.

Old number (motorway) New number (Bundesstraße) Remarks
A35 B6
A51 B509 Part of the road was later downgraded to the L473
A80 B10
A87 B29
A430 B1 Part became A40 later
A480 B49 The number A480 was used later for the former A48. Initially, the old A480 was renumbered to B429. This was later changed.
A680 B26
A683 B45
A687 B469
A713 B19
A833 B464
A840 B28
A995 B13 Recent downgrade
In some of these cases, too, maps showed the new number years before the signs were actually changed.

So what are the differences between real motorways and motorway-like roads or roads with motorway characteristics? There are more than you might think:
Motorways have a higher design speed
The lanes are usually wider
The central reservation is different (or not present on a motorway-like road)
The hard shoulder is wider (or not present on a motorway-like road)
Different regulations apply (in particular maximum speed)
Road markings can be different
Road numbering and road signs are different, including indications of exits and kilometerage
Exits are more likely to be officially named or numbered

The differences can be so subtle that many motorists (especially from other countries) do not notice them at all. The most important one to be aware of is the speed limit: in case of a speed trap, the police will probably not accept the excuse that you thought you were on a motorway. Even if that would really be true, it would reveal a lack of attention.

Road types in different languages

Language/ country Remarks
Czech Dálnice Rychlostná sílnice do not exist by definition Sílnice po motorová vozidla
Croat Autocesta Brza Cesta do not exist by definition Cesta namijenjena iskljucivo za promet motornih vozila
Danish Motorvej Tosporet motorvej Motortrafikvej Motortrafikvej
Dutch Autosnelweg Autoweg met gescheiden rijbanen en ongelijkvloerse kruisingen do not exist by definition Autoweg Word 'Autosnelweg' introduced in 1936
English (United Kingdom) Motorway Dual carriageway with motorway characteristics Single carriageway motorway Road for motorised traffic only
English (United States) Freeway Limited access divided highway; Expressway Two lane freeway - Turnpikes are often motorways but not always. 'Interstate highway' is the road number class used for motorways, it is not the name of the road class.
English (Australia) Freeway - - -
Finnish Moottoritie Kaksiajoratainen tie Moottoriliikennetie
French Autoroute Voie rapide de type autoroutier Autoroute a une chaussée Voie rapide
German (Germany) Autobahn (Haupt)straße mit autobahnähnlichem Ausbau Einbahnige Autobahn Kraftfahrstraße
German (Switzerland) Autobahn I. Klasse Autobahn II. Klasse Autostrasse
German (Austria) Autobahn Schnellstraße Einbahnige Autobahn Autostraße Legal differences between Autobahn and Schnellstraße abolished in 2006
Italian Autostrada Superstrada Autostrada a carreggiata unica
Norwegian Motorvei Vei med 2 kjørebaner og motorvei-standard Motortrafikkvei
Polish Autostrada Droga szybkiego ruchu Autostrada jednojezdniowa Droga ekspresowa
Portuguese Autoestrada Estrada com duas faixas de rodagem do tipo autoestrada
Russian Avtomagistral'

Doroga dl'a avtomobilej
Slovak Dial'nica Rychlostná cesta do not exist by definition Cesta pro motorové vozidla
Slovene Avtocesta

Hitra cesta
Spanish Autopista Autovía
Autovía (in the Dominican Republic, the word Autopista is used for roads with level crossings) Autovías in Spain now have almost the same standard as Autopistas
Swedish Motorväg Motortrafikled Motortrafikled
Turkish Otoyol
Ukrainian Avtomagistral'
Avtomobil'na doroga
A common misconception (outside English speaking countries) is that the English word 'highway' means 'motorway'. It appears in legends to maps (which are often poorly translated anyway) and in route planners. This is obviously not the case, as a highway can be a dirt road. Highways are generally important roads but certainly not always of national importance. There are County highways in the United States of America.

Motorways on maps

Map makers seem to be confused about road types in certain countries. Below, an overview is given of certain roads in Norway, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania and Belarus.

