Last updated 11/7/2011
Note: I have not had the opportunity to do a detailed update of this web site in the last few months, but the information on it is still pertinent.
In July of 2011, one of the two westbound travel lanes was removed between Romeria Street (about halfway between Rancho Santa Fe Road and El Camino Real) on the east and Fairway Lane (near El Camino Real) on the west. In the extended plan, the City plans to further narrow La Costa Avenue down to one lane in each direction for almost the entire length, replace the traffic signal at Romeria Street with a roundabout, and install a roundabout at Nueva Castilla Way. In addition, they plan extensive road-narrowing curb extensions and medians throughout the project area. This comes at an estimated cost of $3.1 to $4.7 million. Consideration is also being made for five additional roundabouts (not in the current budget): one to replace the light at Viejo Castilla Way, one at the entrance to the new condo complex on the western portion, one to replace the light at Cadencia Street, one at Calle Madero, and one at Gibraltar Street.
For details on the project, see the following documents:
On June 28, 2011 The Carlsbad City Council voted to remove a westbound travel lane between approximately Romeria Street and Fairway Lane based on a recommendation from City traffic engineering staff (the interim "hybrid" plan or "partial road diet"). The actual restriping is scheduled to occur by the end of July 2011. I am concerned about congestion in the area of the lane removal during the morning commute, and I feel that the City may be in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by implementing this plan without thorough environmental review. I feel there were alternatives that would have reduced speeding and liability, as well as enhanced the safety of residents who live along the road, yet retained all of the travel lanes to maintain the current road capacity. This would have minimized congestion now and in the future, as projects like La Costa Town Square and new residential developments are completed and bring additional traffic to the area.
However, the City opted to remove the lane segment in the short term. Although this plan was called "interim," it is only interim in that it will be replaced in the future by the City's longer-term plan to eliminate additional travel lane segments and install further traffic calming measures starting in about two years or more (2013?). City staff is currently preparing plans to further reduce the road to one travel lane in each direction for almost the full length between Rancho Santa Fe Road and El Camino Real (a "full road diet"). This is to be followed by installation of two roundabouts (one at Viejo Castilla Way and another to replace the signal at Romeria Street), "bulb-outs" at other intersections, curb extensions between intersections, some medians, and significant landscaping. The projected cost is $3 million to $6 million, and ongoing maintenance costs will likely be substantial due to the significant landscaping. These plans will likely be presented to the City Council in the September 2011 time frame.
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Summary of concerns
The following is a summary of major points related to the traffic calming projects. Details for each point, including additional discussion and references, are available in the Details section below.
The City has a database of reported collisions in the area of interest. The following table is based on data from: (1) An Agenda Bill (#9475) from a June 14, 1988 City Council meeting, (2) the September 2008 KOA Phase I report (pages 45-46), and (3) a La Costa Avenue Collision Summary dated 4/8/2011.
The mandated method is to conduct a speed survey on the roadway, and then set the speed limit at the nearest 5 MPH increment from the 85th percentile (the speed at which 85% of the surveyed cars were traveling slower). Studies have shown that this is a "reasonable and prudent" maximum speed given the knowledge of the local drivers. For example, if the 85th percentile speed of the surveyed cars was between 43 and 47 MPH, then the speed limit would be set at 45 MPH, or, if the 85th percentile speed was between 48 and 52 MPH, then the speed limit would be set at 50 MPH. There is an exception mechanism that allows the speed limit to be reduced 5 MPH below the mandated level when there are special "conditions not readily apparent" to drivers. However, the exceptions are apparently very difficult to justify and may not hold up in court.
Past speed surveys conducted on La Costa Avenue in the proposed project area (e.g., one conducted on 12/2/2004) have resulted in an 85th percentile speed of 48 MPH, which meant that the 45 MPH speed limit was unenforceable by radar or laser. However, in February of 2011, the City installed signs warning drivers of the presence of residential driveways, and they installed a series of digital signs that tell drivers how fast they are going. A new speed survey conducted on 3/15/2011 resulted in 85th percentile speeds of 45-47 MPH, with none of the 400 surveyed cars exceeding 52 MPH. Not only did this lead to a re-certification of the 45 MPH speed limit on 4/25/2011, but it also suggests, perhaps contrary to some perceptions, that speeding is not a major issue on the roadway. The City's installation of the signage appears to be having a positive effect.
