Visitors to L.A: Was traffic better or worse than you expected?
April 29, 2013 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I reply to a fair number of L.A. travel questions here and many of the answers (including mine) often contain dire warnings about traffic. This happens even if traffic isn't directly related to the question being asked. So, visitors to our fair city, how bad was the traffic really, and what information/advice can I give to newbie LA tourists who drive?

I'm mostly interested in first-time visitors who came to the area with a preconceived notion of what traffic is like here, especially if that notion came from an Angeleno rather than, say, a movie.

Again, I'm asking this in order to give better answers, not to start a traffic complaint log about L.A. or anywhere else.

posted by Room 641-A to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (56 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think my notions about LA traffic were less about how much there is and more about the fact that there's no other option for getting around, so it's something to live with - which I have found to be true. My mom moved to LA my junior year of college so I've spent a lot of time there as a visitor (mostly coming from the bay area) and I haven't found it overall all that bad. Traffic is maybe a little better than San Francisco, New York or Boston, but parking is much easier to come by. YMMV, of course (no pun intended).
posted by 0x006DB0 at 7:20 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: Much, much worse. We went for the first time in October and spent so much time on the highway. For example, we drove from Hollywood to Anaheim in about an hour and ten minutes one morning. Coming back that night, it took three hours and fifteen minutes. I thought that traffic was going to be bad, but it was particularly horrendous. We quickly learned that everything took double the amount of time the GPS said it would, if not more.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:28 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I lived in L.A. for nearly half of my years, and the one thing that trips people up isn't the traffic alone, but the traffic and distance together. Someone can live in Burbank but work in Santa Monica, and consider both cities to be "in L.A." But they're 30 miles apart, and getting there takes you through the busiest pinch points of the whole metro area.

So, if you visited Santa Monica alone, or Burbank alone, you probably thought things weren't as bad as you were led to believe.

But now try driving from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach. Every day.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:29 PM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

The traffic that I have seen in Los Angeles is among the worst I have seen anywhere.
posted by dfriedman at 7:31 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We didn't find it that bad to be honest, coming from NZ - it is a bit rough getting off a long plane flight and straight into traffic, and LA is really spread out - you can spend hours driving across town, which is quite jarring. We did miss rush hour though.

The worst part about freeway navigation was that it's really tempting to hug the right lane, which makes life generally more difficult. Also it can be tricky to tell the difference between 'your freeway splits off left, so you need to take an exit on the right' and 'your freeway just splits in half, so you need to be in the left half'.

I think the #1 piece of advice that was useful for us was way overestimating how much time we'd need to get across town - we allowed like four hours to get from Anaheim to LAX, so we weren't stressed about getting anywhere on time, and could always just take an exit and reorient ourselves.
posted by xiw at 7:32 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

No worse than Chicago over similar distances.
posted by lathrop at 7:33 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a visitor, I didn't think the traffic was bad. But I'm used to Philly traffic, where it's taken me 2 hours to go 4 miles on occasion.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:33 PM on April 29, 2013

I'm a native Californian, so my traffic expectations may be a bit different, but I don't think LA is nearly as bad as it's made out to be. Traffic feels a lot worse in the Bay Area to me.

But most of my time in LA is spent with savvy locals who know how to get pretty much everywhere via surface streets. I rarely get on freeways once I'm in town.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:34 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

as a first time visitor, i didn't find it much worse than seattle/redmond or dallas.
posted by nadawi at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2013

I didn't think it was worse than here in Houston. And LA drivers aren't as insane as Houston drivers, in my experience.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2013

There is much more traffic in other metropolitan cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago as 0x006DBO mentioned. The perception is that there is more, but only because of the distances people commute to get to work, entertainment or to visit with friends and family. The sprawl has created that perception, and as others mentioned, there are not many alternatives. Slice up LA into quadrants and travel within them and it won't appear to be as bad. Traffic is at it's worst on highways during school hours; kids being dropped off and picked up. I've also found LA drivers to be more polite than those in other metro cities.
posted by happysocks at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: From Boston, went with friends from the DC suburbs, not areas known for their swift-flowing traffic and easy driving. We didn't love it, and we didn't do much driving at rush hour, but it wasn't anything to get worked up about. I mean, it just takes a long time to get places, but partly that's because things are far apart.
posted by mskyle at 7:43 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: I remember my first time in Los Angeles was with a friend, we'd gotten to our hotel and called the dude who was going to pick us up and show us around. We weren't that far outside downtown, maybe 30 minutes on a non-traffic day. But it was about 4 o'clock. So when he showed up, he said "We better get going if we're gonna have dinner anytime reasonable" and we were like "lol what". And then we sat in traffic for about two hours, rolling up to the restaurant right at 6:30.

