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Roundabouts got you going in circles? Here’s a guide to navigating the loops in La Jolla and Bird Rock

Since 2008, there are five roundabouts on La Jolla Boulevard; when going south from the Village of La Jolla through Bird Rock and leading to Pacific Beach.
Since 2008, there are five roundabouts on La Jolla Boulevard; when going south from the Village of La Jolla through Bird Rock and leading to Pacific Beach.
(La Jolla Light File Photo)

Brits have them. The French have them (30,000, the most in the world). Aussies have them. Mexicans have them. La Jollans have them. You can call them traffic circles, rotaries, rotundas … or as we call them, roundabouts.

Five of them have been a fixture along La Jolla Boulevard since 2008. They’ve improved traffic flow, reduced speeds, reduced collisions and reduced auto emissions. But, even after nine years, it appears that many drivers still don’t know “roundabout etiquette.”

Colby Bruno is a sales associate at Bird Rock Surf Shop. From his shop near the intersection of La Jolla Boulevard and Midway Street, Bruno has a “bird’s eye” (so to speak) view of the nearby roundabout.

“It’s pretty good entertainment,” he told La Jolla Light. “People don’t know how to use it. There’s a lot of honking and upraised arms. But, people used to die on this road. Now we just have fender-benders and near misses.”

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Roundabouts Colby Bruno Bird Rock Surf Shop-jpg.jpg
Colby Bruno — an employee at Bird Rock Surf Shop, which is located near a roundabout on La Jolla Boulevard — observes: “People don’t know how to use it. There’s a lot of honking and upraised arms.”
(Photo by Chuck Dunning)

As a public service to the merchants, drivers and pedestrians using the boulevard, the Light offers the following tips on “roundabout etiquette,” courtesy of driverseducationusa.com:

Rules for Roundabouts

• Drivers arriving at a roundabout must slow down and yield to traffic already traveling in the circle.

• Be prepared to stop for bicyclists and pedestrians in your path.

• Enter the roundabout only when there is space for you to do so.

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• Use your turn signals to communicate that you will be exiting.

• If you miss your exit, drive around the circle again until you can exit safely.

• Never pass another vehicle in the roundabout. (But since Bird Rock roundabouts are single-lane, not multi-lane roundabouts, one cannot pass a vehicle within the roundabout.)

• Do not stop while driving in the circle unless a vehicle is stopped in front of you, as happens in the Bird Rock roundabouts, due to traffic congestion.

• Remember, in left-hand drive countries (like the United States) the circle goes counterclockwise. In right-hand drive countries it goes clockwise. You don’t want to be surprised late one dark night.

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What could be so confusing about traversing this roundabout at La Jolla Boulevard and Midway Street?
(Photo by Chuck Dunning)

Bird Rock Community Council added these:

• One should not wait to enter a roundabout unless someone else has the right-of-way and entry would result in an accident. Cars actually in the roundabout always have the right of way.

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• If two cars are entering the roundabout at the same time, then the car to the right has the right of way (similar to a four-way stop or an intersection with no street signs).

This means that all cars, whether on La Jolla Boulevard or a side street, have equal opportunity to enter the roundabout. Cars driving along La Jolla Boulevard do not have preferential rights over cars entering from side streets. Cars from either direction have equal rights and must follow the rules.

Obviously, if there is a car already within the roundabout, then that car has the right of way.

• As one enters the roundabout, one always looks to the left for any vehicle that is already in the roundabout, since that vehicle has the right-of-way.

This is part of the reason why the speed limit in a roundabout is 15 mph.

How’d they get here?

It’s widely reported that the idea for La Jolla Boulevard roundabouts came during Scott Peters’ campaign for the District 1 City Council seat in 2000.

During his neighborhood walks, he continually heard complaints about the traffic on La Jolla Boulevard and the struggling Bird Rock business district. In 2001, then Council member Peters held roundtable discussions with the community. The idea of replacing stops signs and stop lights with roundabouts to improve the flow, shrink the street and widen the sidewalks emerged.