This does not mean that there are not a few drivers who greatly violate the speed limit, particularly at certain times of day. A Speed Sentry survey done at Nueva Castilla Way over a four-day period in July of 2006 identified ~24 cars per day traveling at 60+ MPH. However, traffic volume at that location during that time period was ~18,000 cars (~9,000 in each direction), and it is questionable whether eliminating lanes or other traffic calming measures are going to reign in the tiny fraction of extremely imprudent drivers.
Despite these promises, a letter and opinion survey sent to La Costa Avenue area residents on traffic calming did not directly address the elimination of travel lanes as part of the interim striping plan or contain questions about it. The letter and opinion survey first appeared on the City's web site on April 4, 2011. I asked City staff, before these documents were mailed whether the road diet could be explained better in the cover letter, and whether opinions on the road diet could be solicited in the survey. However, staff relayed to me that they and the consultants hired to do the public outreach concluded this was not a good idea based on where things already stood.
Also, public discussion has not been allowed at the public workshops, and, when vocal attendees have raised the issue of the interim striping plan (road diet), they have been quickly silenced. Despite the fact that there was a scheduled hearing before the Traffic Safety Commission (TSC) on the interim striping plan at the time of the first workshop, City staff did not inform the attendees until interrupted with that information by a member of the TSC who was later admonished. City staff justify this by claiming that discussions about the short-term elimination of travel lanes would “interfere with the development of a long-term traffic calming vision”.
In addition to avoiding the controversial area of the road diet, the survey also failed to ask for opinions on the possible negative impacts of traffic calming, such as inconvenience, congestion, longer commute times, cost, etc. Nor did the survey even ask for opinions on the more aggressive, but preferred, traffic calming measures, such as roundabouts, bulb-outs, etc. Some parts of the survey were also ambiguous such that respondents may not have known how to answer, or their answers may have been uninterpretable. For example, people were asked to express their level of concern (not, minor, somewhat, or very) about such things as traffic speed, parking, and pedestrian/bicyclist safety. Does being "very concerned" about speed in relation to traffic calming mean that the respondent is concerned that speeds are currently too high, or that speeds might get too low after traffic calming? Does being concerned about parking mean that the respondent is concerned that parking should be retained or that parking should be eliminated. And, would anybody say that they are "not concerned" about the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists?
Interestingly, at the May 2, 2011 Traffic Safety Commission meeting, City staff interpreted high percentages of concern about pedestrian and bicycling safety (49%-57%) in support of a desire for a road diet and traffic calming. However, they dismissed low levels of concern about on-street parking (8%-10%) as not being relevant, as that would argue against traffic calming.
Finally, the survey was only sent to residents in neighborhoods directly adjacent to La Costa Avenue, not those who live in other neighborhoods but use La Costa Avenue to commute. City staff claimed that they would represent these other people be proxy. However, I have seen little evidence of that.
In the accident lawsuit that is creating the immediate liability concern and prompting the interim partial road diet (elimination of a westbound travel lane), the plaintiffs contended that there should be 440 feet of "sight distance," that parking should be prohibited, and that the left turn lane should be converted into a median to prevent dangerous left turns. However, the City's plan does not meet the sight distance requirement at the accident site, and it does not restrict parking or left turns.
The 12/31/2008 accident involved a westbound motorcycle striking the driver's side of a large sport utility vehicle that was attempting to make a left turn out of a residential driveway (front first) in an area of La Costa Avenue with a particularly severe blind curve.
After extensively reviewing court papers, my interpretation is that the plaintiffs’ experts alleged that a “dangerous condition” exists on La Costa Avenue based primarily on inadequate sight distance (the length of road necessary for a driver to stop when an obstacle is first viewed). More specifically, the curves and grade changes on the road reduce the visibility between vehicles on the road and those entering or exiting driveways or intersections, such that there is not enough stopping distance to avoid a collision, given the average speeds.