That said, one time my wife and I were driving through Los Angeles on a road trip elsewhere. We'd had dinner with a friend the night before (the friend from my previous story!) and went on and on about how the traffic was going to be terrible and we were going to spend all day in it. The wife had never been to LA. I don't know what kind of crazy voodoo luck we had going but we didn't hit a damn thing once we got on the highway. No slowdown, no traffic, no construction. Smooth sailing. Now the wife always gives me shit about "OH NO THE TRAFFIC IN LA IS SO TERRIBLE" and no one else ever believes me that I drove through it once without hitting any traffic.

However, the thing about traffic in LA is it's not that bad compared with some places because there's no going anywhere and everyone's traveling at a creep. It's just a lot of boring sitting. Atlanta was way more terrifying because everyone is driving 90MPH in a 55 and bumper to bumper. DC was like LA traffic but you never get out of it and may die of old age on the freeway. New York was just "JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL" terrifying. LA is just boring and takes a while.

The one downside is people in LA tend to stay in their little chunk of it because all the traffic makes it a pain in the ass to go anywhere. I'm going out there for a week in a few months and there are friends I know I won't see because it's just not worth sitting in traffic for three hours to go to dinner across town.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:52 PM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I used to live in LA, and I remember once trying to get to work in Culver City from North Hollywood at 5pm when a tanker rolled over and closed all but 1 lane of I-5 headed onto the city. It took me an hour and a half to go 3 miles, none of the side streets (Laurel Canyon etc.) were even remotely accessible, and I spent another 45 minutes just trying to turn around and go home. Wouldn't have been so bad, except I had to pee the whole time...

Aside from catastrophic events like that, I honestly don't think the traffic there is much worse on a day to day basis than it is Seattle (where I am originally from), but the freeway system is vast and the opportunity for traffic jams is greater.
posted by evilcupcakes at 7:55 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the variability of traffic is the most frustrating thing. The first time i drove in LA was a rental car from LAX at like noon on a Thursday. It took me two hours to get to wilshire/westwood on the 405, when google maps said 45 minutes in heavy traffic (and it was heavy, but no accident or construction, just traffic). it was sometimes that bad when I lived nearby, but never that bad. So knowing you should give yourself lots of extra time (and stop to get ice cream or coffee if you are early) anytime while driving is a good plan.

Like cool Papa bell said, the pinch points are also A Thing, and knowing how to avoid them or realizing you are in one and nothing you can do will make it better is helpful. I live in los feliz and getting to UCLA in any morning sucks because every route includes a pinch point or bad interchange. But getting to Long Beach does not take as long even though it is twice as far. Helping people pick/make realistic plans for where to stay and where/when to go is a big help.
posted by holyrood at 7:57 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have driven through most of the major cities in both Canada and the U.S. (usually towing a 32 ft. Fifth wheel), and have found many cities to be far worse than my experiences in L.A. (which I have driven in a dozen times over the years, both straight through and as tourist in the area). My advice would be to travel outside of rush hour and holiday/weekend high travel times when possible.

To me, the worst North American cities were: Washington D.C; Houston, San Francisco/Oakland, Seattle, NYC, Edmonton, Vancouver. and Montreal. L.A. is just another city to drive in/through. Granted, my opinion may be because of my driving experience everywhere else.
posted by batikrose at 8:02 PM on April 29, 2013

It's fairly bad, but it depends on where you're coming from.

Most of my out-of-state visits to LA (over about 12ish years) were from Dallas, where traffic is crap but it's kind of clumped around morning rush, and then the period from when school gets out through evening rush.

One of the big problems with LA is that they're kind of out of relatively flat dirt to put roads on. In Dallas, or Atlanta, or some other land-based flat place, there are 5 ways to get where you're going, if you know what you're doing. Surface streets, cut through neighborhoods, back roads, *service roads* (which we don't have in California, nor do we have any real visibility from the freeways to even guess at Route B or find a freaking gas station when you're on fumes), there's all kinds of tricks. California is short on tricks, or you have to really know what you're doing to use them.

The other thing that is peculiar to LA is that it is highly served by industries that do not work 9-5. Chicago, Seattle, etc: people work, and people go to school. It is largely done at the expected hours. But LA traffic doesn't die all the way down in the middle of the day like in other cities.

LA bottlenecks in ways that landlocked places don't. Anywhere with bodies of water to cross has similar problems (I think the WORST traffic I've ever encountered as a business traveler has been in Seattle, and one time trying to get across the Mississippi on a holiday weekend in New Orleans, which took 3 hours and I was afraid of heights).

Certainly, in 20 years as a driving adult in the DFW area, I've been stuck in some appalling shit. But it was generally special-occasion in a way that LA just kind of is randomly sometimes. On the other hand, I find Google Maps (mobile - iPhone and Android) is excellent at knowing exactly how long it's going to take to get somewhere in LA in real time - as long as you're talking about at that time, and not the night before or two weeks ahead or whatever.

