Los Angeles spreads over 34,149 square miles (88,446 sq. km) and the popular Los Angeles attractions are spread all over, with some of them as much as 60 miles apart. Consult the Los Angeles Distance chart to understand the distances involved for your trip.
The American love affair with the automobile may well have been born in Los Angeles, and most people get around by car on one of the many freeways. Driving times in Los Angeles are highly variable and can be interminably long at rush hour.
Driving on Los Angeles Freeways
Since California's first freeway, the 6-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway (now called the Pasadena Freeway) opened in 1940, more than 600 miles of asphalt have been laid in and around Los Angeles. It sounds like a lot, but in fact, the city ranks 44th among urban areas in freeway space per resident. You've heard about the resulting gridlock. The roads are so busy that a simple fender-bender can make 6 lanes slow to a crawl for miles.
Don't let the visitor's bureau or any other happy-talking travel writer tell you that it doesn't exist. I've experienced it a maddening number of times and if you don't believe me, USA Today reported in 2013 that Los Angeles has the country's worst traffic.
Los Angeles drivers are aggressive. Don't expect them to slow down to let you change lanes. And they drive fast. In fact, the de facto motto seems to be "if the freeway is open enough, go as fast as you can." In fact, we've been on I-405 driving 75 mph in the slow lane and getting passed by everything on the road.
If you're from outside California, this one may surprise you, too. Motorcycles are allowed to "split" lanes in the Golden State, driving between cars that are traveling in normal lanes. They can surprise you - and you have to keep an extra-sharp lookout for them when changing lanes in slow traffic.
Other things that will help keep you moving: Don't try to get on the freeway during rush hour. Especially don't try to use I-405. Don't even try to drive toward it. Get where you're going off-hours and stay put until the traffic clears up. Friday afternoons are reputed to be the worst for traffic jams, and trying to get into Los Angeles on Sunday evening can also take much longer than you expected.
Los Angeles Traffic Lingo Decoded
An essential tool for getting around with minimum delays is your car radio. Tune it to KNX 1070 for traffic reports every 10 minutes on the fives. KFWB 980 also reports every 10 minutes on the ones. If you have Internet access, the LADOT website or the KNX website plot real-time freeway speeds on a map, making it easy to pick the least congested routes.
When you first start listening to a radio traffic report, you may think you've lost your ability understand English as they cheerily rattle on about sigalerts on the Artesia Freeway and looky-loos adding to the trouble in the number 2 lane.
A few phrases of Southland traffic lingo will also be useful:
- SigAlert: An unplanned event that stops traffic for 30 minutes or more
- Looky-loo: A driver who slows down to gawk at an accident or other incident
- Number 1 (2,3...) Lane: Numbered from the leftmost lane as #1
Angelenos love their freeways so much that they've given them nicknames and you may hear them used instead highway numbers on the local traffic report. Our LA Freeway map is a handy tool that can help you quickly translate.
And just for fun - in case you were wondering, according to California Highways, the SigAlert is named in honor of radio pioneer Loyd C. Sigmon who came up with the idea of broadcasting traffic alerts to attract more listeners for radio station KMPC, which he co-owned. In the beginning, the alterts covered all kinds of emergencies - the first one broadcasted was about a train wreck. Nowadays, the Highway Patrol is in charge of issuing SigAlerts.
Carpool and HOV Lanes
Los Angeles has about 350 miles of HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, also called carpool lanes. These lanes are reserved for vehicles with 2 or more occupants, 24 hours a day. And you can only get in and out of them in limited areas, which are well marked.
In Orange County, drivers can pay to drive in the HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes on Highway 91, which are jokingly called "Lexus lanes"
Oddly, locals call them "surface streets" as if other streets were either buried or elevated. They're often a less-aggravating way of getting around, but they have their quirks and local conventions. It may help if you know about making left turns.
In parts of the city, you'll find a left turn lane at an intersection, but no protected left turn light. Here's how many local drivers handle it: Drive into the middle of the intersection if you can. Wait for a break in oncoming traffic - or until the traffic light turns red. Then turn left as fast as you can, before anyone hits you. If you're 3 or 4 cars back in the left turn line, still turn left.
You may get the idea that you shouldn't try to jet into the intersection if going straight ahead at a green light and you'd be right.
Getting Around by Metro Rail
The Metro Rail system is a good start at useful public transportation for Los Angeles, and you should check to see if it can take you where you want to go. It runs through downtown, Pasadena, Universal City and Hollywood as well as many other places.