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The Riehl World: Grading on the Curve

Carlsbad’s Intersection Circumspection

By Richard Riehl

Carlsbad’s elected officials took the city’s vision of “a small town feel and beach community character” and twisted it into a developer-friendly General Plan. Fortunately, their questionable integrity and patronizing “we know best” attitude are not reflected in the leadership and staff of Carlsbad’s talented, courteous and responsive city employees.

The 2009 public opinion survey that led to the development of the city’s Community Vision produced statistically sound results. But Mayor Hall and his council colleagues used them to justify land use changes allowing shopping centers and multi-use commercial/residential housing near the beach and lagoon.

The most recent online survey, developed by city staff for the Tamarack Area Coastal Improvements Project, asks respondents to choose from three options designed to improve safety, beach access and traffic flow at the intersection of Carlsbad Boulevard and Tamarack. After careful consideration, I chose the Roundabout Plan for the reasons listed in the staff’s comparative summary.

Improve pedestrian and cyclist safety and access:

The Roundabout Plan would widen the sidewalk on the west side of Carlsbad Boulevard, over the bridge, from 4 ft. to 16 ft; the safety buffer for bikes from 5 ft. to 8 ft. alongside Carlsbad Boulevard, and from 0 to 2 ft. along Tamarack.

Reduce air pollution, improve parking and landscaping:

It’s the only option that would reduce air pollution and traffic noise. It would also add fourteen new parking spaces and provide larger gathering and viewing areas than the other two options.

Improve safety without sacrificing traffic flow:

Finally, the roundabout is the best way to improve safety for drivers, bikers and walkers without increasing drive through time. (See above)

To trust, but verify the staff report, I researched the results of studies comparing standard intersections vs. roundabouts nationwide. Here’s what I found in an April 2016 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Federal Highway Administration.


Roundabouts typically achieve a 37 percent reduction in overall collisions, a 75 percent reduction in injury collisions, a 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions, and a 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions. Serious crashes are essentially eliminated because vehicles travel in the same direction and at low speeds, generally less than 20 mph in urban areas. They also reduce the likelihood of rear-end crashes by removing the incentive for drivers to speed up to beat light changes and by reducing abrupt stops at red lights.

Traffic flow

Several studies have reported significant improvements in traffic flow with conversion to roundabouts. Most research focused on single-lane roundabouts, as proposed for Carlsbad Boulevard/Tamarack. A study of three locations in New Hampshire, New York and Washington state, where roundabouts replaced traffic signals, found an 89 percent average reduction in vehicle delays and a 56 percent average reduction in vehicle stops.

Public opinion

Drivers may be skeptical of or opposed to roundabouts. But several Institute studies show opinions quickly change when drivers become familiar with them. In several studies, 36 percent of drivers supported the roundabouts before construction compared with 50 percent shortly after. Follow-up surveys after they had been in place for more than a year found public support increased to about 70 percent on average.

My first experience with roundabouts, called traffic circles at the time, occurred at DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. It was a multi-lane nightmare. It took me several rounds of terror before getting the hang of it and exiting without incident. I swore off future encounters with the beast.

But a few years ago, when confronted with a single lane roundabout in Encinitas, I discovered their benefits of safety and convenience. So I welcomed Carlsbad’s new version north of the village. I often cursed the yield sign as I drove south on Coast Highway, approaching the intersection intending to make a left turn. It forced me to estimate the speed of an oncoming car heading north on a collision course as it crested the hill ahead. The new roundabout has put an end to my flashbacks of games of chicken.

I’ve been critical of the city’s elected officials for deferring to developers the shaping of Carlsbad’s future. But with 22,000 additional residents expected to move into town over the next 20 years, decisions on traffic projects such as this one need to be made on their merits alone, despite the lingering distrust of the city’s current elected leaders.

I think the Roundabout Plan is the best way to improve public safety, beach access and traffic flow. But citizen activists have shown the importance of being informed, involved and engaged in political action. So I’m hoping there will be a record number of respondents to this survey.

Thanks to citizen activism, a regional shopping center will not despoil a city lagoon, a puppy mill store has left town, and five candidates are challenging the two city council incumbents in the November election.


Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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