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Any San Diegan knows Mission Valley at rush hour is a gridlocked mess.
At the intersection of Friars Road and Frazee Road, eight lanes of cars wait at red lights, backed up hundreds of feet waiting to get on the freeway.
Bicyclists make the choice to either merge into the gridlock or hop onto a sidewalk as the bike lane disappears and cars zip from SR-163 onto local streets. The few pedestrians who cross the street must scamper to make it to the other side before the light turns red.
For decades, Mission Valley infrastructure has mainly been developed to keep traffic moving. This has meant one thing: roads, roads and more roads.
As Mission Valley becomes synonymous with massive residential development and people begin to call it home, it faces a crossroads: Will it become a livable neighborhood and another piece to San Diego’s City of Villages puzzle, or will it continue to be a throughway between the sprawled-out areas in San Diego?
Right now, it is firmly planted in the latter.
With a huge influx of residential development coming in the near future, Mission Valley is going road-crazy.
Like many other neighborhoods in San Diego, Mission Valley has a wish-list for community projects that need funding.
The plan details over 30 of the community planning group’s top-priority transportation projects for the area. All but one of the projects improves roadway conditions for cars. Projects range from restriping areas of Hotel Circle, creating new lanes on Friars Road and creating entirely new stretches of road on Camino de la Reina.
The one project that didn’t involve cars: a proposed pedestrian crossing that would go over the traffic-frenzied, eight-lane Friars Road at the intersection of Frazee Road.
But that had to be deleted from the plans. It conflicted with a project to improve the vehicle intersection of the 163 and Friars Road.
This presents a problem. Research now shows that building new roads isn’t the answer to traffic – in fact, it’s the cause of increased traffic.
Expanding the capacity of roadways leads to something called “induced demand.” That means it isn’t demand that ends up driving the supply, but the supply that ends up bringing more demand for the roadways.
So more lanes on a road actually incentivizes more people to drive down that road, and it ends up having the same or worse traffic after improvements. Compounding the problem: building and widening roads also discourages bikers and pedestrians from using the roads and makes it difficult to implement good transit systems.
For Mission Valley, the logic of extending roads comes from the huge influx in residential development that’s happened for the past several decades. There’s the Civita development of over 5,000 new homes on the northern side of Friars Road. There’s Doug Manchester’s planned development of 200 more apartments at the U-T headquarters. And there’s a long-idling plan to redevelop the Riverwalk Golf Course into 4,000 homes.
The idea is that the throng of new residents in Mission Valley will bring more demand for road use, which means that the city needs to increase the supply of roads in order to match the demand. But if the research holds true, that means more roads in Mission Valley will just mean more traffic in Mission Valley.
Level of Service
In San Diego and in cities across the country, traffic engineers in the 1960s began using a concept known as “level of service” to measure roadway success and to decide when to improve streets.
It’s a standard operating procedure among traffic engineers and planners that gives a report card-style letter grade to a section of road based on how long cars are delayed due to congestion. Typically, if cars are waiting anywhere above a minute to get through a red light or a section of highway, then that road needs improvements.
It was a concept that led to bigger and bigger streets and helped to shape the interstate system.
But as cities grow, and more people move in, level of service on streets tends to keep getting worse unless planners add lanes of traffic to the streets.
There’s a domino effect at work here: The more lanes of road, the harder it is to put in bike lanes. The more lanes of road, the faster cars can drive down city roads, which makes the roads more dangerous for pedestrians. And the faster cars can go, the farther people can drive to get to work, which creates more sprawl.
Further complicating things, the concept of level of service is couched within California’s Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the state’s landmark environmental law. Among other things, the law can hold developers liable if a project increases traffic on a certain road.
If a developer or community planner doesn’t want to be sued for increasing traffic, the easiest thing to do is build more lanes.
But Joe LaCava, chair of San Diego’s Community Planners Committee, said that won’t help.
“You can’t physically do anything about the traffic anymore,” LaCava said. “The road system is the road system.”
A Mindset Shift
Mission Valley is at the middle of a major culture shift, said Brian Schoenfisch, a senior planner for the city.
It’s a change in mindset happening in neighborhoods, cities, the county and the state all at once.
In the next three years, Mission Valley planners and engineers will be drafting the first major update to its 1985 community plan. Schoenfisch said he expects public transportation, parks and alternative forms of transportation will be vital pieces of the plan.
He also expects full implementation of the San Diego River Park Master Plan, a project to create a continuous, 17-mile-long park along the banks of the San Diego River. The park would include pedestrian and bike paths from Ocean Beach through Mission Valley and up to Santee.
Schoenfisch’s vision falls under the city’s established plan for how it should grow and absorb more residents, called its general plan. The general plan envisions San Diego as a “city of villages” that emphasizes dense housing near transit centers, with walkable streets and stores nearby. It’s a concept that goes against the roads-first mindset.
Changes to state law could also facilitate that shift.
This year, lawmakers passed a bill that will change the way CEQA measures environmental impacts on traffic, shying away from the level of service metric. Under the new bill, the Office of Planning and Research is drafting revisions to CEQA which will not allow developers to use “traffic congestion” as a basis for an environmental impact.
State officials will likely swap in a new measure called “vehicle miles traveled.” This looks at how many extra miles cars will drive as a result of the road changes, instead of congestion. It gives points to public transit, biking and walking, and it eschews more cars on the road.
Kip Lipper, a state staffer who helped draft the new legislation, said the switch is going to have a profound impact on development and traffic in California.
“This change gets away from the giant thoroughfares that you see all over Southern California,” Lipper said.
LaCava also said that the change will give planners in neighborhoods like Mission Valley more leeway to implement crosswalks, bike lanes and bus lanes.
Too Far Gone?
The concept of building out roads through Mission Valley worked when it was just a waypoint to get from outlying neighborhoods to the center of San Diego, or to get to the beach from the east.
But now, Mission Valley is quickly becoming a bustling neighborhood in itself.
Mission Valley is in a tough spot geographically though, Schoenfisch said, because it serves a dual role: It’s both a neighborhood with a rapidly booming residential sector, and the geographic center of the city that serves as a vital connection to other areas.
“It’s a big challenge because many of the major freeways that are in the San Diego region cross through Mission Valley … but at the same time, it has that neighborhood component. This is where people live, this is where people shop and this is where people work,” Schoenfisch said.
But if history is any example, residents have reason to be skeptical. The valley has been noted for its haphazard planning, with the community not adopting a development blueprint until 1985 despite big hotel developments there since the 1950s. It doesn’t have any schools, was slow to bring in a library, and doesn’t have any big parks.
And, despite all of the big ideas, the roads keep getting built.