A roundabout on Meade Avenue in San Diego is shown on Dec. 20, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego plans to build 35 new roundabouts by 2035, but the city is already behind on its short-term traffic construction goals it set several years ago.

Roundabouts and traffic circles are generally an intersection where traffic travels in a counter-clockwise direction, usually around a landscaped island. According to the county’s definitions, the difference between the two is that a modern roundabout is a circular intersection on a higher-speed, non-residential street, while traffic circles are smaller and usually installed in two-lane streets.

These installations are popping up all throughout the United States. 

Why this matters

Some say that roundabouts and traffic circles are more dangerous, but studies prove otherwise.

Many studies have shown that roundabouts and traffic circles help reduce vehicle speeds, prevent traffic collisions and help reduce emissions by minimizing fuel usage. Plus, if a roundabout is replacing traditional traffic light signals, it can also save a city money because there wouldn’t be a need to pay for electrical maintenance of lights.

But despite the goals transportation officials have set for San Diego, only five roundabouts have been constructed since 2015. The city first set out to build 15 roundabouts by 2020 in its Climate Action Plan. The city now aims to build 20 more roundabouts by 2035, bringing the total to 35 roundabouts throughout the city.

However, the city and the San Diego Association of Governments have installed more than a dozen neighborhood traffic circles since 2015.

“We set ambitious goals in the Climate Action Plan and continue to work to implement and achieve them,” city spokesperson Anthony Santacroce said in an email. 

Among the most recent, he said three roundabouts were completed this year at Landis Street and Central Avenue; West Point Loma and Bacon Street; and Morley Field and Florida drives.

Santacroce said funding and “capacity to build,” including labor and scheduling, have caused delays in the city’s goals for roundabouts. “Quick build” roundabouts, which could be installed between days or a few months, also are possible. 

Many of the future roundabouts are slated to be built in mostly residential areas, in communities including Mission Bay Park and City Heights. One of the next roundabouts expected to be built will be at the Foothill Boulevard and Loring Street intersection in Pacific Beach.

Red: future roundabout locations. Green: roundabouts installed since 2016. Purple: traffic circles installed since 2016

As a frequent commuter, San Diegans like Sean Norville favor roundabouts.

“I do think it’s smoother getting around as a driver,” Norville said. “It speeds things up.”

But only if people use them correctly, he added. Norville recalled hitting the brakes to avoid a collision while driving through a neighborhood traffic circle in North Park.

“I like them in general, but I guess my concern is people not being familiar with them,” he said. 

Ray Ypon, a cyclist and driver, also favors roundabouts but thinks they could only work in specific areas, such as those with less traffic or speed limits of 25 to 30 mph.

Ypon said that the new quick-build roundabout on Florida and Morley Field drives, for instance, is too small. The lanes leading up the roundabout are also tighter, given that the city installed pole dividers between the roads and bike lanes. Most of the intersection’s roads steep downhill, making it more difficult to brake, he added.

“This one right here is, to me, more dangerous than anything else,” Ypon said.

While some residents believe roundabouts are more dangerous, national research shows that roundabouts actually decrease the number of overall collisions by 37%, and especially fatal collisions, which decreased by 90%, according to Caltrans.

Jesse Ramirez, a community engagement coordinator for City Heights Community Development, a bike and transportation advocacy group in San Diego, said residents generally want drivers to stop speeding in their neighborhoods, and installing roundabouts is one way to calm that. But when vehicles zoom past roundabouts, not using them properly, residents become fearful of traffic accidents.

San Diego resident Harold Lawson thinks that some roundabouts are unnecessary, more complicated and just confusing. Simply put, there hasn’t been enough education on navigating roundabouts for the public.

“There’s no clear indication of how to use them,” Lawson said. “I think that’s the biggest problem.”

How to drive in a roundabout
A roundabout with arrows pointing to where cars should drive through
Educational Illustration of Multilane Roundabout (Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration)
  1. Slow down. This helps drivers do a better job seeing pedestrians and cyclists and sharing the road with them.
  2. Look around. If there’s more than one lane, choose which lane you want to enter. Use the left lane to go left, the right lane to go right, and either lane to go straight through, unless otherwise indicated. Since roundabouts go counterclockwise, traffic should be coming in from your left upon entering.
  3. Be ready to yield. Drivers must yield to traffic in all lanes of the roundabout, not just in the lane closest to them. That also means yielding at entry. Give larger vehicles some space too.
  4. Stay in your lane. Use your signal lights to let others know when you’re exiting.
YouTube video

When a newly constructed bikeway with a roundabout and eight traffic circles debuted in April along Landis Street connecting the North Park to City Heights neighborhoods, Ramirez said that residents expressed that there wasn’t enough outreach to educate them on how to use roundabouts. 

“Folks are kind of used to driving a certain way, having a certain behavior, and all of a sudden, that has to change,” Ramirez said, who regularly engages with resident groups. “That was the frustration that we saw there.”

After community members shared their safety concerns, the city installed signage on Landis Street roundabouts, instructing drivers to yield to traffic, he said. These updates have improved the attitudes residents carry toward roundabouts, Ramirez said.

“Here in City Heights, over time it has changed, and generally there’s more support for (roundabouts) and people want more of them.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Crystal Niebla joined inewsource in June 2022 as an investigative reporter focused on infrastructure and government accountability in the San Diego region. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. At the Long Beach Post, Niebla served...