The rights-of-way (also referred to as “ROW”) are the areas of land intended to remain open for public or railroad use, upon which railroads and governments (state and local) maintain and exert control. The main use of the right-of-way is for transportation, but room for other government infrastructure exists there: hydrants, streetlights, signs, wires, pipes, sidewalks, etc. We distinguish between “City” and other rights-of-way because we don’t plant trees on state or private railway areas unless agreements are in place.
Right-of-way widths vary drastically. In older residential areas it is typically 40 to 50’ wide reflecting narrow streets, minimal setbacks, lower traffic speeds and volumes, but it can be much wider in more recently developed areas outside of the dense urban core. In virtually all cases the pavement does not take up the full width. The area “left-over” is where we plant trees.
A typical example is where a 30’ wide street sits upon a 50’ wide right-of-way. In this case, there is typically 10’ left over on either side for amenities such as sidewalks and “tree lawns”. In the same scenario without sidewalks, that 10’ of “left-over” area is indistinguishable from a private lawn, except maybe for some buried utilities indicated by objects such as water meters, gas valves, or fire hydrants.
In some cases, the rights-of way may only extend a few feet behind the curb on either side of the roadway, while on some blocks it can be 20+ feet where some future need was anticipated (like a road widening or sewer-line expansion). A good way to determine the city rights-of-way near your home is to identify utilities. For instance, if you see a water meter or utility pole then you are looking at City rights-of-way. This roadside area is where we plant street trees because they provide shade to the sidewalks/roadways and insure that the city will maintain them into the future.