Crossing the Greater LA area is definitely worse than just arrowing into LA from outside. My general practice and advice to tourists is that if you need to be at X place at 4:15 sharp, get yourself within 5-10 miles for a late lunch and something to kill some time. You can cut it closer, but it might get stressful.

I do warn visitors to LA that if you need to, say, drive on surface streets where you might need to make a left turn, good fucking luck. I have never been in another city that hated protected lefts the way LA hates protected lefts. I'm pretty sure there's 5 of them in the entire county, and I know where they all are. I've been honked at on a fresh red for not turning. Just make three rights - oh how I wish that was a GPS setting! Also: valet that shit. Just do it. They want $10, $20? Fantastic! Take my damn car, please! The old saying is that nobody walks in LA, but I'm telling you I've walked 2 miles just because I found a free meter after 15 laps around the neighborhood and fuck it, let's go.

(In retrospect, I think it might be the parking that adds all the time. Parking and left turns.)
posted by Lyn Never at 8:07 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I expected traffic to be slow on the freeways - I was shocked by how long it took to travel short distances on city streets. The straight 4 mile drive from our hotel on Santa Monica Blvd to the beach area took 90 minutes. We coulda shoulda walked (but we were scared because it was dark). We cut our trip short and headed home after the second day because the traffic was so awful.
posted by kbar1 at 8:12 PM on April 29, 2013

One more thing I wanted to put in. One of my friends lives in LA and we'd make a game of the weird stuff inevitably causing traffic jams on her way home. It always seemed to be something and it always seemed to be bizarre. One time it was a stopped car. Not on fire or anything. Just a car in the emergency lane. Nobody standing by it. Just a car. One time it was "dog on freeway." Not like a dead dog. Just a dog running around on the freeway. One time it was a guy standing on one of the overpasses. Not, like, jumping, just a guy standing on one of the overpasses for whatever reason and that was enough to snarl traffic for miles around. One time it was a bed in the middle of the highway. And I don't mean a mattress. I mean like a full mattress-box spring-headboard-footboard bed.

Another time I was driving to meet someone in LA and was in this massive snarl of traffic. A guy in the center lane finally just got out of his car and walked off. I mean, he was GONE. And I know that because I was stuck in the even-more traffic behind his abandoned car for another 30 minutes.

So there's always traffic and it's always weird.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:16 PM on April 29, 2013

Pure anecdata. I've lived in Chicago, LA, San Diego, San Francisco, and am very familiar with Honolulu. Traffic sucks in every one of those cities. Each of those metro areas has a single choke point at a certain time that will reliably curl your hair.

That said, when I lived in LA I used to look over the 405/10 interchange at Olympic and needed to drive down to Westchester at La Tijera. I used to budget 45 minutes. That was like SIX miles. In my personal geography - LA takes the cake, by far.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 8:21 PM on April 29, 2013

Los Angeles has reclaimed the dubious honor of having the worst traffic in the United States, according to an annual congestion scorecard.,0,7346891.story

posted by sebastienbailard at 8:22 PM on April 29, 2013

I lived in Venice and worked in The Valley (stupid, I know). The 405 was my commute. Hit it good and it was so good, 20-30 minutes. Hit it bad, which was more frequent, could be an hour, two, even three. I used to call the brake lights the "red wave of terror." You'd crest the hill coming back from the valley at a rapid, euphoric clip and then you'd see it, brake lights. Then...bbbrrrrrrt all red! And you knew you were screwed. I have reversed on the 405 and I'm proud.

Was in L.A. again visiting not too long ago and, yeah, it's the unpredictability of the snarls and then having a good sense of surface streets. Back then, it was all Thomas Guide, but it's definitely better with a GPS.
posted by amanda at 8:26 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up and my parents still live in the NoVa DC suburbs and those are bad, and now I live in NYC and that's bad, and I also lived in Boston which was bad, but every time I go to LA I think that it's the worst traffic ever. On top of the bad traffic, there never seems to be enough parking, so you never know how long it's going to take you to get anywhere with traffic time plus parking time plus walking from whereever you parked...
posted by sweetkid at 8:31 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: We had mixed results. In general, the traffic wasn't nearly as bad as we expected. Parking was much, much worse. But...trying to get to the airport to fly home was impossible. We allowed two hours for a 30-minute trip and almost missed our flight.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:56 PM on April 29, 2013

Most of the times I went to LA I took the train up and rode the subway or my bike. The one time I drove I had a full car with me and took carpool lanes and it was no trouble.
posted by akgerber at 9:37 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: I just recently moved here.

While I had visited Los Angeles before, I didn't have much sense of the traffic. (My first visit was as a child, though I do remember a lot of time in the car, and my second was for work and I spent the whole time in a self-contained area.)

