Road to Gridlock : Options Limited in Downtown Traffic Crunch

Times Staff Writer

The epitome of traffic congestion problems for any metropolitan area is its downtown, and San Diego’s center city is no different.

And like they say, if you think it’s bad now . . .

Perhaps one statistic more than any other tells the prospect of worsening traffic congestion in the downtown area: Today, about 275,000 people drive their cars into the center city; by the year 2005, according to projections, 500,000 cars will be coming into the downtown area daily.

That’s nearly a doubling of the number of cars downtown, and San Diego city planners and traffic engineers along with private consultants are hustling for ways to prepare for the automotive onslaught.


While nobody’s talking of proposed solutions to the congestion--simply because the problem can’t be solved--planners are looking at ways to help downtown and motorists better tolerate one another.

The proposals aren’t panaceas, nor are they taken from the pages of some futurist’s handbook. But they are practical and probably affordable and will help congestion to some degree:

- Extending the trolley lines with separate routes from downtown to the convention center, Old Town, Lindbergh Field, up the coast to Sorrento Valley and beyond, and east through Mission Valley.

- Eliminating street parking on one or both sides of downtown streets, effectively increasing the number of lanes by one or two, and thereby increasing the amount of traffic a street can handle by 33% to 50% or even more.


- Encouraging ride sharing, van pooling and the like, perhaps with corporate-sponsored incentives for their employees--and perhaps coupled with priority parking for high-occupancy vehicles.

- Widening existing freeway ramps, and the construction of two major new freeway off-ramps so that traffic can feed into downtown from more than just the three or four most popular points, effectively dispersing that traffic throughout the downtown area.

- Reducing the number of employees driving to downtown core parking lots and structures by constructing “downtown fringe” parking structures with cheaper monthly rates closer to Interstate 5 or east of 12th Avenue, and then the use of a downtown shuttle service to get workers to their final destinations.

- Introducing reversible lanes on Pacific Highway, Harbor Drive and other major thoroughfares, where rush-hour traffic warrants a predominant direction of flow.

- Improving bus service, to make it more accessible and attractive to downtown workers, including the designation of “major bus streets” with bus lanes and wider pedestrian walkways, where automotive traffic would be kept to a minimum.

About 25,000 people enter and leave the center city on an average weekday by public transit. In 20 years, that number will grow to almost 100,000, according to the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag), the regional transportation planner. The actual percentage of people using transit to get to and from downtown will increase from 7% today to 12% by the year 2005, according to projections by Sandag.

Likewise, the percentage of downtown workers and visitors who drive their own cars downtown will decrease from 68% today to 63% in the year 2005--although, of course, the raw number of drivers will will be nearly double today’s level.

Both now and in the year 2005, about 25% of all downtown workers and visitors will get there by being a passenger in someone else’s car, according to forecasts.


Currently some of the worst downtown traffic congestion at peak commute hours is on those streets that connect to Interstate 5. Currently, there are 23 ramps connecting downtown surface streets with Interstate 5, California 94 and California 163, although 70% of all traffic coming into and leaving downtown does so on just 10 ramps--including F and G streets for California 94, 10th and 11th avenues for California 163 and, on Interstate 5, the Front Street-2nd Avenue off-ramp and the 1st Avenue and 5th Avenue on-ramps, based on Caltrans figures.

Though they are not considered part of the downtown core traffic pattern, the Grape Street on-ramp onto southbound Interstate 5 and the Hawthorne Street off-ramp from northbound Interstate 5 are the two busiest freeway ramps in the general downtown area, according to Caltrans.

The single busiest off-ramp into the downtown core area is the Front Street-2nd Avenue ramp, with southbound California 163-10th Avenue and California 94-F Street close behind.

The single busiest on-ramp out of downtown is where three-lane G Street turns into eastbound California 94.

Howard Smith, director of transportation planning for PRC Engineering, which last year prepared an exhaustive report on downtown traffic and transportation issues for the city, argues that there would be less congestion in and around those busiest ramps if two additional ramps were built: a Pacific Highway ramp from Interstate 5, near Interstate 8 for southbound morning commuters (and a partner northbound on-ramp for the afternoon), and new ramps at Interstate 5 near National Avenue and 28th Street, giving access to South Harbor Drive for South Bay commuters.

Both Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive are not used to capacity and motorists should be encouraged to use those streets, he says.

The most congested downtown core street is Broadway between 1st and 4th avenues, which carries more than 25,000 cars and buses on an average weekday. Not only does Broadway have the most vehicles on it, but it is least able of the downtown streets to handle the traffic because it is two-way and is muddled with buses and pedestrians.

There’s not much anyone can do about that, said John Tsiknas, a traffic engineer for the city who watches over a multimillion-dollar computer, nicknamed Elmer, that controls the 150 downtown signal lights to keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible.


“You just can’t move traffic on a two-way street,” Tsiknas said, “because there’s no way to devise a (traffic signal) scheme to move traffic more than three or four blocks at a time, at best.”

