By Jon Anderson
I’ve read with interest the fitful start to developing a plan for increasing the density surrounding Northwest Highway and Preston Road. I’ve seen the map identifying the seven zones (fiefdoms) with a personal stake in any change.
What I don’t see is a zone “zero” that controls traffic and parking that sits above the fray of the other zones.
Think about it. Of the seven zones in the current map, all but Zone One are likely to be opposed to development. Those remaining six zones, all residential, are probably not opposed to development per se, they’re against the traffic and parking mess it will create. And the added wrinkle of unvarnished self-interest of those whose backyard views will change.
Parking may be the easiest problem to fix. New, taller buildings will likely be required to provide on-site parking for their new workers and residents. More dense retail and restaurants on the other hand will undoubtedly mean nuking the forlorn parking structure in the middle of Preston Center. If Preston center gets a new grocery store, perhaps the likely vacated Tom Thumb on the other side of the road can be part of a parking structure built to handle more dense retail on that side of Preston Road.
Traffic, much more difficult, has two components – making the main arteries as efficient as possible and to minimize side street cut-throughs. The biggest residential concern is that when the inevitably slap-dash traffic solution for the main roads is overwhelmed. How much of traffic will filter through aghast neighborhoods where people think a bus stop (used by “the help”) is an unsheltered post by the side of the road. As much as their self-importance disturbs me, they’re correct. And installing miles of speed bumps will likely not curtail traffic much, but will increase “bottoming-out” and the accompanying trail of fallen car parts … and overall, speed bumps are just plain annoying for everyone.
Because traffic management is critical and land area finite (even after unavoidably cribbing land from private owners through condemnation) the only way forward is to start with traffic well before any talk of development begins.
A holistic traffic plan needs to be drafted with gates and tradeoffs based on the scale of development. If 5,000 housing units (and 7,000 additional people/cars) are added, ABC must be done. If office space for 3,000 new employees is added, DEF must be done. If X-square footage of retail and restaurant space is added, GHI must be done. There must be multiple and mixed scenarios that take into account traffic volume and where people are coming from and going to at multiple times during the day.
Then and only then, with a “traffic budget” detailing what’s physically possible and the tradeoffs, can development bartering begin. When the maximum traffic budget is reached, development is stopped, unless new solutions are put in place to handle more traffic. Period. No cheating.
Successful development will necessitate expanding capacity both through and within the area. Large increases in traffic simply can’t be solved just by fiddling with traffic signal timing.
For example, one tiny piece of the “traffic budget” puzzle is the intersection of Northwest Highway and the Tollway. To increase capacity:
- The Northwest Highway overpass must be widened to accommodate double left-turning lanes onto the tollway. Those turning lanes must extend backwards X-distance onto Northwest highway (dependent on signal timing) to minimize turners’ impact on the flow of traffic crossing the tollway.
- The right-turn lanes onto the tollway will also have to be lengthened and widened on Northwest Highway.
- The exits and on-ramps themselves will have to be lengthened and widened to accommodate more traffic.
To accomplish this, Northwest Highway must be reworked and widened. This will require TxDOT and the Tollway authority to acquire the land necessary (cue the angry mob).
Scream all you like, but it’s just math. You can’t hope to move exponentially more traffic through already overburdened roads without increasing the capacity of the roadways themselves. But, as I wrote in an email to Jennifer Gates in January 2015, “I’m equally confident that TxDOT and the City of Dallas will install as many traffic lights as are necessary to make driving a nightmare (and cutting through the neighborhood quicker). After all, the nine poorly timed traffic signals we already have on Northwest “Highway” between the Tollway and Central (a rumored 10th on the way) shows their limited thinking in dealing with traffic problems.”
Traffic is the linchpin to redeveloping Northwest Highway and Preston Road effectively. This means hard decisions about condemnation of private lands to increase road capacities. It means installing smart traffic signals that act differently based on traffic conditions and only change when traffic is waiting. It means changing traffic patterns to increase efficiency. It means prioritizing traffic over pedestrians by installing walkways over Preston Road and Northwest Highway to make vehicle turning more efficient. And it means extending sidewalks to connect the local walking customers that these new venues hope to attract.
This is what Zone Zero must do before any of the other zones lift a pencil. Because without Zone Zero defining what can be done and what the costs are (both financial and aesthetic), the area will be left a pretty, albeit traffic snarled mess.