An Ode to Northwest Highway

Northwest Highway is one of the busiest thoroughfares in North Dallas, connecting and passing through major centers of employment and retail. However, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the Northwest Highway we are familiar with was originally part of State Highway 114, which was built in 1929 to connect Dallas and Rhome, a small mill town northwest of Fort Worth. When first built, 114 was a highway in the truest sense of the word. It passed through low-density areas, such as farmlands and ranches, and connected far-flung communities. As Dallas grew, the city eventually swallowed the countryside and the rural highway. The wide open spaces were filled in with a multitude of high-density land uses giving us what we have today.

Northwest Highway at Preston in the 1950s
Northwest Highway at Preston in the 1950s (credit: Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library)
Northwest Highway at Preston in the 2000s.
Northwest Highway at Preston in the 2000s (credit: Leah Clausen)

It’s strange to think that even though Dallas has changed so much in the past 85 years, this stretch of highway has not. Office buildings, apartments, and retail now line the road, but it’s still designed and functions like an old country highway. Ramps and overpasses still exist, stoplights are few and far between, and sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure is almost non-existent. One would think that as the city evolved so would its infrastructure, but this has not been the case with Northwest Highway.

Why is this? It’s hard to know exactly why, but like anything else, once people become accustomed to a thing, it’s very difficult to change. This corridor is a vital east-west connection in many Dallasites daily commute. Changing the road would cause a lot of heartache and may worsen many commutes.

However, we have to realize that this reliance on Northwest Highway is part of the problem. It has helped maintain the status quo and has led to a de-emphasis on the surrounding roads that comprise the grid. With no alternate routes, most east-west traffic is funneled onto Northwest Highway further exacerbating congestion.

For instance, let’s take a look at that portion of Northwest Highway just north of Preston Center. This stretch of road is the perfect storm of congestion due to multiple factors: (i) dense office and retail in Preston Center; (ii) multi-family along Northwest Highway; (iii) people trying to enter and exit the Tollway in both directions; and (iv) few alternate routes to access or bypass Preston Center.

We all know this area is a mess, and there are a lot of ideas on how to fix it. Some want to widen Northwest Highway, others have proposed tunneling a portion of it (please no), and local residents have resorted to opposing any type of new development for fear of increased congestion. Increasing the road’s capacity will ultimately backfire and handicapping new development is shortsighted. We need to address the larger city-wide traffic forces at play.

So what is happening at the macro level? Unsurprisingly, it’s all about jobs. The diagram below shows where the jobs are located in greater Dallas (source website). Each dot represents a job, with red representing manufacturing, blue as professional services, green as healthcare/education, and yellow as retail, hospitality and other services. The darker the color the higher the density of jobs.

Dallas Area Jobs
Dallas Area Jobs

One thing you’ll notice is that outside of Preston Center, there aren’t that many jobs in Preston Hollow or the Park Cities (see the big red circle). All of the jobs are concentrated along the other major corridors (e.g., 75, I-635, I-35 and 114) or in certain traditional centers of business and industry (e.g., Downtown Dallas, Uptown, Addison, Irving, etc.). This zoning imbalance (a topic for another discussion) puts Preston Hollow and the Park Cities in a unique situation. Since both neighborhoods are at the crossroads of these job centers, many commuters pass through these neighborhoods in their daily commute, whether along the tollway or by way of Northwest Highway.

The commuters who travel to their jobs along I-35 and 114 in the west or 75 in the east use Northwest Highway for lack of viable alternatives. Going through downtown is always a bad idea, and I-635 is usually a mess as well. For Dallas residents, Northwest Highway and surrounding surface streets (e.g. Lovers Lane, Walnut Hill, etc.) are the paths of least resistance. Moreover, some are favored more than others. The portions of Mockingbird and Lovers that travel through the Park Cities are only two lane roads, which causes many people to think (rightly or wrongly) that Northwest Highway is a better option. This cross-town migration will continue until we acknowledge Dallas’ antiquated zoning plan and better distribute the job centers across DFW.

In addition to this regional issue, there are local connectivity problems too. If we take a closer look at the immediate area surrounding Preston Center, we can see that there are only three east-west connections that traverse the Tollway.

Northwest Highway and Tollway

Preston Center creates a ton of traffic (see link for recent studies). There should be far more than three ways to cross the Tollway and access Preston Center. Even one or two well-placed connections could help alleviate traffic on Northwest Highway since it would give commuters different options. People advocating for more traffic lanes aren’t necessarily wrong, just misguided. Use these extra lanes to reinforce the surrounding grid and there will be more routes and less reliance upon Northwest Highway (this Candy’s Dirt article also has some good solutions).

I have a feeling most residents of Preston Hollow and the Park Cities will not like these recommendations. People are usually more concerned about the traffic right in front of their homes rather than on a nearby highway. As a homeowner, I completely understand. Too much traffic and noise can make even the nicest homes less desirable. However, we must understand that we live in a major city and congestion and traffic will always be a part of the landscape. Quiet residential streets are not the norm in well-connected and vibrant cities. If we want a dense, walkable city with amenities reachable by foot, we have to let go of the idea of quiet suburban streets and embrace connectivity.