I had heard about legendary traffic, from people I knew in New York but also from Metafilter. However, I drove occasionally in New York, which also has insane traffic and ridiculous freeways and traffic jams that become parking lots and the like. So I didn't expect traffic here to really be that bad.

So far, I feel like traffic here is worse than in New York in terms of the space it occupies in my life, but it's somehow less fucking MADDENING. My guess is that this is because, in New York, you are mostly stuck in traffic because someone is being a jackass, or you are stuck in traffic trying to get to New Jersey, which causes you to question WTF you are even doing SITTING IN THIS PARKING LOT UNDER THE HUDSON RIVER TRYING TO GET TO NEW JERSEY OF ALL PLACES. In LA, the traffic is more random and less obviously caused by any one particular thing. So easier to be zen about. Also, usually traffic happens on the way to somewhere that is actually worth going. Though I do find it exhausting after a long day at work to then have double the commute home for no particular reason that I can see.

Regarding parking, I am consistently amazed by how much parking there is! Everywhere! The parking! There are one or two places I go regularly where parking is difficult, but every single place I ever drove to in New York was a thousand times worse.

One thing I don't understand about LA traffic is how worried everyone is about it all the time. I mean, you live here. In many cases, you've lived here your whole life. This is your reality. It has always been thus, and thus it will always be. So why spend that much energy worrying about something relatively inconsequential?

(Caveat for all of the above: I have a pretty random commute, as long as I can avoid the 101 through Hollywood in the evening rush hour. So I might not be experiencing the worst of it.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:57 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also think that years spent commuting via subway (usually from an outer borough to and from Manhattan) prepared me for the idea that it can take an hour to get somewhere, and that's not an outrageous experience to have. My commute in LA is actually much shorter than my New York commute, it's just that I can't read during it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:03 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are two things my very particular mother complains about in regards to driving in Los Angeles when she visits:

1. Knowing which lane to be in. She says this is actually a little easier on the freeways because there are ostensibly visible signs indicating which lane to occupy in order to go in the desired direction. But on the street level all those multi-street intersections with arcane light sequences and 83 different ways to proceed just baffle her.

2. Finding the on-ramp and it's converse: finding the street that the freeway just said you were going to exit onto. In Tucson all the freeway access ramps are either clovers or straight-ramps, and it doesn't matter which one it is you enter and exit the freeway to the intersecting street on the same side as the direction of the freeway traffic. Here in LA the freeway exit signs say 'Normandie' and drop you off in the middle of an apartment building parking lot or something, with Normandie actually two streets and a stop-sign over. Or you can be driving on a major road and go right by the on-ramp for the freeway in one direction but the on-ramp in the other direction is on the next major boulevard over, or behind the In'N'Out, or buried back by what would otherwise be a cul-de-sac in a random residential neighborhood.

So when I tell people coming to LA about the driving situation I emphasize studying gmaps beforehand, and knowing which lane and where the freeway ramp is.
posted by carsonb at 10:20 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I recently visited for the weekend. I drove my own car down from the Bay Area.

Traffic was way worse than I expected. From San Pedro to Pasadena in the morning it was a parking lot all the way though downtown until the Arroyo Seco tunnels. Then it took me well over three hours to get from Pasadena to Oxnard; I left Pasadena at 2pm on Friday.

I would tell your visitors that traffic can be far worse than their imagination. And that these little cities are much further apart than they look on the map.

I'm no stranger to traffic, I've lived and driven in Boston, New York, and now the Bay Area. But the LA traffic I experienced was like a whole new level of traffic insanity. As in endless sluggish rivers of automobiles broiling off into the haze.
posted by gyusan at 10:21 PM on April 29, 2013

I'll echo CarsonB's mother's concerns.

I still have yet to get home from Silver Lake on the 5 without a GPS, because I have no idea where the southbound onramp is. Even though I'm sure I have used this very same onramp with the GPS on -- it's like the Platform 9 3/4 of Los Angeles freeway driving.

(It is very embarrassing to have to use GPS on a route you know well, for a 10 minute drive, except for the part where you can't find the onramp.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:07 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The traffic was way better than I expected and I've been to LA several times. I have lived in New York City & Chicago. In neither place I have lived would someone ever basically say there's just no way they can do something because of traffic but in LA my experience has always been that people will outright refuse to leave the house because of traffic. There's no sense (again, in my experience), like there is in Chgo & NYC of using side streets/surface streets, knowing shortcuts, or just planning ahead. It's just abject giving up because "traffic is too bad" even to places that are within 5 miles. I have also experienced this GPS phenomena where people will use a GPS even in the most local of drives. But I have yet to experience even what I would call a traffic jam. I'd imagine this is partially because of the times I would be out on streets (i.e. never during a morning commute) and taking a lot of buses, thus mostly surface streets.

