By Logan Quirk
Whether you live in Los Angeles or plan to visit, managing the city’s snarly, often overwhelming traffic is a must to enjoy your time there. Residents of Los Angeles spend hundreds of hours per year in their cars, and LA highways are always on the list of the top-10 worst commutes in the country. You could spend more than an hour going only a few miles on some of the most troublesome LA highways during rush hour.
Here’s a look at the least favorable times to be on the road in LA, as well as tips for how to avoid getting stuck in a jam.
Understanding LA Car Culture
It may sound tempting to say you’ll just forego having a car in Los Angeles. While you can use public transportation in some areas, LA is generally not set up like New York or San Francisco in that way, and the metro area is huge. Virtually everyone travels by car in LA, and there are some places you just can’t reach without a vehicle.
The good news is that LA is a gorgeous city, and driving gives you the chance to soak up palm tree-lined boulevards, tropical gardens, and old Hollywood architecture. People in Los Angeles generally don’t drive like the maniacs in other cities (Boston, we’re looking at you). If you give some thought to your driving, you can usually avoid the worst of the traffic.
LA Map Basics
It helps to understand how Los Angeles is laid out to get how the traffic works there. Because of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, major roadways are limited, and the city tends to oriented to these two major elements.
While you can use a GPS or mobile phone to find your way around LA, it’s much, much easier to understand where you’re going if you look at a big map of LA first. Go online, or even better, buy an old-fashioned paper map of the city. Learn the names of the major thoroughfares and highways. You can depend on satellite directions, but if there’s an accident or road construction, it’s great to have a mental idea of the city’s geography, so you can instantly plan an alternative route.
Destinations worth memorizing routes to and from:
- East LA
- Beverly Hills
- The San Fernando Valley
- LAX Airport
- Beach communities west, north, and south (Santa Monica, Malibu, Long Beach, etc.)
- Anaheim (Disneyland)
- Major highways: 5, 405, 605, 10, 110, 210, 101, Mulholland Drive/Highway
We all love our phones and gadgets, but there’s nothing like the Thomas Guide for another level of knowledge about the LA city streets. This spiral-bound guidebook gets down to the dirt road level. If you’re going to spend any amount of time in the city, it’s invaluable for finding your way to out-of-the-way Hollywood Hills parties and Malibu beach houses where the address confounds your GPS app.
LA Traffic Times and Places to Avoid
There are two top strategies to avoiding LA traffic jams:
- Know the worst times of day for the roads you wish to travel and don’t drive then.
- Take surface streets to escape the worst of the traffic, which is always on the freeways. (Hint: learn those surface streets as soon as you can!)
Here are some bad traffic times and places to avoid:
- Rush hour on all the freeways takes up a good chunk of the day. People start commuting to work at about 7 a.m., and morning rush hour lasts until nearly 10 a.m. The evening rush hour begins around 4 p.m. and lasts until at least 7 p.m., later if the traffic is heavy or the weather is bad. In general, if you need to commute to work every day, try to get to the office before 7 a.m., or leave after 7 p.m.
- There is a mini rush hour between about 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., when people leave to pick up their kids at school (there is limited school bus transportation in Los Angeles)
- Avoid Hwy 10 East between Twentieth Street and Alameda.
- Avoid Hwy 5 South between Cesar Chavez and Valley View.
- Avoid Hwy 405 North between Century Boulevard and Getty Center Drive (anywhere near the Getty is often crowded, but the 405, in particular, is awful).
- Avoid Hwy 101 North between 60/Soto Street and Haskell Avenue.
- Watch out for traffic around major hospitals, especially UCLA Medical Center.
- Traffic through tourist areas, like Hollywood and Beverly Hills, is almost always thick, especially on Sunset Boulevard.
- Mulholland Drive is a great route to travel from Silver Lake all the way to the Pacific, but it does see accidents on its winding route, and it’s also a popular tourist road.
- The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to local Angelenos) is often stop and start during rush hour, as well as on nice beach days on the weekends.
- Friday night commuter traffic is typically awful, particularly on the highways, where people are both coming home from work and leaving the city. Holidays are worse (see below).
- Beachwood Drive in Hollywood is often congested with pedestrians and tours, as this affords the best photographic shot of the famous Hollywood sign.
- Traffic near Disneyland can be brutal, especially in the morning.
Special Traffic Conditions
There are times when LA traffic gets worse outside the usual daily times. Before getting behind the wheel at these times, think first.
There are some events that happen only occasionally, but when they do, traffic in LA is worse than ever. Consider staying home during these events:
- The Rose Bowl: this New Year’s event brings travelers from all over the country and ties up Pasadena and surrounding towns for the week.
- The Oscars and other award presentations: when Hollywood gathers to hand out the golden statuettes, the entire area grinds to a halt, with the press, red carpet celebrities, and fans all concentrated in a few city blocks.