In any event, what does the traffic currently look like on these side streets? To be honest, there’s not much traffic to discuss. Greenbrier and Southwestern Blvd. each carry about 1,100 cars per day, and Park Lane, which actually crosses the tollway, only carries 3,600 cars per day. Considering that Northwest Highway moves about 58,000 cars per day, it appears that these side streets are far underutilized.

A similar problem can be found further east on Northwest Highway between Greenville Ave. and Skillman St. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of frequenting this stretch of road at 5:30 p.m., you know what I’m getting at. Once again, all traffic is confined to Northwest Highway for lack of alternate routes. However, the culprit here isn’t a dividing highway but a complete breakdown in the surrounding grid. Since the land surrounding this stretch of Northwest Highway used to be on the periphery of the city (Mustang Airport, in fact, was located where the Village now stands), it did not benefit from the same grid-intensive planning found further south.

The map below shows the lack of exits once you’re here.

Northwest Highway and Skillman

Between 75 and Abrams, there are only two chances to exit for eastbound traffic and five for westbound traffic, if you count cutting through the Timbercreek parking lot. That’s not nearly enough for the 1.5 mile distance considering that this portion of Northwest Highway handles about 62,000 cars per day.

Not only is Northwest Highway difficult to navigate for cars, it is nearly impossible for pedestrians. There are virtually no dedicated sidewalks in this area, which is a missed opportunity since there is a plethora of retail and multifamily nearby. Too often, pedestrians can be seen risking life and limb just trying to cross the road or access the retail centers.

Even if sidewalks existed, there’s still one relic of the past not designed with pedestrians in mind, i.e., the flyover at Skillman and Northwest Highway. At some point, it probably made sense. But it’s time has passed. The benefits of opening up the land to development, especially at an intersection of two very busy roads, far outweighs the slight travel benefits. When nothing but farmlands and ranches surrounded Northwest Highway, the opportunity cost of this flyover was very low. However, the cost is much higher now. If this intersection was a normal, at-grade intersection it would free up about 11 acres for development. Assuming a similar taxable value as Timbercreek ($1.1 million per acre), the city is losing out on about $12 million in taxable improvements.

Dallas has grown up quite a bit in the past 85 years. Its population has exploded and all the open farmland and ranches have long been filled in. Much has changed but not Northwest Highway. Our collective reliance on the road has helped maintain the status quo, leaving the roads surrounding Northwest Highway woefully underdeveloped or underutilized and the grid disrupted or completely non-existent. We need to rethink the role of Northwest Highway in modern-day Dallas. Let’s fix the surrounding grid, improve the pedestrian infrastructure and get rid of the flyovers and on-ramps that do not belong on an urban thoroughfare. If we provide alternate routes and make the road more accessible for pedestrians, we can create new development opportunities. Imagine a grand boulevard instead of a highway. Let’s welcome the road to present-day Dallas and let the past be past us.

Comments

  • PeterTx52

    so where did you get the 1950s photo from?

  • obamaniac

    It seems saying 635 is always a mess is an anachonism that prevents NW hwy from changing.

    • Joe Esposito

      You are correct. I should have said “I-635 is usually a mess for those who can’t afford the express lanes…”

      • obamaniac

        Do you have data to support this? My recent experience is that all the lanes are appreciably faster than any east/west route in the metroplex.

  • dawatx

    Wow, way too much logic for this Dallasite’s brain, worn out from commuting on NW Hwy (or various tortuous alternatives) 6 days a week.

  • Michael Tripp McNair

    Being a commuter from Garland to the Irving, I’m quite familiar with these challenges along NW Hwy. Since I am usually on a bicycle, I appreciate the low traffic on Lovers Ln and Park Ln. Whatever will I do, if Dallas’ traffic planners ever read this story? 🙂
    On the days I drive, I do whatever I can to avoid NW Hwy at the problem areas you mention.
    (Just an editing note: In the 10th & 11th paragraphs, you talk about the three ways to cross Northwest Hwy to access Preston Center. The accompanying map shows
    three ways to cross the Tollway. Since you mention east-west
    connections, I think you meant to reference crossing the Tollway, there.)

    • Joe Esposito

      Thanks for catching that. I knew there were far too many references to “Northwest Highway” anyways.

  • stellzbellz10

    You’re describing NW Hwy on a perfect day. Let’s not even get into the days that the tiniest hint of rain causes the stop lights to stop working.

  • Larry Brautigam

    To your congestion factors, add diabolical signal timing. Like getting caught at Douglas just after starting up from Tollway or Preston.

  • PeterTx52

    ‘There should be far more than three ways to cross the Tollway and access Preston Center.”
    you would think but if you look at this aerial photo from 1958 you’ll see that there were limited ways to cross the old Cotton Belt RR tracks which were replaced by the DNT. but who ever expects a journalist to do a little historical research

    https://historicaerials.com/location/32.857148887338994/-96.8136477470398/1958/16