"As the crow flies" describes the distance between two points if one could go in a straight line without needing to follow the constraints of existing roads and paths. Is there a standard phrase for the distance if one does need to stick to existing roads, that parallels "as the crow flies" and is used to contrast with it? I've only ever heard humorous "antonyms" like "It's ten miles as the crow flies, but fifteen miles as the Toyota Camry drives along Route 119."

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    The most common way of expressing that would be to just give the distance. Unless “as the crow flies” is specified, normal travel, by whatever roads and paths connect A and B, is assumed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '17 at 9:02
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I've edited my post to clarify that I mean a phrase that is used to explicitly contrast with "as the crow flies" in the same sentence. – tparker Jul 20 '17 at 9:37
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    There does exist a technical term for this - odometric distance - the distance along a path, usually a constrained path. Its used a lot in autonimous vehicle navigation. – Phil Sweet Jul 20 '17 at 9:38
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    Not common, but "as the drunk walks" (if there's room for levity) – WGroleau Jul 20 '17 at 13:24
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    "As the crow walks" – monoRed Jul 20 '17 at 15:14

14 Answers 14

up vote 74 down vote accepted

By road would be a natural choice, as opposed to "in the air" implied by the crow.

It even has a dictionary entry and example:

by road

In or on a road vehicle.

Lying just inside the official boundary line between the two countries, Gretna was about 350 miles by road from London.

Oxford

(The distance between London and Gretna Green is around 270 miles as the crow flies)

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    You might also often see "by car" used as an alternative, eg "10 miles as the crow flies, 12 miles by car." – Max Williams Jul 20 '17 at 12:27
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    "By road" can simply be expanded to whatever alternative means of travel you're considering: "by foot" (you still have to walk around trees, buildings, ravines, etc), "by bike" (sticking to bike trails or the like), and so on. A more general term would be "by ground", leaving the specific mode of transportation more ambiguous while still suggesting that the route is longer than "as the crow flies". – Doktor J Jul 20 '17 at 14:30
  • The phrase isn't 'as a bird flies', but 'as the crow flies'. It isn't about ground versus air. Crows tend to fly straight and level - crows aren't scared of hawks and will fight them, most other birds flit unpredictably so predators can't predict them so easily. – Pete Kirkham Jul 21 '17 at 10:34
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    @Pete That may possibly have influenced which bird was chosen once upon a time, but it’s not a relevant part of the idiom’s meaning to people nowadays. And crows don’t really fly in straighter lines than many other birds, especially migratory ones; some birds flit more, some do not. The fact that it really is just air vs. ground is also reflected in the fact that equivalent phrases in other languages (Fr. à vol d’oiseau, Fi. linnuntietä, Da. i fugleflugt, Sp. a vuelo de pájaro) all deal with birds in general, not crows specifically. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '17 at 11:18
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    @Pete Exactly—it just means a straight line because you can do that in the air. When I say “air vs ground”, I mean of course the limitations of air and ground: the direct, obstacle-free route possible in the air vs the obstacled route one has to go by on the ground. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '17 at 11:24

Not an answer in the strictest sense of the question as I could not think of a common idiomatic alternative to "As the crow flies". However, a nicely balanced and easily understood alternative would be "As the road winds".

Updated to add that "As the road winds" is found commonly in text so while not strictly idiomatic it is not simply made up either.

"As the road winds", Google book search

It's five miles as the crow flies, or twelve as the road winds.

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    Granted, but the OP did specifically ask for a widely-accepted term. You just made this up. +1 for creativity though. – thomj1332 Jul 20 '17 at 13:28
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    I feel like this, along with the OP's phrase and my answer, form a nice spectrum: 'as the crow flies' - straight line distance; 'as the wolf runs' - shortest overland distance; 'as the road winds' - shortest well-traveled distance – Aliden Jul 20 '17 at 15:33
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    This would be what I'm looking for, but note that in the first three pages of Google book search results, only one entry ("About 25km (16 miles) south-west of Puebla (as the crow flies, not as the road winds) is El Berrueco, with a 13th-century church and the huge El Atazar reservoir") actually refers to distance. – tparker Jul 20 '17 at 16:00
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    Granted it is not a perfect answer, but it balances its opposite quite nicely and the phrasing itself is very common in English usage, if not idiomatic. – mccainz Jul 20 '17 at 16:05
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    I made this up also as i clicked on the link. It may not be common, but it's certainly easy to understand. +1 – Scimonster Jul 20 '17 at 20:32

As the wolf runs maintains the same structure as the original phrase and conveys the meaning of distance on the ground. It's not a particularly commonly used phrase, but some searching did turn up some support that this is something that has been used before.

Tolkien makes use of this phrase in The Lord of the Rings.