Like Sara C. said, I have no understanding why people are so continuously worried/unprepared for traffic and why they might shut down at the idea of going 5 miles away for dinner. Isn't this something you should be used to? I've never had that experience in any city.

I'd agree with other people that a lot of this is probably dependent on what you consider to be "LA" versus suburbs/other cities entirely. I have been in Manhattan traffic that took several hours to go a couple of miles. I get that LA is more spread out but it doesn't seem as bad as that, especially since weather delays don't seem to factor.

EDITED TO ADD: Good advice for people visiting: Public transit is sometimes a lot faster. If they want to stay downtown and take the subway, it's actually a pretty reasonable solution to visit several "hot spots." Also cabs are weirdly expensive, traffic or no. And all the Angelenos I know complain that the buses are very unpredictable because of the traffic but I've not had that experience...
posted by jennybento at 12:06 AM on April 30, 2013

I've lived in the area my whole life, and I have seen the traffic get steadily worse in recent years. There is also constant construction going on, which really complicates things. (So even though I work nights, it's not unusual to get stuck for a few hours on the freeway at 3 AM.)

The people who are saying its all about shortcuts and surface streets either know some sort of crazy traffic-fu, or they are traveling through some part of town where nobody works or wants to be. From approximately 3 PM - 8 PM the town is basically one big snarl; you get off the freeway in desperation, and you hit a surface street snarl that's just as bad or worse. There is a very good reason why we all put up with this shit: there is no other option. To get to work, to get to school, to get where you want or need to be, you are gonna be stuck in hellacious traffic.

It's bad enough that on a semi-daily basis I'll think that it's simply not sustainable, something has to change. But I suppose people have been thinking like that for a while, and it never changes. I can say that if it gets much worse than it is now, the whole system will break down. At this point too many people already spend hours in traffic every single day, and past a certain point we won't be able to pretend it works anymore.

I know the OP said they weren't looking for Angelenos complaining about the traffic, but I don't mean all of this stuff purely as a complaint. This is just reality as I've know it, from spending my adulthood stuck behind some idiot in an SUV. Anybody coming to LA needs to be aware that awful traffic will be a major part of their trip.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:53 AM on April 30, 2013

LA native. The traffic has become exponentially more horrible on my visits since they started doing work in the Sepulveda pass and the other canyon routes into the SF valley.
posted by brujita at 2:37 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been visiting the LA area every 2-3 years for more than three decades now; I live in NoVa and get to play in traffic in DC-area rush hours.

I've been hearing or reading about LA traffic being so very bad ever since I can remember, but I've got to say it never seems THAT bad to me. Sure, the highways are usually jammed, but they're jammed as bad or worse around here, or anywhere near NYC or Boston for that matter. The difference seems to be that LA traffic is, for lack of a better word, polite: they leave more space between vehicles, they're more willing to wait their turn at things like merging; road rage is pretty well unknown. Whereas on the Beltway, road rage is a mere fact of life, and driving is almost treated as a competition. (For anecdotal confirmation, I offer my sister: whenever she's here from LA, this area's roads freak her out, and she can't WAIT to get home to LA's traffic.)

And for anyone who thinks LA's highways are an indecipherable mess, I offer Exhibit A, the Springfield Interchange, where the Beltway (495) and 95 meet, nicknamed the Mixing Bowl: there are, no kidding and no exaggeration, FORTY-EIGHT flyovers and overpasses in that one interchange. I live here and *I* get lost in that mess. (I've often wished I had the concrete concession for it.....)
posted by easily confused at 2:49 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

It was worse than I could possibly have imagined. A wreck on the 405 made me have to take a t-shirt and pee into it because I couldn't get off the freeway. Hope this helps.
posted by telstar at 2:56 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've visited LA once, for about 3 days. My preconceived notions came from other visitors to LA who all said how hard and time consuming it was to get around by public transport, and to allow more time than you'd think to get places even by cab.

When there, I think I didn't experience the worst of it, partly because I heeded the advice of locals eg:
- "if you leave *now* it'll take you just over an hour" (Anaheim to somewhere near Universal Studios, by car, early afternoon on a weekday and the estimate was spot on)
- "oh at that time of day, you want to take the subway" - which I did so I can't say what the traffic was like.
I also had a really good run out to the airport around about 8am on a Sunday.

I found it hard to figure out how to get to places on public transport, but the travel time itself wasn't too bad (for the distance you had to cover).
posted by pianissimo at 5:05 AM on April 30, 2013

The few times I have driven in LA the traffic has been bad...not extraordinarily bad based on advanced warnings but bad enough that it would drive me crazy. Thank God for the HOV lanes when available on some freeways because those seemed to move very swiftly. I didn't particularly notice super bad traffic on surface streets but I bet that certainly does happen in certain corridors and at certain times.
posted by mmascolino at 6:25 AM on April 30, 2013

Another new LA resident here, and have played visitor several times over the years prior. Originally from metro NYC area, driven all over US east coast and some of Canada.

