Commentary: Fixing the South Entrance to Town

This proposed Nishi Underpass led to campus through the Nishi project - is that the best current solution?
This proposed Nishi Underpass led to campus through the Nishi project – is that the best current solution?

Tonight the council will start looking into ways to fix the Richards-Olive area.  While I appreciate the city looking at the “the Richards Blvd/Olive Drive area holistically by cross-analyzing combinations of potential future growth with possible infrastructure improvements to understand the effects on transportation circulation,” I still think there are things we need to do that could improve the area before we spend money.

The only change that the studies suggest will improve LOS (Level of Service), the true measure that relates to actual traffic flow, is the proposed changes to the Richards/ I-80 Interchange.  That makes sense because the current set up makes no sense and is dangerous and leads to congestion.

But I think we have to be honest as well – traffic flow problems persist even after people drive through the Richards Tunnel because First Street is not set up for a high volume of traffic either.

While the city has said they have fixed some of the light sequencing and maybe they have, last week driving from Montgomery, where I drop off my kids at schools, to the I-80 on-ramp headed west to go to Woodland, it still took me ten minutes.  I still hit every single light.  There were still times when I hit lights even though there was no side street traffic.

The biggest problem is that right now UC Davis is using the Richards Tunnel as one of the main access points to campus.  During the morning commute peak hours, the traffic going through the tunnel comes from I-80, it backs up starting at the Olive Drive intersection, it backs up at the traffic light at Richards and First, it turns left onto first, and then either heads to campus via Old Davis road or turns north onto B and left onto Russell and enters campus along that route.

I find it interesting that there has been a huge push in the LRDP process to convince the campus to take on more housing, but very little push to convince the campus to work with the city to change the way people access the campus.

So what can we do?

The cheapest fix is to convince more traffic not to exit I-80 on Richards Blvd., but instead have them use either the UC Davis exit from I-80, or Hutchison or Russell from Highway 113.  The council talked about signage and techniques of that sort.  It is not clear where that process stands.

Some have suggested that Old Davis Road cannot handle additional peak hour capacity.  I think that is an issue that the city and university need to address.  If we can push UC Davis for housing on campus, why can’t we push them to add road capacity so that traffic does not congest our roadways?

Davis could implement relatively inexpensive fixes that would make it more inconvenient for traffic to go through Richards.  They could prevent left turns onto First Street during peak hours.  They could limit access to the campus at A Street.  In the end, I’m not really sold on those type of changes.

A third possibility would be to construct an additional roadway to campus through West Olive Drive, just as was proposed during Nishi.

How could this work?  During the Nishi project proposal, part of their traffic flow plan called for a road from West Olive that would enter campus through an underpass.  UC Davis has actually removed the potential grade-separated crossing from their LRDP plan.


But what if they put it back and pledged to fund a portion of it?  The city staff said in their analysis they believe that the combined Richards/I-80 Interchange and Westbound I-80/Olive Drive Off-Ramp Closure projects “would be very competitive for State and Regional grant funding.”  Perhaps a new path onto campus would as well.

In addition, Nishi itself should consider throwing some funding towards this project.  If they wish to build a project on the site, having the infrastructure already in place would be a huge plus.  Yes, it would be a bit of a gamble, but their future project is far more likely to pass if campus access was already built and the whole system alleviated congestion along Richards Blvd.

The reality is that there are limited options for alleviating traffic problems through the Richards Tunnel.  The study looked at a potential Olive Drive-L Street connection.  Neither an overcrossing or an undercrossing there are viable.  The cheaper option would be an overcrossing and that is a $26 million project that the study believes would not alleviate traffic problems and may actually make them worse.

Widening the underpass is politically infeasible, as voters rejected that two decades ago, but also widening the underpass would create additional congestion unless the city also widened First Street.

Given that, the only real option is getting traffic to bypass the underpass.  To do that, we can try to get traffic to utilize the UC Davis off-ramps rather than Richards, but we can also consider a combined UC Davis-City-Nishi project for a new access point to campus.

Those two options seem the most realistic to alleviate congestion.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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20 thoughts on “Commentary: Fixing the South Entrance to Town”

  1. quielo

    I’m not sure why the easiest and quickest fix to the traffic problem is consistently ignored. At Richards/1st there are way too many options and cycling through all the ways people want to turn is the problem. By reducing choice you would improve flow and push the problems from one intersection to several. Then each of the downstream intersections could be improved but at the very least you would add holding capacity and make the intersection safer and more ped/bike friendly.

      1. quielo



        The principal is that any given street should have only two options at most. The advantage of that is the light cycle faster and the capacity of the existing lanes to hold traffic waiting for the light is increased.


        From Richards you could turn right on the separate lane or left on to 1st which gives you two left turning lanes to store cars while waiting for the Light. People wanting to go into downtown then turn right on 1st and left on F or left on first and right on D.   From EB 1st you could turn right on richards (no right on red) or go straight through eliminating lefts on E. from WB 1st you can turn left on Richard or go straight through eliminating rights on E.

        From E (now one way) you can go right on 1st or straight through to the underpass. It would take some modeling to optimize this but the principle is to speed the light rotation while increasing the carrying capacity of the existing lanes.


        Is that clear?