'How far is Moria?' asked Boromir.
'There was a door south-west of Caradhras, some fifteen miles as the crow flies, and maybe twenty as the wolf runs,' answered Gandalf grimly.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, chapter IV: "A Journey in the Dark" — J.R.R. Tolkien

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    As the wolf runs would be analogous to as the crow flies and most certainly not a 'widely-accepted opposite'. I would even argue that it's nearly synonymous as I would expect a wolf to run directly (as near to straight as possible, allowing for barriers to travel) to it's target just as the crow is flying straight to theirs. – KevinDTimm Jul 20 '17 at 14:36
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    Try to run directly anywhere through woods. It just doesn't work. – bendl Jul 20 '17 at 14:39
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    @KevinDTimm I don't think they are even close to synonymous. A wolf cannot run up or down a cliff, across a gorge, through a lake, etc., whereas a crow could fly directly over all of those things. As the wolf runs takes landscape and "conditions on the ground" into consideration while as the crow flies does not. They are very different things. That said, this is probably not quite what OP is looking for since wolves certainly do not constrain themselves to existing roads and paths. – Ethan Holshouser Jul 20 '17 at 16:51
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    Although this is a good parallel phrase, at the time it was said, the party was being pursued by wolves. I suspect Gandalf intended it literally! – Mike Harris Jul 20 '17 at 19:20
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    Well there's as the Nazgul flies and as the horse runs. – Joshua Jul 21 '17 at 17:34

There isn't one

There isn't one because there is no single "opposite" to "as the crow flies". The "crow" distance is the simple straight line distance and so is precisely defined but the alternatives are not interchangeable. This can be easily seen by firing up your favourite online map and asking it for the distance between two places by foot, by car, and by bike. In choosing your opposite therefore you must specify what you mean.

So "by car", "by bike", "on foot", "by rail", "by road", etc. are all valid opposites depending on what exactly you mean.

If you wish to be whimsical you can attach a suitable word to the end of these to mirror the pattern, e.g. "as the car drives", "as the bike pedals", "as the foot falls", "as the train chugs", "as the road winds", etc. None of these are widely known idioms but their intent should be easily understood.

  • Of course, the question does mention “roads” specifically, but this information is useful regardless. – can-ned_food Jul 21 '17 at 23:32
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    This is the correct answer and would be perfect with a mention of "driving distance". Sorry you showed up late to the party and got fewer upvotes. – lly Jul 21 '17 at 23:50

In Practice or Practically can be used as the opposite without issue.

It's 5 miles as the crow flies, but in practice it's 8 miles because of how curvy the roads are.

Taxicab Distance

Following roads, particularly on a grid city layout (eg NewYork), some adjective of the taxicab metric is invoked (distance, route, metric).

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicab_geometry

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    OP asked for a 'widely accepted' usage. This seems highly specific to higher maths. I didn't down-vote though ;) – 5arx Jul 20 '17 at 14:05
  • @5arx the definition of the Taxicab distance is mathematical, but usage isn't always. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/taxicab_distance – Draco18s Jul 20 '17 at 14:28
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    I think "taxicab distance" actually works well here. I always thought it was too informal for mathematical contexts, where "Manhattan distance" just sounds better and more precise (in Manhattan, streets really are laid out in a grid, which is the usual application of the idea). EDIT: Then again, for the original context I'd have to phrase it as "in a taxi", which unfortunately has a slight implication of taking more roads than necessary to upcharge the passenger. – Darren Ringer Jul 20 '17 at 18:02
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    Cityblock distance is too limited to city blocks. It won't work in England. – gerrit Jul 21 '17 at 10:55
  • @gerrit - this is where I was coming from. Think of our long, winding country lanes. – 5arx Jul 26 '17 at 12:20

Would "The Scenic Route" answer the question?

"The Scenic Route" is normally used when describing a trip that does not go straight from A to B but rather takes detours during the trip to see Points C, D and E, which are placed on the route just because of the view that they give the traveller.

Hence, it's used when someone wants to take a longer route than that which is most direct.

  • Welcome to ELU. Please provide more explanation - what does "The Scenic Route" mean? Is it a commonly recognised phrase? Does it fit into a sentence in the same way "as the crow flies" does, or would the sentence need rephrasing? – AndyT Jul 20 '17 at 15:36
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    That would be my obvious choice. To a programmer, your answer is sufficient. In ELU though, you need to provide a link to examples or a description of how it would be used otherwise you'll be voted down. Assume your audience is managers unable to use google and used to demanding superfluous waffle to justify their existence. – Magoo Jul 20 '17 at 21:02
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    @Magoo - That's slightly harsh. If there was only one suggestion then expecting someone to be able to google it doesn't sound ridiculous. But when a question can potentially get 20 answers, expecting someone reading the answers to use google 20 times is placing a very high burden on the reader. – AndyT Jul 21 '17 at 10:24
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    This is a lovely phrase, but it's only the opposite in a very complete sense. What OP was really looking for was "the distance if one does need to stick to existing roads"... not "the distance if one gets off of the main roads and winds around in the back country with complete disregard for efficiency or time." – lly Jul 21 '17 at 23:49

Someone suggested "as the wolf runs", with a Tolkien reference.