Some of these opinions may be exaggerated for dramatic effect:

The people who complain the most, loudest, and most hopelessly about LA traffic are natives who haven't experienced comparable cities. Yet, natives have the least excuse to complain because outwitting LA traffic is all about local knowledge, BUT:

LA drivers are remarkably lazy and appear to believe that they are legally required to use the freeway whether to go 1 mile or 45 miles.

Some LA residents refuse to accept that LA is a major metropolis and therefore they believe its traffic should be like that of a small burg in Idaho. To play fair, we have to compare LA to other large metro centers. East coast cities experience many more choke points due to the increased need for bridges, narrower highways, and frequent bad weather. Can you believe that LA residents have so much traffic anxiety and and it doesn't even snow here? Lord knows what would happen to these people in snow or ice.

Many LA residents believe they should be able to traverse entire swaths of the region, upwards of 30+ miles, with no friction and howl when they cannot. Try this same stunt by car in NYC, Boston, or Toronto, and get back to me the next day when you finally reach the other side. But for some reason, people in NYC, Boston, and Toronto already know this, while LA residents seem continually surprised and maddened by this basic fact of life.

Sorry to stray off topic. What has always struck me as a visitor and new resident about LA traffic is how bipolar it is. The freeway can be jammed full but a surface street nearby can be almost empty. I have to scratch my head at people who say that surface streets are just as bad. By and large this is not even remotely true. It can occasionally be true on streets that feed the freeways during rush hour, but other than that, um no.

(I also scratch my head at comments about how hard parking is -- this isn't even a contest compared to east coast cities -- parking in LA is a piece of cake by comparison.)

To use a real life example, yesterday afternoon I needed to take an 8 mile trip from the westside to Encino, at about 4pm. This should be a traffic zoo and if I routed myself like the typical LA driver it would be. I know this because I saw the crawl northward on the 405 -- except I wasn't on it. Admittedly, I have honed my routes with practice, but between growing experience and close study of Google Maps, I made this trip in -- wait for it -- 15 minutes flat, on virtually empty roads. Likewise on the return. At 5pm on a weekday. Take that, LA!

In sum, LA traffic is like a "choose your own adventure" game. If you play it right you can actually beat the system most of the time, but most LA residents don't seem to know this and I'm kind of glad they don't. Still, sometimes you can't beat the system and you choose a route that leads to a trap, and then you're stuck for 15 minutes until you can escape the trap. Oh well, there are bigger problems in life, and every big city has its pain points.

PS. Advice to visitors -- check the LA metro maps. If they serve where you want to go, use them -- cheap, quick, easy. Rail transit here does not serve a large area but for the areas it serves, it is very good and usable.
posted by thebordella at 6:29 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have visited LA and driven around several times. For comparison I live near Philly. I find that the traffic in LA is comparable to Philly at rush hour, but the difference is that in Philly if it's not rush hour the traffic is not bad unless there is an accident, but in LA it is always bad. Even at 10 PM.

The roads are much better designed in LA though and it's easier to get on and off the freeways and the signage is very good.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:45 AM on April 30, 2013

I've been to LA once as an adult for a couple of days (I also visited when I was 10 with my mom, but the only thing I remember from that trip is DisneyLand.) We spend 2-3 hours stuck on the 405 one afternoon, which was miserable. It wasn't rush hour, so we were surprised.

As for advice to provide visitors, maybe they should just check with locals regarding the routes they plan to drive and the times of day they will be travelling. We didn't do that, and maybe it would have helped us avoid a known bottleneck.
posted by Area Man at 6:47 AM on April 30, 2013

3rd generation L.A. native here. I live in Burbank and commute to Century City. I leave Burbank at 5:30 a.m. so as not to hit Valley to city traffic. The routes over the hill in the morning are completely insane. It can take an hour just to get on a canyon road.

I've parked on the 405 before and gotten out of my car. It was a jackknifed big rig. I was parked for an hour.