Seven years later, in July 2008, Peters — who went on to become a U.S. Congress member for the California 52nd District — dedicated five La Jolla Boulevard roundabouts stretching from Colima Street on the south to Camino de la Costa on the north. By many measures, they’ve been an unqualified success.

John Newsam, president of the Bird Rock Community Council, said in an e-mail: “… the majority (of local residents) consider that the roundabout installations have had a hugely positive effect on our neighborhood. Traffic is calmed and the La Jolla Boulevard is safer.”

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He went on to say: “Our neighborhood has much more appeal to residents and visitors alike. The roundabouts are even, to some degree, a tourist attraction.”

For that, he credits Barbara Dunbar, manager of the Bird Rock Maintenance Assessment District (Bird Rock MAD), which is responsible for maintaining the landscaping along La Jolla Boulevard.

She explained the role: “The neighborhood property owners voted for the formation of a MAD in 2005.

“The MAD approved a Mediterranean-California Coastal planting scheme and updated it in 2010 when some of the plants, initially chosen by the City, proved not to be vehicle emission tolerant or (were) incompatible with the line-of-sight requirements and height restrictions for pedestrian and vehicular safety.”

Dunbar also wrote of the goal of improving the traffic flow and overall safety: “Before the traffic calming construction, La Jolla Boulevard was a five-lane road where cars often traveled well above the allowable speed. There was only one street light, at Bird Rock Avenue, and often that was ignored when red. The reduction from two lanes to one lane in each direction, the necessity to navigate around traffic circles, and the increased pedestrian crossings have all contributed to reduced overall speed of vehicles through the area.

“The flow of traffic and overall safety has been greatly improved.”

Roundabout Trevor Port and Mackenzie Lowe-jpg.jpg
After crossing La Jolla Boulevard near a roundabout, Trevor Port and Makenzie Lowe report: ‘It feels safer with cars going slower and drivers more aware.’
(Photo by Chuck Dunning)

Stats and studies

According to the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District (APCD), national studies indicate that installing roundabouts can reduce injury crashes by 80 percent and overall collisions by 50 percent. The Light reached out to the City’s Transportation Division to see if there have been any local studies conducted. There have not. But, transportation consultant Dan Burden told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2017: “(With the advent of roundabouts) motorists started driving 19 mph on 2.5 miles of La Jolla Boulevard, instead of 40-45 mph, then stopping and stopping again.”

Pedestrians certainly appreciate the difference. On a recent afternoon, Pacific Beach residents Trevor Port and Makenzie Lowe had just crossed La Jolla Boulevard after visiting Seaside Smoothie. Lowe pointed out: “You can get across the street a lot quicker now that you don’t have to wait for a stoplight. It feels safer with cars going slower and drivers more aware.”

In addition to safety, the APCD also estimates that each roundabout will save about 20,000 gallons of gasoline per year, and reduce CO2 emissions by 189 metric tons.

And the benefit to local merchants? Newsam had this to say: “Our informal conversations indicate that the merchants are positive. There is ready parking now on the Boulevard, traffic is slower, and there is more foot traffic. These are all good for business. The positive benefits of the circles were likely a factor in encouraging our new merchants to establish their businesses here.”

One skeptic back in 2008 was Anita Wood, owner of La Jolla Mailbox Rentals at 5666 La Jolla Blvd. Her business suffered substantial losses during the construction. How does she feel about them nine years later?

“It’s (traffic flow) working better than it did (before the roundabouts). Most drivers are slowing down, but some don’t know what to do. The parking is still a problem, as it’s been since I opened in 1987.”

Roundabouts … they’re safer, smoother, ecologically friendly and nice to look at. Pedestrians (read customers) like them, and therefore so do the merchants.

Now, if we could just learn how to use them.


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