There are two methods to improve the sight distance:
The partial road diet converts the 11-foot wide outside westbound travel lane into a bike lane. This provides 11 extra feet (without view obstruction) for cars to pull out of the driveways on the north side of the street before they enter a travel lane. However, it leaves the parking and center left turn lanes as-is:
Ironically, this elimination of the westbound travel lane, as proposed by City staff to the Traffic Safety Commission (TSC) on 6/6/2011, does not address the main allegations in the liability lawsuit, even though that is the main reason to implement the plan. The plan does not eliminate the parking lane or the center turn lane to eliminate dangerous left turns. And, while City staff claimed that only 360-365 feet of sight distance would be adequate (as opposed to the 440 feet claimed by the plaintiffs), their plan only achieves 188-240 feet of sight distance at the accident site with a car parked in the parking lane. For example, see the following slide presented to the TSC showing the inadequate 240-foot sight distance:
It is also important to point out that, in the City's response to the lawsuit, they had an expert accident reconstructionist who claimed that the evidence suggested that driver error was responsible for the accident, as opposed to a dangerous condition. The City was sufficiently concerned about the case against them, so they settled the lawsuit for $2.9 million (the City paid $500,000, and the City's insurance carrier paid the remainder), but it is unknown what would have happened had the case gone to trial.
Alternative plans could address issues as well or better than City plan without elimination of travel lanes
Here are two alternatives to the road diet plans that achieve similar performance without eliminating travel lanes. They could allow retaining the current traffic capacity without significant roadway changes, causing less congestion and eliminating queuing of cars at restriction points:
At the 2/8/2011 City Council meeting, City staff proposed restricting left turns by converting the center turn lane to a painted median and restricting on-street parking (see the figure on the left, above). I think these measures, which were universally supported by the La Costa Avenue Safety Group members who attended the meeting, would greatly reduce the likelihood of another incident like the motorcycle accident by increasing visibility due to the lack of parked cars, as well as prevent dangerous left turns. It would create an additional 9 feet of unobstructed view for driveway users (not significantly different than the 11 feet of the City's partial road diet plan). The Council authorized staff to draw up plans for the painted median but requested that they gather more information prior to elimination of parking. Instead, staff simply replaced this plan with a road diet at the 3/22/2011 City Council meeting.
Another alternative (see figure on right, above) is a modification to the painted median plan in which the median is narrowed to about three feet adjacent to the two eastbound traffic lanes. Those lanes would essentially remain as they are, and the two westbound traffic lanes would shift toward them with the narrowed painted median between them. Similar to the painted full-width median alternative, it would create an additional 9 feet of unobstructed view. However, it has the advantage of creating a contiguous bike lane. More importantly, the unobstructed view can be increased to up to 17 feet by restricting parking in areas with poor sight distances (e.g., curves and steep grades), while allowing parking in areas of sufficient sight distance.
It has been acknowledged by City staff that the road diet will do little to decrease speeds, and it still allows the arguably dangerous left turns that seem to be at the root of many of the accidents, including the motorcycle incident. In contrast, the shifted narrowed median approach would introduce a traffic calming (speed reducing) effect due to lane shifting at intersections where turn lanes would be striped. Also, mid-block left turns would be prohibited, and, unlike the full-width painted median plan, violations would be less likely with the narrowed median.
The main disadvantage of the painted median approaches is that U-turns would be required at the next intersection when residents want to access their driveways while going eastbound. However, the U-turn inconvenience should be tolerable given the improved safety for the same residents, and it should be weighed against the potential adverse effects of a full road diet on the ~18,000+ average daily trips by other drivers.
The City has made the following arguments against this alternative:
the City Council authorized $100,000 in gas tax funds to be used to determine the feasibility of a road diet. The consulting firm KOA Corporation submitted a Phase I study report to the City dated September 2008. It concluded: “…[I]t is not recommended to implement a road diet for [La Costa Avenue]."
The Circulation Element of Carlsbad’s General Plan defines La Costa Avenue as a “Secondary Arterial,” and it defines secondary arterials as having “two traffic lanes in each direction with a painted median” intended to handle a traffic volume of “10,000 to 20,000 daily trips.”
