Categories of private-access tagging


I would like to share some cases in which I’ve been applying various flavors of private access tags in the United States (but most specifically in Newport, Rhode Island where I most frequently map). I’m interested to learn of other edge cases with public access that folks have had and how they addressed them. Disputes between (wealthy) land owners and the public are not uncommon when it comes to access, so rich tagging is fairly important in describing the reality on the ground.

Case 1, access=private + ownership=private: The road is privately owned, and there is signage that clearly indicates that the public is not welcome. (location)

Case 2, access=discouraged: There is long-standing signage (has been there for years) indicating that the public is not welcome, however, land records indicate that this is a public road. (location)

Case 3, access=permissive + ownership=private: This image is courtesy of @ElliottPlack. In this particular town in Maryland, green signs indicate public roads and blue signs indicate private roads. Some blue-signed roads have no signage or gates indicating an access restriction, but some do. For cases where a blue-signed (private) road has no signed access restriction, access=permissive reflects the fact that the owners of that road might restrict access at any future time. In my area, there are often private roads that are signed identically to public roads, and I would also tag those as permissive access if there’s no signage restricting access.

What other situations have you encountered in the wild that aren’t clear-cut when it comes to road access?


Does path access count?

Had a recent DWG issue in MA concerning Way: 1223998671 | OpenStreetMap where there is a footway, coming from the road here, down a set of steps (properly built from concrete blocks & with handrails fitted) but which then crosses four blocks of private property, before meeting up with a designated public path on the other side.

Strava shows that it is very active, a local mapper walked it to confirm that the path is existing & open, with no “Private Property” / “No Trespassing” signs, & discussions from various local groups all say that it is a publicly used footpath through private property.

However, somebody (we believe one of the private property owners) has been deleting the path as they say nobody should be walking through there.

Path is now tagged as highway=footway + informal=yes + access=permissive.

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Maybe the public has an easement to this street by now, whether or not the owner sees fit to remove the decorative “Private” sign. In some states, privately owned public spaces, such as the lobbies of downtown commercial buildings, post “Right to Pass by Permission of Owner” signs in an attempt to keep frequent public use from becoming evidence of a public easement. This situation would be more clearly access=permissive than the one with the lingering “Private” sign.


In many of the areas where I map, street name signs on private(ly owned) streets typically differ from those on public streets. Depending on local regulations, the township may post a sign that says “Private” or “PVT” in fine print in the corner of the sign, or the owner may post a sign they bought online that doesn’t match the usual street name signs in some subtle way. The TIGER import tagged these streets as access=private, but I occasionally change them to ownership=private if I can determine that there’s no intention to restrict access.

Many residential driveways in rural areas and some in urban areas have “No Trespassing” signs, which clearly correspond to access=private. The all-too-common “Beware of Dog” and “Violators Will Be Shot” signs reinforce the need for access=private tagging. I believe we should avoid tagging access=private on a driveway that lacks such a sign. Otherwise, a data consumer or end user could become inured to the threat of enforcement or possible violence.

An apartment complex in my neighborhood took control of and pedestrianized one block of a public street. Despite the stern “No Trespassing” signs, most people walk past the public street’s dead end through this very inviting promenade. I’ve tagged it access=private, but I suppose it’s private in a “rules are made to be broken” kind of way.

The laws about this depend on the state and circumstances. For example, California state law guarantees public access to ocean beaches, even via easements over private property. However, in one prominent case, a wealthy landowner was able to gate off an access road that was once popular with the public, based on a property title that predates the state.