Who Decides the Width of a Residential Street and What If It’s Insufficient?
Quick question: how wide is the street you live on? I would hazard to guess that most people don’t know the exact width of their street, but they could probably tell you if it’s wide enough for two cars to pass each other without either having to yield when a car is parked on one or both sides of the street. My street isn’t wide enough — only one car at a time can pass a car parked on just one side of the street, and I’m not sure it could get through at all if cars were parked on both sides.
So who determines how wide a street should be, and what factors are considered for that determination? In Texas, most residential streets are “created” when a plat is filed to subdivide a tract of land into a residential neighborhood. State law authorizes cities and counties to adopt rules for subdividing land in their applicable jurisdictions, and those rules usually include minimum street widths. Therefore, a city may enforce minimum street widths within its city limits and extraterritorial jurisdiction, and a county may enforce minimum street widths within unincorporated areas of the county other than the extraterritorial jurisdiction of a city who has elected to enforce its rules there. However, in certain limited cases, both city and county requirements may apply in some cities’ extraterritorial jurisdictions.
Cities and counties usually set different minimum street widths for different types of streets. After all, there is no reason for a street in a sleepy little neighborhood to be as wide as a major thoroughfare. In fact, residential street widths are sometimes purposefully made narrow to discourage speeding, based on evidence suggesting that people tend to drive faster on wider streets. However, if streets are too narrow, emergency vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances may not be able to pass through if cars are parked along the roadside. Therefore, when adopting rules for the minimum widths of streets in residential neighborhoods, cities and counties usually balance the speed deterrence factor with the emergency access factor.
Other than cities and counties, whose minimum street width rules are for the benefit of the general public, there is another player who has a special interest in how wide streets are required to be: the developers. In my experience, developers usually want streets to be as narrow as possible. This is because wider streets cost more to build, both in terms of material and labor, and because wider streets take up square footage that would otherwise be used for lots. Therefore, developers tend to negotiate with cities and counties for variances to the minimum street widths. For example, if a city or county has a forty foot (40’) minimum width requirement to allow emergency vehicles to pass vehicles parked along the street, a developer may request a variance for a thirty foot (30’) minimum width requirement conditioned on the adoption of deed restrictions prohibiting parking on the street. Essentially, if ten feet (10’) of the minimum width is intended to accommodate street parking, then it can be dispensed with if street parking is prohibited. The problem, however, is that even if the variance is granted, it usually isn’t possible to guarantee that the street parking deed restriction will be enforced. Sometimes a City may be able to enforce deed restrictions if a property owner’s association fails or refuses to, but that shifts the burden onto the city, i.e. the public.
The next time you’re driving your street, imagine you’re a fire engine or ambulance trying to get through. If you think your subdivision needs wider streets, a prohibition of street parking, or enforcement of a prohibition that already exists, there may be a way for your city, county, or property owner’s association to help make one or more of those things happen, even if your neighborhood has been established for decades.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our real estate practice can be found here.
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.