- Sports championships: traffic on days or nights of big sports events can tie up streets for hours, so find out if the Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, Kings, Clippers, etc., are playing in a big game before going near their respective stadiums.
- Movie filming: many movies are filmed out of town to save on costs, but some do set up in LA streets, so avoid them or risk sitting for hours.
- Christmas holiday period: during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the entire city converges on a few shopping areas like The Grove to do their shopping, so word to the wise near the malls.
- Days before major federal holidays: people are anxious to exit the city before big holidays, so expect Friday night traffic on three-day weekends to be a bear, especially leaving LA. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving can be horrific.
- Storms and natural disasters: obviously, you can’t plan for these, but in the event of a fire or mudslide (two more common occurrences these days), steer clear of affected neighborhoods and exit routes like the Pacific Coast Highway.
Alternatives to LA Traffic Jams
There are a few additional ways to avoid the worst of Los Angeles traffic, or at least to make it less painful.
- Use express lanes and carpool lanes when possible on the freeways, as they generally move faster. Make sure you have the minimum required number of passengers to do so legally according to signage.
- Tune in on your radio to keep abreast of traffic news. The three area public radio stations usually give updates regularly during rush hour.
- Pay attention to overhead LED road signs that flash news alerts for particularly hairy traffic involving natural disasters, police chases, accidents, weather alerts, construction, and road closures.
- Explore public transportation where it’s offered. Public transit in Los Angeles is mostly limited to bus routes, but there are a few trains. The most pleasant is the line between Los Angeles and San Diego. And on the train, you can read or work, rather than focus on red lights and exhaust.
- Park your car and walk in neighborhoods like Hollywood, Los Feliz, Beverly Hills, and other pedestrian-friendly areas where you probably want to stroll and window shop anyway.
- Try a bike or scooter in safe areas.
- Use ridesharing apps, like Lyft and Uber, or take a taxi cab.
- Carpool with friends or coworkers, so at least you’re not always driving.
- Splurge on a helicopter ride, using apps like BLADE or UberChopper. Locals swear by Coastal Helicopters.
- Use an app like Waze, although, beware, these are not always accurate, and there can be a delay in reporting accidents and other holdups.
- Try the Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) website or Quickmap app, available now for both iPhones and Android devices. Quickmap posts road closings and traffic information for the entire state of California.
Final Hints and Tips
Parking is tight in LA. Look carefully at signage before you leave your vehicle, lest it gets towed away in your absence. Know these curb markings:
- White or yellow curb: no parking, passenger loading and unloading only (typically at the airport)
- Green curb: limited time only parking
- Red curb: no parking
It may be better to pay for a garage space than to risk losing your car. The better restaurants and shopping centers in Los Angeles offer valet parking.
You must wear a seatbelt and have children in your vehicle properly restrained. Always yield the right of way to pedestrians in an intersection.
In Los Angeles when an emergency vehicle approaches behind you, it’s best to try to get as far to the right as is safely possible. However, given how congested the traffic can be, you may not be able to get out of your lane. You will notice in that instance that people around you simply stop and allow the emergency vehicle to go around them. Emergency responders will honk if they need traffic further up to move over to allow others behind them to do the same, and they can control the traffic lights at intersections to facilitate crossing.
Just like in most places, it’s not legal to text or talk on a hand-held mobile phone while driving in Los Angeles. If you need to use a device, pull over first. LA cops are very aggressive about these types of violations, and rightfully so, as they are known to cause serious accidents with fatalities.
Likewise, don’t drink and drive in LA. The roads are difficult enough to navigate sometimes; you don’t need to add unsafe driving to the mix. Like with phone violations, police in Los Angeles are strict about driving under the influence.
Sometimes, no matter how carefully you drive, you can wind up in a car accident in Los Angeles. In that case, stay cool and know what to do.
If anyone is hurt, your first priority is to call 911 and request emergency assistance. If you’ve determined that no one is injured, but there is vehicular or other property damage, you may still need to call for first responders. You will probably need to file a police report about the accident for your insurance, and you may need help clearing debris from the accident off the road or need a tow truck.
Next, exchange insurance and vehicle information with the involved parties:
- Name and phone number of the other driver
- Name of each driver’s insurance carrier and policy number
- License plate number
- VIN (vehicle identification number)
Take photos or videos with your cell phone, as needed, to be clear about what happened, who was at fault, and how much damage was incurred.
If there is any question of who is at fault, whose insurance needs to pay, or similar issues, you may want to contact a car accident lawyer in Los Angeles. Get in touch with Quirk Law Group right away if you have questions about your rights after an accident or if you feel you are being mistreated by another party or the police. We can help you if you have been injured, too. We want your driving time in LA to be safe and without worry, but in case it’s not, we’ve got your back.