1. Depending on the time of day, it can be totally lovely or a total nightmare.
2. Weekends are not exempt from rule #1.
3. Leave early. Then add 20 minutes to that.
4. Never take the 110 downtown between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. In either direction. Take surface streets.
5. If you're taking the 10 W in the morning toward Santa Monica, plan on leaving around 6:30 and being late.
6. Sunset from UCLA to Silverlake can be a better route than the 10
7. Taking Fountain might have been fine for Bette Davis, but now it's a total nightmare. Avoid Fountain.
8. If you're going to Palm Springs, take the 210 all the way to the new 10 interchange. Don't, under any circumstances, take the 10 all the way out.
9. If you have to take a canyon road over, start before 7 a.m. otherwise you're screwed.
10. The 5 is a nightmare but sometimes, it's the only way. If you're going to take the 5, make sure you have an audio distraction.
11. Anything can be the cause of traffic. Nothing can be the cause of traffic. Do not try to figure out why there is traffic. It is futile.
12. Listen to KNX. Traffic on the 10's. If they say to avoid something, avoid it.
13. Slow the FUCK down if you are going Northbound on the 405 from Skirball. Traffic will stop and you will either rear end someone or side swipe them trying not to rear end someone. SLOW. DOWN.
14. You are not clever for getting into the lane at the last minute. You are the asshole that is slowing traffic down at the interchange. Stop it.

There's probably a few more, but that's the story for now.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've spent 45minutes getting out of the LAX airport at 10pm on a friday night, only to then spend 2hrs driving 4 more miles. I was made to understand my experience was not unusual.
posted by larthegreat at 7:14 AM on April 30, 2013

I recently spent around 10 days in LA and had been warned all my life, through movies and television, about how absolutely terrifying LA traffic is. Coming from Mobile, Alabama, I was prepared to be in traffic the entirety of the time I was there. My flight arrived at 5:06PM on a Friday and I took the FlyAways bus to Van Nuys...good grief, that was the longest bus ride I've ever had in my life. Roughly 18 miles or so and it took almost two hours to travel. Horrible.

A few days later, my friend tossed me the keys and told me that I would be driving that day. I nearly had a panic attack at the thought of driving in that traffic, but I found the whole thing not bad at all. Surface streets were a breeze and even when we got on the interstate, which was full, the traffic moved along at a brisk clip. I was prepared to be terrified but really enjoyed driving there. In fact, when I got back home I was irked by the slow drivers and rather pedestrian pace of the traffic.

Not nearly as bad as I'd feared and I can't wait to go back and drive some more!
posted by BrianJ at 7:24 AM on April 30, 2013

L.A. traffic is pretty crazy, but really not as scary as it gets built up as being. If you're from a smaller, more laid-back town, the drivers can be pretty intimidating -- maybe like the traffic equivalent of walking on the sidewalk in Manhattan -- but if you're careful and stay in the slow lanes and just let the other drivers do what they need to do, it's not bad at all. After a couple of days you'll be driving like a native.

Traffic in Seattle was much worse, frankly, because you get about the same amount of traffic jam, but in much smaller of an area, so it seems ridiculous. And at least L.A., being so decentralized, offers things to do within clusters of neighborhoods, so there's plenty of stuff going on well within local-street-driving distance.

If I could give only one piece of advice to a first-time L.A./Orange County visitor, I'd advise not to attempt a comprehensive tour of the whole area, unless you're going to be there for a week or longer. Pick an area and try to focus your activities there. (Anthony Bourdain recently did an entire hour of his new show on Koreatown alone.) You'll have a lot more fun, and get a better sense of the city than if you try to, say, go from Santa Monica Beach to Disneyland to Universal Studios in a two- or three-day span.

And if you do have a week or more to explore the region, I would advise visitors not to stay in one hotel the entire time, but move around between two or three, so you have a home base close to your destinations.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 9:59 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to me that so many people talking about LA traffic from a tourist perspective are saying things like "I drove from Pasadena to Anaheim and it took umpteen gazillion hours".

Living here, if I'm traveling that kind of distance, that's not a short jaunt through the city, that's a road trip. I'm not so much talking about the time, but I just don't think of those places as being close to each other at all and don't expect to be able to travel between them seamlessly.

So I think a lot of the traffic woes of tourists come not so much from the fact that Los Angeles Has A Lot Of Traffic but maybe in the ways outsiders see the area vs. how locals see the area. It's easy to look at a map or a guidebook and see Old Town Pasadena and Disneyland as two stops on the tourist circuit within the same basic city, which are "only" 35 miles apart and connected by freeways, so therefore should be easy to do in the same day. Except that's not how space actually works in Los Angeles.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, so many great responses! This has been very insightful, thanks.

Sara C.'s last comment makes a really good distinction between types of traffic people experience. Keep the stories coming if you have them!
posted by Room 641-A at 1:43 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: I flew into LAX and was there for about three or four days last year. I stayed in Koreatown and didn't find it too hard to get around via public transit (which is way more robust than I expected). But nothing I really wanted to do was outside of the reach of the subway, so that might have something to do with it. It seems like most major tourist things are available via public transit, including Santa Monica and the Getty museums, so you might just want to see if that's feasible. Metro has a real time smartphone app that I found pretty useful.