Road types are indicated as follows:

M Motorway
DM Dual carriageway with motorway characteristics
D Ordinary dual carriageway
SM Single carriageway motorway
S Ordinary single carriageway road
A Road for motorised traffic only
It should be noted that according to Philip's atlases Europe 1999 and 2000 and the Shell Atlases 00/01 and 01/02 the MKAD (Moscow Ring Road) is a motorway (it is a dual carriageway with motorway characteristics in reality). Also, the Philip's atlases do not distinguish between dual carriageways and other roads.


E18/E6 Oslo-Halden

Road Map
Road number Section Michelin Scandinavia 2000 Philip's atlas Europe 1999 Philip's atlas Europe 2000 Veiatlas Norge 00/01 Ravenstein Strassen 2001 Shell Atlas 00/01 Shell Atlas 01/02
E18 Oslo-Ljan S M M S S S S
E18 Ljan-Vinterbru SM M M M S S S
E6/E18 Vinterbru bypass DM Generalised to one junction M S S S
E6 Vinterbru-Rv23 M S S M S S S
E6 Rv23-Drøbak (Rv152) S S S S S S M
E6 Drøbak (Rv152)-Son (Rv151) M S S M S S M
E6 Son (Rv151)-Moss (Rv19/120) SM M M M S S S
E6 Moss (Rv19/120)-Missingmyr SM M M M M S S
E6 Missingmyr-Sarpsborg (Rv114) S M S M S S S
E6 Sarpsborg (Rv114)-Skjeberg (Ingedal) SM M M M S S S
E6 Skjeberg (Ingedal)-Halden SM S M M S M M


Route 1 Macedonia-Athina (Athens)

Section Map
Michelin 2001 Ravenstein Strassen 2001 Shell Atlas 00/01 Shell Atlas 01/02 Philip's atlas Europe 1999, 2000
MK-Polikastro M M M M S

No distinction between different road types among non-motorways

Polikastro-Halastra (4) SM M M M
Halastra (4)-Katerini M M M M
Katerini-Leptokarya A M M M
Leptokarya-Platamon A M D M
Platamon-Pyrgetos A M SM SM
Pyrgetos-Larisa (north) A M S M
Larisa (north-south) M M S S
Larisa (south)-Aerino M M M M
Aerino-Rahes SM M M M
Rahes-Lamia SM S D D
Lamia-Agios Nikolaos A S D D
Agios Nikolaos-Athina east-west bypass M M M M
Athina: east-west bypass-city centre DM M M M


Road Map
Road number Section Lithuanian Road Administration 1998 Ravenstein Strassen 2001 Shell Atlas 00/01 Shell Atlas 01/02 GeoCenter Polska Atlas Philip's atlas Europe 1999, 2000 Hallwag Baltische Staaten 1993/94 Aral ca. 1995 Ravenstein Belorussia 1995
A1 Vilnius-A12 M M M M D S S M D
A1 A12-Klaipeda M M M M not included S D M D
A2 Vilnius-Panevezys M M M M not included S S M D


Road Map
Road number Section Ravenstein Strassen 2001 Shell Atlas 00/01 Shell Atlas 01/02 GeoCenter Polska Atlas Philip's atlas Europe 1999 Philip's atlas Europe 2000 Michelin Poland Ravenstein Belorussia 1995
M1 Brest-Barysau M M M D M M D D
M2 Minsk-northeast S DM M not included S S not included D
M2 Road to airport S DM M not included not included S not included M


In Austria, there used to be a clear distinction between motorways, which had A numbers and the standard motorway sign, and expressways (with S numbers) and other roads for motorised traffic only, which had the car sign.
In 2006, however, the legal difference was abolished and on the one hand, the motorway symbol is used for some S roads, mostly for dual carriageways but also for some single carriageway roads. The car symbol is still used on some roads that have the same design standards, notably the S5 and the S33.
In the Soviet Union, motorways were an officially defined road class so it may be assumed that the same holds for Estonia, Lithuania and Belarus. In Greece and Norway, motorways are probably also an official road class. Therefore it is amazing that there is so little consensus among different maps.
Some of the differences between the 1999 and 2000 editions of Philip's atlas and between the 00/01 and 01/02 editions of the Shell atlas are particularly striking since the roads in question were not changed in reality in the meantime, but for some reason the cartographers decided to change their representation of some of the roads.