It Works… But Does It Quirk?

By Gwyn Lurie   |   September 5, 2023
Shouldn’t roundabouts be round? (photo by Famartin via Wikimedia Commons)

Gwyn Lurie Reflects on What We’ve Gained and Lost with Our New Roundabouts

Let me start by saying I’m not anti-progress. But driving through Montecito’s recent road “improvements,” I have to admit to some feelings of nostalgia… and loss.

For those not aware of the origin of our new roundabouts bookending Coast Village Road, and at the bottom of San Ysidro, they are tied to the widening of our stretch of 101 freeway, and they’re supposed to make traffic flow better. Which may in fact be the case. Though that would certainly be truer if people knew the rules of a traffic circle (find instructions on the cover of this issue).

But the first time I drove through the Olive Mill roundabout, and now San Ysidro, I was struck by a couple of things – none of which, fortunately, was another vehicle.

Circular Reasoning

First of all, I don’t think I ever before experienced an oval roundabout. I’m sure it makes a special kind of sense to Caltrans, but when you enter a roundabout, I think most of us anticipate turning continuously in a circle, rather than turning, then straightening, then turning again, then straightening again. I think that’s why it’s called a traffic circle rather than a “traffic oval.” Or maybe I just need to drink more Ovaltine, or something stronger.  

Perhaps with the advent of driverless cars, we’ll only have a few more years of nimble human navigation needed, so let me move on to my larger issue – which is an aesthetic one. 

My Larger Issue… Is One of Largeness 

As we all know (unless you moved here yesterday), the intersection at Coast Village Road and Olive Mill used to be a warren of single country lanes that was charming though I suppose a bit confusing to the uninitiated. They also kinda worked. I don’t think there were any significant accidents at Olive Mill and Coast Village, nor at San Ysidro… but that didn’t stop Caltrans from fixing them. 

What we got in place of our bundle of single country lanes was a ton of civic infrastructure, more traffic islands than I can count (was there a “buy two, get two free” deal I missed?) and not just a widening of the 101 but a commensurate widening of some of our most charming streets. Now when one approaches Olive Mill from the 101 North, one’s view is of vehicles racing around the traffic circle, rather than a straight-ahead view of our charming shops, promenading pedestrians, and our inviting outdoor cafés and wine-tasting emporia. 

Getting Granular with the Greenery: MBAR Embarks to Make It Right 

I’m sure that MBAR, whom I trust and appreciate, did their best to infill the traffic oval with landscaping fitting for Montecito (olive trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation), but there’s so much traffic infrastructure at this point I feel like it overwhelms the existing landscape and saddens me that, for many, our first calming view of the Lower Village upon leaving the 101 is what I lovingly now refer to as the “Montecito 500.”

Shouldn’t roundabouts be round? (photo by Famartin via Wikimedia Commons)

It all got me to thinking how in Europe and even in parts of the U.S., traffic circles are more of a “thing” – either more significant or more designed. Many of the great European piazzas feature the greatest fountains and attractions ever known. But they were really just beautified traffic circles. I’m talking about Place de la Concorde, Piazza Esedra in Rome, etc. Now I’m also a realist. I know it’s unlikely we could ever get Montecito to agree on a monument or plaza. But could an ecologically sound water element have worked? A commissioned work of art? Drought-resistant grasses and flowers? 

I know our roadway projects are yet unfinished. So, I’ll withhold my final judgment till everything grows in. But as we await the opening of Restoration Hardware in the Upper Village and with the Caltrans occupational force not decamping any time soon, I’m thinking about the legacy of Montecito’s quirks, and what we lose when the various agencies mitigate them. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, sometimes improvements work… but do they “quirk”? And as Montecito loses its quirk – no streetlights, one traffic light, non-chain businesses, like Pierre’s, etc. – what I fear is a slow crawl towards homogenization; towards losing our uniqueness.

What are some of your most favorite and least favorite Montecito quirks? We’d like to know.

And, in case you’ve forgotten, please read the rules of how to properly use a traffic circle.


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