This year has been humorless. Experiencing the abject failures in dealing with COVID-19 at both the federal and state levels is only laughable in the darkest sense. So thank TxDOT for giving us something to truly laugh at — the Northwest Highway Feasibility Study.
What? You haven’t heard of it? Not surprising since the 15-minute virtual meeting posted on YouTube has had just 575 viewers since its Dec. 4 posting.
Texas Department of Cars and Trucks
First, we must understand that while TxDOT stands for Texas Department of Transportation, it’s really about cars and trucks — call it TXDoCaT. Sure, they talk about bicycles and pedestrians, but always within the context of car and truck traffic. They’re a consequence, never the main thrust. And public transportation? Busses, not rail or subways.
With this limited thinking in place, the results of the Northwest Highway Feasibility Study are as unsurprising as they are laughable — Northwest Highway, it seems, is the punchline that keeps on giving.
For the past 20 years, TxDOT reports traffic has remained stable along Northwest Highway between Inwood and Hillcrest – bumbling up and down between 47,000 and 59,000 cars per day.
TxDOT foresees a 5 percent increase in traffic along Northwest Highway between Inwood Road and Hillcrest Avenue – between now and 2045. That means that traffic will gradually increase over the next 25 years, bumbling along between 49,350 and 61,950 cars per day – or roughly 3,000 additional cars per day during peak years – of which there have been four near-peak years in the past 20.
The study offers options for dealing with this relatively small increase. But is the increase even real?
COVID-19 And Commuter Traffic
It’s important to know that this study was completed in March 2020 – pre-COVID-19. And yet, TxDOT gives a single bullet to COVID-19’s traffic effects, “assumed to be short-term.”
So this study was completed nine months ago with no study on the future impacts resulting from the largest health crisis in a century? Could no one avail themselves of the innumerable surveys and studies conducted on COVID-19’s long-term effects on work and by extension commuting? None of which think COVID-19’s effects on work (and ultimately commuting) will be short-term. It’s a laughable omission.
For example, global consultants KPMG posted a summer 2020 report that said 64 percent of workers prefer to have flexible and remote work options. In April 2020, research firm Gartner’s HR survey reported 41 percent of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic. In September 2020, Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business posted a study of “what the world of work would look like post-COVID-19.” And just last week, Pew released a study saying much the same things.
These studies – and MANY MORE – all agree, working from home was already growing and COVID-19 threw gas on the fire. And yet, TxDOT seems illiterate or in denial, preferring their 5 percent increase to a deeper study of a very more likely decline in rush hour traffic in coming years. Because if that happens, maybe they shouldn’t be building more roads – their stock-in-trade.
In the weeks and months after COVID-19 took hold, EVERY TxDOT research project should have stopped and waited for clarity. And I’m not saying there is clarity now. I’d wait until at least 2022 before I started judging the pandemic’s longer-term effects on traffic and commuting. To do anything else is irresponsible.
The Laughable Options for Northwest Highway
There are four options:
- Do nothing (provided as a baseline)
- Drop six-lanes to four and maybe add a dedicated bus lane
- Double-decker – stacked elevated lanes
- Double-decker – tunnel
Reading the numbers above, you will quickly see that doing nothing is the best option of the four, bar-none. If a hugely expensive tunnel is built, traffic would go from an expected 52,145 cars per day to 79,026 per day. This is because if you build capacity, they will come. At each of the measurement points, overall traffic increases.
Also worth noting is that roads are measured from “A” to “F” service levels – “F” is obviously the worst. In NONE of the four scenarios at any of the six measurement points do road conditions improve. They either stay at “E” or decline to “F” – roughly 27,000 more cars than doing nothing and the same or worse service. Impressed?
In fact, if you wanted to cut cars on Northwest Highway, drop it to four lanes – those expected 52,145 vehicles would drop to 42,367 cars and trucks – but where would they go?
Where do the cars come from?
What TxDOT doesn’t say directly is that the increased cars are coming from other roads. The big-ticket, big traffic bypass plans sacrifice Northwest Highway in order to diminish traffic on parallel and perpendicular roads that people use as cut-throughs. For example, Walnut Hill would lose 12,000 cars per day and northern Inwood would shed 11,000 cars to Northwest Highway with a tunnel. Of course, traffic patterns are more subtle than that, but it’s the gist.
So this “fix” for Northwest Highway would essentially reward Park Cities and Preston Hollow residents with less traffic. But that’s the thing about traffic, and especially traffic apps, people will see less traffic on side streets and not leave them – especially when they see increased congestion on Northwest Highway.
The reality may be quite different from the theoretical – before we consider COVID-19 having lasting impacts on rush hour traffic.
On the left you see the oft-proposed Texas U-Turn proposed since 2016 (and called dumb by me ever since). Imagine the frontage road bumper-to-bumper at rush hour. Now imagine cars from Berkshire and Luther cutting across four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to the Texas U-turn. Does that strike you as effective?
The right image shows a stopping of left-hand turns out of Pickwick Lane at Northwest Highway. That means for all the current and future units within PD-15/Pink Wall, the only way to turn westward with a traffic signal will be either Preston Road or Hillcrest.
Doesn’t it dump some traffic onto an intersection already having rush hour issues (Preston and Northwest Highway)? And if a tunnel/double-decker is built, there will be no left turns nor any ability to cross Northwest Highway between Hillcrest and Preston Roads – at all. Does that strike you as great for those residents?
Oh, and guess what’s not mentioned in these plans? The Tulane entrance to Northwest Highway from the Pink Wall discussed when PD-15 was updated. Oops.
The Option Not Studied: DART
SinceTxDOT operates in an asphalt silo, they don’t think about transportation solutions holistically. They don’t think about solving problems with DART for example. We have a light rail system that runs up and down North Central Expressway and through downtown and southern Dallas.
How much of the current traffic and the supposed increase could be diverted into a subway stop at Preston Center that connects to the Red Line?
A further connection to the Green Line near Bachman Lake/Love Field would offer Dallas a tremendous benefit of an east-west DART connection (creating a circle) that also significantly reduces Northwest Highway traffic.
Now connect downtown to Preston Center via a subway and onwards to Galleria and beyond. That’s a lot of commuter traffic diverted off roads that results in fewer cars and greenhouse gases.
If only TxDOT would stop thinking that asphalt is the only answer to increasing capacity. If only state and city leadership would force transportation departments to work together to come up with the best solutions for residents.
But don’t take my word for it. View the whole presentation here and insert your comments. You have until Dec. 22 to make your thoughts heard.