Growth Management Program sets a minimum of grade “C” during off-peak hours and grade “D” during peak hours. The KOA Phase I report showed that, using San Diego Trafﬁc Engineers' Council/Institute of Transportation Engineers (SANTEC/ITE) method on mid-block road segments, the entire western portion with residential driveways (from Romeria west) is projected to degrade from “C” to “F” with the road diet, and the entire length of the road diet will degrade to “F” in the future with La Costa Town Square and other development. KOA’s Phase I report also uses other traffic projection methods, including the Florida method for road segments and the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) method on intersections. These methods projected somewhat lower negative impacts, but they still indicated failure of individual road segments and intersections. Thus, KOA concluded that the road diet is not recommended due to the projected congestion.
In a June 2008 version of their $100,000 traffic calming study, KOA focused on the poorly characterized trip time simulation method, which produced the lowest predicted congestion, concluding "...[I]t is recommended that a road diet concept be implemented along La Costa Avenue..." Former City staff were apparently dissatisfied with this recommendation, so they exerted influence over KOA to change it. Despite the fact that the September 2008 version of KOA's study contained only minimal changes to the overall analysis, KOA re-focused on the several other methods that predicted unacceptable congestion, concluding: “…[I]t is not recommended to implement a road diet for [La Costa Avenue]."
One area of great concern is the "Carlsbad method" for road segment analysis. The SANTEC/ITE, Florida, and HCM methods used by KOA have undergone years of development and validation. The estimated LOS "E" capacity under these methods for a road with the characteristics of La Costa Avenue ranges from about 750 to 840 vehicles per lane per hour (vplph) in the peak (rush) hour. In contrast, the Carlsbad method assumes 1,800 vplph--more than twice that of the validated methods. And, while the validated methods logically assign different capacities based on road geometry, signal spacing, the presence or absence of driveways, parking, and pedestrian traffic, etc., the Carlsbad method uses its 1,800 vplph capacity for every traffic lane in Carlsbad.
The LOS's projected for some of the road segments in the partial road diet area on La Costa Avenue go from "A" using the Carlsbad method, to "E" or "F" using the validated methods (see table below). In fact, using the Carlsbad method, it is unlikely that any road could ever reach failure (grade "E" or "F") under real-world circumstances no matter the actual congestion level. When I have inquired of City staff, the only "validation" I have received from them is that the method has been used for many years as part of Carlsbad's Traffic Monitoring Program, and that a lot of official decisions have been made in Carlsbad based upon it. I know the La Costa Town Square traffic impact study used the "Carlsbad method" as one of its traffic congestion projection measures. I would suggest that those decisions were based, at least in part, on misleading information, and that it is not a justification to continue using the method, including for the La Costa Avenue traffic calming projects. For additional details on the Carlsbad method, see below.
Another area of great concern is the staff report that was presented to the City Council to support the recommendations for a road diet and the KOA contract extension. In response to an inquiry from a Council member on how the previous $100,000 had been spent, staff claimed that $75,000 had been used for the original study, but that the last $25,000 had been spent more recently for KOA to "...[re-evaluate] the ability to implement a road diet based on what other agencies have been able to accomplish, not the current Carlsbad standards," because KOA had been directed by Carlsbad staff to "limit the assumptions." The report further stated that staff "...has concluded that La Costa Avenue can be reduced to one lane in each direction of travel without resulting in traffic being diverted to adjacent residential streets."
Again, the willingness to reverse a recommendation to get a desired result based upon a manipulation of the assumptions is a bit disturbing. More importantly, the staff report is inconsistent with the fact that there had only been a quick re-evaluation by staff, and that only existing and Carlsbad methods had been considered. Staff now claims that the $25,000 was carried over for KOA, in addition to the $112,000, for the expanded project, even though there is no mention of the $25,000 in the Council's resolution to continue the KOA contract with the new funding. This all seems a bit misleading.
To achieve the theoretical 1,800 vplph capacity used in the "Carlsbad method," one car would have to cross the measurement point every two seconds for the entire hour, which means the number actually represents virtual "saturation" of the road. That theoretical situation cannot be achieved in real life due to the fact that actual roads have cars turning in and out of intersections, driveways, and parking, as well as pedestrians, etc. that create congestion. Thus, using the 1,800 vplph capacity, it is likely not possible for any roadway segment to ever get an "F", or probably even an "E" in real life, guaranteeing a good grade regardless of the actual congestion level.
