Los Angeles Driving

  • 01 of 03

    Los Angeles Driving : Freeways and Traffic Lingo

    Prayitno/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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.

    It may be tempting to try to stay in the rightmost lane, but hold off until you get very close to your exit. That lane has a nasty tendency to suddenly become an Exit Only lane, forcing you to change lanes at the last minute.

    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.

    If you want to sound like a local, call the highways “freeways.” If you're talking about a freeway by number, always put the word "the" before it. For example, I-5 is "the 5" and US Hwy 101 is "the 101."

    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
    • Gore Point: That's the triangular area that separates a freeway from an exit ramp. It may or may not be paved, but is usually marked off with solid white lines. If the traffic report says a vehicle is in the "gore point," that's where to look for it. It is illegal to drive across a gore point, even you may see people do it.

    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.

    FasTrak transponders work everywhere in California, so you can use your Bay Area FasTrak to access the toll roads and express lanes in SoCal. If you enter a lane that's marked for carpools and FasTrak - and have the minimum number of occupants in your car to qualify without paying - you will be charged unless shield it by putting in the silver-colored mylar bag it came in.

    In Orange County, drivers can pay to drive in the HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes on Highway 91, which are jokingly called "Lexus lanes."

    City Streets

    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.

    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Don't Freak Out Over Left Turns in LA

    Traffic Light With Left Turn Signal And Directional Sign
    Alan Schein Photography / Getty Images

    This one was a mystery to me for years, but now that I researched this page I know the answer. Why is it that Los Angeles city streets don't have left turn signals, even when they have left turn lanes? According to LAist, less than 20 percent of Los Angeles intersections have protected left turn lanes with a dedicated left turn signal.

    The LA Department of Transportation has nothing against left-hand-turn signals. In fact, the reason for the lack of signals is mostly historical. And these days it's also a matter of money. Installing a single left turn signal can cost $100,000 or more.

    Meanwhile, you're left with the odd and frightening game of "chicken" that Angelenos face every day. Most of the LA's intersections are what is called “permissively” operated. That means you can turn left whenever gaps occur in opposing traffic. At busier intersections, that rarely happens. OK, it almost never happens.

    Residents have to cope somehow, so this is what they do:  Pull into the middle of the intersection as soon as the light turns green. If you're second or third in line, pull into the intersection behind them. Hang out, hoping for that magic gap in traffic. Turn if you can. When the gap hasn't appeared, and the light turns red, speed through as fast as you can, with at least one — sometimes two — drivers on your tail. I know it sounds terrifying and it is. 

    In fact, according to the LA Times turning left on a red light is so much a part of the L.A. driving culture that traffic planners count on people doing it to keep traffic flowing.

    It sounds illegal, but it isn't quite. There's a section of the motor vehicle code that allows drivers to turn left on red as long as they move into the intersection while the light is green or yellow. That's why you sneak on out there behind that first car when you can.

    INSTEAD: Turn Right

    Did you know that making three right turns yields the same result as turning left? Instead of paying attention to your GSP navigation, go one block past the intersection. Turn right at the first street you come to.

    Do that two more times or wait for your GPS to get you back on track and you'll be going the same direction you would have been if you made that left turn.

    Continue to 3 of 3 below.
  • 03 of 03

    Los Angeles Freeway Map

    Los Angeles Freeways and Their Names
    © Betsy Malloy Photography 2008. Used by Permission.

    About the Los Angeles Freeway Map

    This map is intended to show the major freeways in the Los Angeles area, and in particular to help the visitor to translate the common nicknames local people use for them. It isn't detailed or accurate enough to use for navigation.

    Click to see a full-sized version of this map.