A very similar phrase, that I have used more frequently is "as the fox runs". For example, this scientific paper uses it jokingly in its title Inferring the effects of potential dispersal routes on the metacommunity structure of stream insects: as the crow flies, as the fish swims or as the fox runs?

In everyday use though, I would say "driving distance" is the most common phrase, although it doesn't follow the nice structure of Dickens' "as the crow flies". However, Dickens himself didn't provide a correlate in Oliver Twist (the supposed origin of the phrase), so anything goes.

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    I think "driving distance" is a good choice. – Dog Lover Jul 21 '17 at 10:46
  • If that was your paper, does it pass for you to mention it as being widely accepted? – can-ned_food Jul 21 '17 at 23:31
  • It's not my paper, did I give that impression? I merely provided it as an actual example of the use of the phrase - my own use is just casual. – Grismar Aug 23 '17 at 4:56

I'm not sure if this meets your criteria or not, but, I would tend to go with "circuitous route"

Circuitous having a circular or winding course - a circuitous route - a circuitous journey by snowmobile - Merriam Webster

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    See also "roundabout", in the UK at least. There is also the phrase "The scenic route", which implies that the route is very indirect. None of these actually answer the question though, which is about how to describe a specific distance. – Max Williams Jul 20 '17 at 12:26
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    I think "circuitous" also has some implication of the route being indirect. Perhaps in the OP's contrast it works, but in general I don't think this refers to the most direct ground route by default. – Darren Ringer Jul 20 '17 at 18:06
  • Agreed -- "circuitous" implies that the route is longer than needed, not just that it's longer than the point-to-point distance. – duskwuff Jul 20 '17 at 18:41
  • This doesn't meet the criteria at all. Even if OP were asking for a complete opposite ("taking the least efficient path possible") instead of just sticking to the roads, the common expression for that idea isn't "I shall employ the circuitous route" but "Let's take the scenic route." – lly Jul 21 '17 at 23:52

Adding to some of the other suggestions,

It's eight kilometers as the crow/swallow/spitball flies, but ten kilometers ...

(a) on (the) ground

(b) by car/bike/train/submarine

(c) on foot

(d) as the drunk stumbles

(Oh, and, since Max mentions it)

(e) by scenic route

  • +1 for "by car" and "on foot" - I think these are what people would most commonly say in real situations :) – psmears Jul 21 '17 at 13:46
  • Fwiw, it's "along the scenic route" and not "by scenic route". – lly Jul 21 '17 at 23:53
  • I wouldn't particularly question you if you said you preferred "along the scenic route", but why do you say "not 'by scenic route'"? – Joel Rees Jul 22 '17 at 1:12

Tongue-in-cheek suggestion: 'As the crow walks'.

Although this is not itself widely accepted, I would consider it to be an obvious contrast to the original expression, which is.

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    Crows are known for never trespassing on private property. – tparker Jul 20 '17 at 16:02

Milk Run

The expression "milk run" is an common idiomatic expression with a close meaning. It has two possible components to its meaning:

  1. a circuitous route
  2. a route with a large number of stops

The first meaning is likely less often used these days, as the term is now often applied to public transit routes that make every stop in contrast to an express route that may follow the same route but make fewer stops, i.e. where the second meaning applies exclusively. However, historically I think the first meaning was more common.

In any event, it may be approximately what you are looking for. You might say, for example:

"It's 10km as the crow flies, but at least 20km by the milk-run route."

  • Eh, I get that this can be a synonym for "scenic route" and thanks for mentioning it, but this would only be used by speakers of a certain age and will fall off as they do. No one who didn't watch I Love Lucy as it aired actually experienced milkmen; younger readers could easily misinterpret the idea as "a quick run to the bodega/supermarket". It's better than some of these answers since it's actually an old stock expression, but OP wasn't asking about self-consciously indirect routes but simply the extra distance imposed by using roads, rail, &c. – lly Jul 22 '17 at 0:00
  • Disagree about the age assessment: my SO is 26 and certainly has never experienced milk delivery, yet she certainly knows the idiom, as would anyone who is well read I would say. And while you are correct that the "milk run" implies purposefully and unnecessarily indirect (as opposed to just the extra distance forced upon the traveler by available routing), it was closer than any other true idioms mentioned here at the time of my post (which sets the bar rather low since there weren't any). – David I. McIntosh Jul 26 '17 at 3:18

I've often seen Manhattan distance used especially in the context of programming or math. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Manhattan_distance

A common British idiom for this is:

Round the houses

It's not specifically around houses, but means that a route is unnecessarily circuitous. Example:

A: How far is it to your house from town?

B: Well, it's about 5 miles as the crow flies, but there's no direct route by road. You'll have to get on the A54 to Crewe and take it from there.

A: Crikey! That takes you round the houses.

B: Yeah, but it's the only way to get over the railway lines.

protected by Andrew Leach Jul 21 '17 at 10:26

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