Interestingly, the Carlsbad road segment method has been used since 1989 as part of
Carlsbad's Traffic Monitoring Program, and many important decisions
apparently have been made based, at least in part, on the approach,
including La Costa Town Square. So, it comes as no surprise that the City can claim LOS "A" for
almost every road in town as part of that program, no matter how much
congestion there is (e.g., see the 2010 report HERE--in particular Table 2-1). The bar is so low, it is practically lying on the ground.
City staff has discussed modifying the City's General Plan to account for their changes to La Costa Avenue, such as lowering the street classification/definitions and/or modifying minimum service standards. This seems a bit hypocritical in the context of the the La Costa Town Square project, though. There is a group of people who live in the vicinity of the proposed project and are opposed to it. They formed an organization called North County Advocates, and they have filed a lawsuit against the City. The City has justified the approval of that project by citing the fact that a similar project had been in a Master Plan since 1972, and that everybody who moved into houses in the vicinity since that time should have expected it. They have also claimed that City officials have to look beyond the narrow interests of residents in the direct vicinity of the project and, instead, account for the interests of all residents/taxpayers in the City.
In a similar vein, La Costa Avenue has been an arterial route for decades, and it has been listed in the General Plan as such. Therefore, anybody who moved to the area should have been aware of this status. And many who do not live directly on the road likely chose to live there, in part, because La Costa Avenue provides rapid access to I-5-, El Camino Real, and Rancho Santa Fe Road, as expected from its classification in the General Plan. In the case of proposed changes to major roadways, I think it is the duty of City officials to widen their view to other city residents who might be affected.
La Costa Town Square and several other residential developments, such as La Costa Oaks, La Costa Valley, San Elijo Hills, and yet another multi-unit complex currently under construction on the south side of La Costa Avenue are located in areas that make the road a main route to access El Camino Real and I-5 from the east. Ironically, approval of the La Costa Town Square project relied, in part, on a traffic impact study conducted as part of a CEQA environmental review, in which it was assumed that La Costa Avenue would have its current number of travel lanes. In addition, this traffic impact analysis used the "Carlsbad method" for mid-block congestion projection, which I view as unvalidated (see above).
The western segment in question currently has a volume of approximately 18,000 daily trips, and La Costa Town Square is expected to increase that by more the 2,500, creating traffic volumes over 20,500 (not to mention other potential development). Meanwhile, the road diet would effectively require a change in the General Plan classification of La Costa Avenue from a Secondary Arterial (10,000-20,000 daily trips) to a lower volume classification.
Residential Traffic Management Program (TMP) that contains policies and procedures to conduct the types of “traffic calming” changes being proposed. However, La Costa Avenue (LCA) is not eligible, because it is a secondary arterial roadway meant to carry high volumes of traffic--not a residential street. The TMP requires that the street has a posted speed limit of 30 MPH or less (LCA is 45 MPH), an 85th percentile speed greater than 5 MPH over the posted speed limit (LCA's does not exceed the posted speed limit), no more than two travel lanes (LCA has four), and a curb-to-curb width of 40 feet or less (LCA is 64 feet).
Even proponents acknowledge that traffic volumes at La Costa Avenue's magnitude push the limits of road diets.
There is a fair amount of literature describing "road diets" where four traffic lanes are reduced to two traffic lanes plus a shared center left-turn lane. Assuming this literature is accurate, it seems that roadways that carry 16,000 or less average daily trips typically have no problems after a road diet. However, the evidence seems a bit less clear for roadways that carry 16,000 to 20,000 average daily trips, and even proponents acknowledge that 25,000 is pushing the absolute limit. I think this raises questions about La Costa Avenue given the current and projected volumes, and I think there is a large reliance on people becoming frustrated with congestion and changing their commuting times of day and/or switching to alternate routes like Calle Barcelona or Olivenhain Road/Leucadia Boulevard.
Even if it was deemed acceptable to make an exception for La Costa Avenue to be eligible for traffic calming, the TMP has a very specific sequence of events that is not being followed. This includes a requirement that a petition requesting traffic calming be signed by 50%+1 of the residents in the project area of influence, and that 67% of survey respondents approve the project both at the "conceptual plan" stage prior to a trial period, as well as after the trial period. The TMP also has an investigative phase, which includes traffic volume counts, parking assessment, collision analysis, and speed surveys, among other items. Ironically, a highly mutated and abbreviated version of this procedure is planned (and now underway) for the La Costa Avenue traffic calming project with the likely excuse that it would be unwieldy due to the size of the project area of influence.
