San Diego far behind is the goal of building more roundabouts

San Diego is years behind schedule with building more roundabouts, which the city hopes will help achieve its goals of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and improving street safety.

The city’s 2015 Climate Action Plan set a goal of building 15 roundabouts by 2020 — but it built only two. The new goal in its updated climate plan is 13 roundabouts by 2030 and another 20 by 2035. That means the city will have to average two to three roundabouts per year to stay on track.

Several new “neighborhood traffic circles” — smaller versions of roundabouts — have been installed in San Diego this year by the regional transportation agency SANDAG, although the city does not count those toward its own roundabout goals.

Roundabouts can offer the dual benefits of calming traffic, which reduces the likelihood of fatal or serious injury collisions, and allowing vehicles to move through intersections without stopping.

“You actually don’t have traffic idling like you would have at a stoplight, which addresses some of the climate and emissions issues,” said Katie Matchett, an urban planner and safe Streets advocate. “And then you keep people moving, but you do it more slowly, which is safer for people walking and biking.”

Matchett is also the president of Beautiful PB, which for years has been calling for traffic calming measures on Foothill Boulevard, one of Pacific Beach’s main thoroughfares where vehicles rarely travel within the speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The city has plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Loring Streetand currently expects to start construction in March 2023. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to build is the price tag, which is about $3 million.

“Some of these big roundabout projects — they are very costly, they take up a lot of space, they take some time to design,” Matchett said. “But there are other smaller, quick improvements that we can make that will actually help us reach some of our goals.”

Advocates say “quick-build” roundabouts, installed with paint and plastic barriers drilled into the street, offer a faster and cheaper way to improve street safety while communities wait for more permanent improvements.

The city has plans to install one such roundabout at Florida Drive and Morley Field Drive on the edge of Balboa Park. City spokeswoman Anna Vacchi said the current timeline would have it installed in “late August through September.”

The difference in cost is dramatic: Materials for the temporary roundabout cost roughly $200,000 and can be installed in-house by city employees rather than outside contractors. Vacchi said the materials were donated to the city by the Federal Highway Administration, which is studying their effectiveness.

Jesse O’Sullivan, policy counsel for the nonprofit think tank Circulate San Diego, said the city should be doing more of those temporary projects.

“A quick-build project is a great way to show the community exactly what the benefits of these streetscape improvements are,” O’Sullivan said.

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