        1. quielo

          Let me deep dive only one part of this. For people NB on Richards there are three options, right on 1st, straight on E, left on 1st. The rate limiter is the left on 1st and that backs up through the tunnel and prevents people from turning right. If you made two left turning lanes and eliminated the straight option then the people waiting to turn left could populate both lanes and reduce the back-up by maybe 5 cars. People who would have gone straight would probably turn right on 1st and left on F so the cars that are now going straight are removed from the backup. This would also allow a few more cars to turn right who would be otherwise be sitting in the tunnel. When the light turns you have two lanes turning left and can saturate the WB 1st carrying capacity in half the time which means you can have that light green for only half the current time. Since there are no longer cars going straight through E pedestrians and bikes do not need to stop which reduces their wait.

        2. JosephBiello

          Basically, if you are eastbound on 1st past D street, you have only one way to go – out of the Richard’s Tunnel.

          If you are NB on Richards, you can only go right or left (and maybe 2 lanes to go left).

          That’s on one phase of the cycle. On the other phase you allow ped crossing at 1st and southbound E to Richards or Eastbound E to 1st.

          These sound like great ideas – and should at least be explored as a low cost solution.

        3. JosephBiello

          @quielo  You know, the line of traffic on 1st St in the afternoon (or on Richards in the morning) is as long as a small train, so why not treat it as such? (In addition to your proposal)

          What I mean is that there is a window where most of us know to avoid A st (or Richards) – that’s rush hour.  If the lights are timed much longer (or they have traffic sensors) with the goal of completely clearing out the traffic quickly during the rush hours, we may get much more effective flow through the tunnel.  Of course, the cross traffic will back up, but right now everything is backing up.  Most people will know to avoid this intersection during peak hours.

          I like your simple and elegant ideas which involve a sign or two and better timed lights.




        4. quielo



          Thank you. The problem as I see it is that there is nowhere for the traffic to go if you leave the lights open longer. It’s really a question of whether longer cycles or faster cycles are preferable in any given situation.

  2. JosephBiello


    1) Do not allow ingress to Old Davis Rd. from 1st St., except by buses.   This would force more traffic onto Old Davis Rd exit.

    2) Even though  Old Davis Rd. is small, there is still a lot of capacity there.  Changing some signage at LaRue/Old Davis Rd. interchange as well as on Old Davis Rd. near Mondavi Ctr. would make things flow faster.

    3) When the new interchange at Richard’s is built, add a connection to campus!  What do I mean by this?  Well, right now you have to go through Richards tunnel/1st St.   David proposes using West Olive Dr. –  which is a better solution but still involves a right turn/left turn sequence.

    Instead, Westbound 80 exit to Northbound Richards will have a stop light.  Traffic can go THROUGH that light, back onto the on ramp to I 80 where an exit can be built (behind the Rocknasium toward Nishi).     The on ramp to the highway doubles as an ingress to campus through Arboretum Dr. where there exists an at grade crossing.

    I understand this requires some coordination with Nishi land, but so does the suggestion of West Olive Dr.

    Wouldn’t that work?






      1. Alan Miller

        The other problems with this idea is that UPRR will not allow the existing at-grade crossing to be expanded into a full-blown road crossing at-grade.  They want it closed.

        Yet another problem with the idea is it only “works” (if it did) in the inbound-to-campus direction.  There is no way to get the traffic back out again in the evening.

        1. JosephBiello

          Well, ultimately we have to encourage people to use Old Davis Rd. Exit.  Also, if we created flow outbound along first then it is all “right hand turns” in that direction in the evening and, if the lights were timed right, it could work.



        2. Alan Miller

          Agree about encouraging Old Davis Road.  Not sure the implementation of this, as the Council has stated this many times but it never seems to “happen”.

          All rights is better, but the evening commute sucks anyway, so still not a solution.

  3. Chamber Fan

    Some interesting ideas Quielo and Joseph.  Prefer this to simply hearing “no” – hopefully the council can give some new ideas broader consideration.

    1. hpierce

      1) would help… big time

      2) might help, incrementally… worth pursuing

      3) unclear what you envision… am highly skeptical

      See also Alan’s comments… he has it pretty much “nailed” at a 95% confidence level…  trust both of us on that!

  4. Michael Harrington

    Nishi again?  David, why don’t you give it a rest?

    But I like the re-routing traffic flow ideas.

    And why isn’t the city making an aggressive push with UCD to plan to re-route traffic and “train” those commuters to not use Richards for campus access?

      1. hpierce

        Except for bike-ped, I have a problem with that re-route… will be expensive and have little/no benefit (optimistically), and could exacerbate problems big-time (pessimistically)…

        1. hpierce

          You go first, as to why you think it would “help”… I have many times said why it wouldn’t, on this site (VG).  Am not going to try to teach a class in traffic engineering 10, today.

  5. Alan Miller

    But what if they [UCD] put it back and pledged to fund a portion of it?
    In addition, Nishi itself should consider throwing some funding . . .

    Now I’ve heard everything, in terms of distorted reality.  This is an extremely expensive proposition.  Have the University and Nishi fund this, with no revenue to offset the costs of crossing Putah Creek bikeway and the railroad?  The way that such mega-expensive infrastructure is funded is by having revenue.  Revenue that would have been available had Nishi happened.  Without Nishi, this is a dead idea.  You can’t have expensive infrastructure improvements without revenue.  This idea, without Nishi to fund it, wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on.

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