One-way traffic allows signals to be synchronized so that, at off-peak hours, a motorist can get across downtown without once stopping for a red light, Tsiknas notes. And even at rush hour, a motorist traveling east on A Street from Front to 12th Avenue, for instance, should be able to make the run with only two red lights, he said.

Two-way streets like Broadway are, however, a different matter.

“If you synchronize the signals for eastbound traffic, then you’ve got just the reverse for westbound. So you use simultaneous strategy--you turn all the lights green and let them go like hell until they stop at the first red,” Tsiknas said.

There is not much likelihood that Broadway will ever become a one-way street because one-way streets run in pairs and parallel streets to Broadway downtown are interrupted by Horton Plaza, the civic center and the trolley.

So, Tsiknas said, motorists will have to grin and bear Broadway.

“We’re at about the state of the art in downtown traffic signalization,” Tsiknas said. “We’ve got the latest microprocessors on our street corners and there’s not much more we can do. In fact, San Diego is on the leading edge when it comes to downtown traffic control.”

Tsiknas and others say that motorists will be diverted from driving downtown not because of congested streets but because, once they get to their destination, there is no place to park--because the lots are either filled or too expensive.

Currently, downtown has a slight surplus of parking spaces and the monthly rates generally are lower than those in other major cities, said Allen Holden Jr., the city’s deputy director for transportation and traffic engineering.

PRC’s Smith said downtown workers have been spoiled by parking in the same buildings where they work, and may need financial incentives--such as substantially reduced monthly rates--to encourage them to park in “fringe” parking structures from where they would be shuttled the final few blocks to work.

The same philosophy, he notes, is used by metropolitan airports, which offer long-term--and cheaper--parking at more distant lots from the terminals.

“But the big problem with downtown traffic will still be in just getting downtown in the first place,” Smith said. “The problem is a regional one. Once people get downtown, they’ll deal with the traffic that’s here.”

One reason downtown motorists may cope well with the congestion is that, in many cases, the freeway is only a few blocks away from the workplace, Holden said.

“Congestion is generally confined to the streets that access the freeway system, and to those streets within three to six blocks of the freeway--and then, it’s for a short duration of a half-hour or so,” he said. Except for Broadway, “we don’t tend to have congestion all through downtown.”

“What we have is a natural consequence of an intensely developed center city area, and it’s to be expected,” Holden said. “To be honest, when you compare downtown San Diego to other downtowns, we have to admit there is probably less congestion and fewer problems here.”

PROBLEM INTERSECTIONS California 78 at El Camino Real in Oceanside:

While 78 is expected to be widened from four to six lanes, planners want it to be eight lanes at this location because traffic here is expected to nearly double today’s levels by the year 2005.

I-5/I-805 interchange at Sorrento Valley

This is expected to be the busiest stretch of freeway in San Diego County in the year 2005--260,000 vehicles a day--because of the buildup of Sorrento Valley, North City West and the proposed construction of California 56 just north of this point. To deal with that, planners are calling for the widening of I-5 from eight lanes to 16--six of which would be physically separated from the mainstream lanes and be reserved for slower truck traffic and other vehicles headed to and from California 56.

Ardath Road at I-5

The City of San Diego has asked Caltrans to study what improvements can be made at this interchange. Still, no one yet predicts an offramp from southbound 5 into La Jolla because of the lay of the land.

Transition road, northbound I-5 to northbound

California 163:

Motorists today who try to take the transition from northbound I-5 to northbound 163 have to weave around motorists traveling from westbound 94 to northbound I-5. Caltrans hopes to clean this mess up by the year 2005 with a new transition road that, with separate bridges and ramps, will segregate the two transition roads.

California 94/125 Interchange in Spring Valley:

By 2005, California 94 will be carrying about 25% more traffic--but it is scheduled to be a full, eight-lane freeway by then. The California 125 link between it and I-8 will also be eight lanes, if Caltrans gets its way. Furthermore, 125 will continue south, along Sweetwater Road, as an eight-lane freeway from this point toward the Otay Mesa border crossing. With freeway status, traffic on 125 will increase from about the current 25,000 vehicles a day to about 100,000.

Coronado Bridge

Traffic across the bridge is expected to increase by about 20% by the year 2005 but don’t count on the bridge being widened by 20%. Caltrans and the City of Coronado think they can speed traffic by attaching electronic devices to vehicles so that, rather than stopping to pay the toll on each trip, the vehicle’s passage can be electronically recorded so the owner can be billed later. About 100 vehicles are equipped with the devices for testing, and they are about 95% accurate.


Nearly twice as many vehicles are expected to converge on downtown in the year 2005 as there are today; city traffic engineers are planning for the onslaught by considering several proposals, including new freeway ramps to serve the area, banning on-street parking to effectively widen the streets, improved trolley and bus service, and the construction of parking structures on the fringe of downtown, with downtown workers then using a shuttle to get the rest of the way to work.