It should be noted that the TMP requires a posted speed limit of 30 MPH or less (LCA is 45 MPH), an 85th percentile speed greater than 5 MPH over the posted speed limit (LCA's does not exceed the posted speed limit), no more than two travel lanes (LCA has four), and a curb-to-curb width of 40 feet or less (LCA is 64 feet). Thus, it could be argued that La Costa Avenue should not even be considered for a road diet or other traffic calming under the City’s current policies, as it is a secondary arterial roadway meant to carry high volumes of traffic--not a residential street. Notwithstanding that, certain procedures should be followed.
The TMP has an investigative phase, which includes traffic volume counts, parking assessment, collision analysis, and speed surveys, among other items. Here are some metrics that should be used for La Costa Avenue:
The above metrics should be measured under the following conditions:
Time limit and performance goals
The TMP defines a specific timeframe of 3-6 months to test “temporary measures,” and it includes public feedback on the changes. Public input should be solicited on satisfaction with the road diet, for example, through a public survey advertised in the standard La Costa Avenue public outreach communications and/or the City newsletter. In addition, a public meeting should be held. If pre-defined performance goals are not met, or the public is not satisfied, another striping change should automatically be triggered at the end of the test period (e.g., 6 months).
Regardless of the requirements, conducting a thorough impact study is the right thing to do. Beyond that, my interpretation of statutory and case law related to CEQA suggests that a lane elimination plan is a non-exempt project requiring a minimum of an "Initial Study" under CEQA to determine whether the project has a "possible significant effect" on traffic and air quality. The 2008 traffic calming study, which projects congestion levels that are inconsistent with the City's Growth Management Program, suggests that there is at least a possible significant effect on congestion. This may trigger the need for a more extensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to satisfy CEQA requirements, including a thorough traffic impact study. There could also be significant impacts on air quality, as carbon monoxide levels could rise, even with average intersection delays of just 10 to 30 seconds per vehicle. This is further bolstered by the requirement that the City's actions remain consistent with the General Plan and Growth Management Program, as described above. It is certainly possible, if not probable, that the City will use "creative" methods to circumvent these rules, but that could be challenged, depending on the circumstances.
An existing expert opinion recommending against the road diet makes it an even better candidate for an EIR
Probable future traffic calming projects that will be contingent upon, and likely directly follow, the road diet further bolster the case for an EIR
A portion of Vista Way in Oceanside is a western extension of CA-78 after it terminates at I-5. Although the street is classified as a secondary arterial that could handle 25,000 average daily trips, it is lined with homes with driveways. Around 19,000 vehicles use the street between Pacific Coast Highway and the I-5/CA-78 intersection. Based on safety complaints from residents regarding speeds and difficulty in accessing the road from their driveways, Oceanside implemented a road diet (four to two travel lanes), and they installed additional traffic signs and electronic speed indicators, as well as additional traffic-calming devices. This situation shares several characteristics with La Costa Avenue.
A few years after implementation of the road diet, the residents now say that the measures have helped slow the traffic, but not the volume. Perceived volumes have continued to increase, leading to long lines at traffic lights, increased noise, and more difficulties with driveway access. The residents are now suggesting that a cul-de-sac be installed near the I-5/CA-78 intersection to redirect traffic to neighboring streets in order to stop their street from being used for freeway access. The City is going to explore other traffic calming measures.
The re-striping plan, in its last reported form, is being called temporary ("interim"). It would convert the outside westbound travel lane into a bike lane between approximately Romeria Street and Fairway Lane (partial road diet). Black paint would be used to cover up some of the current lines, and new lines will be painted over. Most other aspects of the road will remain the same, including the shared center left-turn lane. Some right-hand turn lanes may be created in the new bike lanes at intersections, as well. The following figure shows a full road diet, where the outermost lanes on both the westbound and eastbound sides have been converted to bike lanes.
City of Carlsbad's "La Costa Avenue Improvement Plan" site
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