Making Clairemont More Livable: Fixing the Deadly Freeway Merges onto Surface Streets

In light of last Thursday’s deadly collision, we wanted to highlight an effort we initiated last year with Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s office. We initiated this discussion because of another deadly collision that killed David Ortiz on Balboa Avenue. In the nearly 9 months since Ortiz’s death, the City of San Diego has undertaken no effort to redesign the deadly intersections that litter Balboa Avenue.

Michael Sullivan,a resident of Clairemont, was identified as a resident who was willing to take an initiative to drive this discussion. The following writeup is by Sullivan.


Meeting with Lorie Zapf Staff re: Balboa and 805 interchange.

About a month ago, I was thrilled to get invited by Sam Ollinger to attend a meeting with representatives (Alex Bell and Kelly Batten) from Lorie Zapf’s staff. The purpose of the meeting was to voice concern about bike safety on Balboa Ave at the interchange with interstate 805. This is the overpass where David Ortiz was tragically killed while riding his bike to work. Since his death, the city has not made a single improvement to make the interchange safer for bikes.

I was invited to the meeting because I am a resident of Clairemont (part of Lorie Zapf’s district) who commutes to work by bicycle. I have ridden this stretch of Balboa several times and have a good understanding of the danger areas. I do not typically ride on Balboa though because of safety concerns. I prefer to ride several miles out of my way and up a steeper hill to avoid the dangerous high-speed merge areas on Balboa.

Before the meeting, I prepared a presentation about a possible solution for the Balboa / 805 interchange. I also prepared infrastructure improvement suggestions for all of Balboa from the 5 to the 805. Sam had also prepared a solution for the Balboa / 805 interchange and we presented them to Lorie’s staff. They were attentive and engaged and relayed that Lorie herself has expressed desire to improve bike-ability in Clairemont. We talked about how riding can be quite pleasant in the neighborhoods but that once you have to travel to any point outside of your neighborhood, bicycling becomes anything but a pleasant ride.

Sam presented a traffic calming solution that is being implemented at interchange areas in bike friendlier cities throughout the country. It removes the curved right turn on-ramps and off-ramps and replaces them with 90 degree turns. “90 degree-ing” the intersections forces traffic to slow down which greatly improves safety in the dangerous merge areas (see before and after images of the deadly intersection in Montreal that was redesigned). Implementation projects included a redesign from the City of Charlotte where the excess land after a redesign of some of the interchanges to be more urban in configuration was freed up for development.


I presented a cycletrack solution that eliminates the dangerous merge areas altogether. My idea is to use the wide elevated median on the overpass and use it as a space for a cycletrack. This solution, while unproven, completely removes bicycles from the dangerous (some may say suicidal) merge areas. It is also something that could be quickly implemented throughout San Diego since almost all of these style overpass areas have huge elevated medians.  It would also require minimal construction. The city would only need to add ADA style ramps at the beginning and end of the medians and also add bike signals to the intersections that are on either side of the interchanges. The signals would allow bikes to safely enter and exit the median cycletracks.

One idea out of many presented as a way to redesign deadly intersections on Balboa Avenue. Concept by Michael Sullivan.
One idea out of many presented as a way to redesign deadly intersections on Balboa Avenue. Concept by Michael Sullivan.

Lorie’s staff was very concerned about the safety of riding on the median right next to the high speed left traffic lanes. In my opinion, while bicyclists would be close to traffic, they would at least be separated from it by an elevated platform. That is far safer then the current situation where bicyclists are directly in the path of those high speed 2 ton cars. Making it even worse are the double on ramp lanes where bicyclists need to guess whether or not cars in the middle traffic lanes are going to be driving into the second HOV onramp lane.

I then went on to voice concern about what I call, the “race course” sections of Balboa. These are the up and down sections that cut through the canyons that feel like you are on a freeway. While they do have nice wide bike lanes, there is only a strip of paint that separates auto traffic that can be travelling 30-60 mph faster then bike traffic. I think this would be an ideal place to install inexpensive plastic pylons to give a bit of a buffer and make sure that cars do not drive in the bike lanes. Lorie’s staff was definitely receptive to this idea. I think it was the “inexpensive” bit that made them receptive.

Concept by Michael Sullivan

I also presented an idea for using green paint in the many intersections on Balboa. The green paint would define a clear route that bicyclists would take through intersections. This could improve safety by showing bicyclists where to ride and by showing drivers where to expect bicyclists. This solution seemed to get the best reaction from Lorie’s staff. They loved the idea of making improvements with just simple paint. It is the cheapest and easiest form of improvement. Unfortunately for us bicyclists, it is the least effective solution.

When I walked out of the meeting, I thought to myself, I don’t think that accomplished anything. I mean they listened to us, but that is about all that I felt we accomplished. But I was very pleased to see an email stating that our suggestions were immediately forwarded to the traffic engineers. I hope that suggestions coming from a council member’s office will carry a little bit more weight…

Finally, the other thing I felt was that if I ever get to speak at this type of meeting again, I will not focus on traffic engineering ideas, but rather on my personal story and why I want/need safer infrastructure. These people are not traffic engineers, they are our representatives. I think concentrating on talking about why I want safe infrastructure would do more to help get them advocating for us. They need to know that I want safe infrastructure so that I can get home safely every day because my wife and kids depend on me. They need to know that I want safe infrastructure because I want my wife to be able to make it home safely every day and right now she doesn’t feel safe sharing high speed roads at the slower speeds that she rides. They need to know that when my kids start going to school, they will be riding their bikes to school and they need safe routes.