I think the problem is that people don't realize how Balkanized and spread out the Los Angeles area is, and don't adjust their expectations accordingly. I would never want to go from like, Downey to Culver City or something in like an hour. The traffic itself was worse than Seattle, but it was nowhere near as exponentially terrible as I was expecting.
posted by calistasm at 3:35 PM on April 30, 2013

thebordella's comment reminded me that I basically ONLY took surface streets when I visited LA. At the time, I was living in San Francisco, a hotbed of El-Ay haterade, and was shocked to find driving around LA fairly pleasant. Granted, I wasn't in a hurry, I wasn't driving at commute times much, and I have a deep and abiding love for the strip mall visuals of immigrant suburbia.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:34 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: It's weird to read that the traffic in LA is "always bad" and similar. It's not. I don't know where people are staying/driving to that they can extrapolate that, but the traffic here is not always bad, 24/7. Traffic in Brentwood is always bad, the Sepulveda pass is usually not great, but traffic at night is unusual and annoying.

Like Sara C. says, I think a lot of people are driving farther than the average Angeleno would consider a casual trip and/or are driving to really popular destinations (i.e., Disney Land). Sports games also screw up the freeways, so if you're planning an LA trip, keep the Dodgers, Lakers, and USC schedules in mind when planning your route.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 6:08 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

thebordella, I think what we can learn from your post is that you are indeed a new resident. Apparently somebody doesn't have a job that requires them to commute during rush hour. ("Rush hour" being approximately 6 AM-9:30 AM and about 3 PM - 8 PM.)

It's not that every hour of every single day you are guaranteed to hit horrible traffic. It's that on a daily basis it's very likely that many roads will be impassable for hours at a time, especially if you need to get anywhere when people are going to or from work. (Although a truly epic Sigalert can break out at any time of the day or night.) A poster above described pissing in their car because they couldn't get out of a snarl in time. On those rare days when there's no traffic it takes me about 20 minutes to get to work. It took me an hour and a half to get to work last night, and an hour and 45 minutes to get home this morning. And that is not unusual.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:02 PM on April 30, 2013

Apparently somebody doesn't have a job that requires them to commute during rush hour.

Or that "somebody" doesn't consider a little congestion Murderous Nightmare Traffic Apocalypse.

I would say that, in my rush hour commutes -- moreso in the evening than in the morning, but also sometimes in the morning -- there is at least an instance or two where freeway traffic is creeping along at, say, 20 mph. Or where things are honestly bumper-to-bumper congested for a few minutes. But it's not "always" that way, and it's not "a nightmare". It's just, like, this is a city. Other people live here too. Driving 80 mph at all times on completely empty freeways is not a right.

That said, I am almost never on the 405. So maybe that is an absolute "you could just put it in park" nightmare at all times, with people pissing themselves all the time (maybe I just learned from my NYC subway commute that you go to the damn bathroom BEFORE you leave the office?). Maybe it takes everybody on the Westside three hours to get home every night, what do I know.
posted by Sara C. at 7:18 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a good example. My commute is just a hair under 20 miles each way. I happen to know that, if I'm the only car on the road, it's possible to get to work in 20 minutes. (For example the time I needed to be at work at 6AM.) A more typical rush hour commute to work is more like 30 minutes, on days where there are no major traffic jams. A bad morning commute is more like 45 minutes.

So, I would say that there is virtually always traffic that causes me to get to work later than I strictly could get to work.

About 10% of the time, there is a serious traffic jam that causes me to glance nervously at the clock and think, "Oh no, is this ridiculous traffic going to make me late for work?"

I have only actually been late for work due to traffic once.

I have (in 5 months living in LA) never experienced the "parked in place for hours" "wetting myself" traffic some people describe, though I don't question the truth of those anecdotes. They're just rare enough to be anecdotes and not a regular fact of life.
posted by Sara C. at 7:35 PM on April 30, 2013

Ursula Hitler, do you live or work on the west side? Traffic in all of LA isn't terrible, but it's really bad around the 405. (Lived in LA for four years, thank you very much).

Note to visitors: Avoid the sepulveda pass.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 10:07 PM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: "The traffic was way better than I expected and I've been to LA several times [...] Like Sara C. said, I have no understanding why people are so continuously worried/unprepared for traffic and why they might shut down atv the idea of going 5 miles away for dinner. Isn't this something you should be used to?"

It's not the daily commute or the yearly trip to Disneyland that stresses you out; you can plan for known pinch points or try to avoid them. It's that the traffic everywhere else is totally unpredictable and it takes very little to cause major delays.

Someone above mentioned the four-mile trip to the beach that took 90 minutes. I believe it, because a few months ago it took me 30 minutes to drive 1/2-mile to the 10 on-ramp in Santa Monica. You just can't plan for that. Now imagine doing that for 33 years. You don't get used to it so much as you get totally sick of it and want to kick traffic's ass. One of the reasons I asked the question is because after all these years I wasn't sure if I had an objective perspective.

It's kind of funny though that if you take all the individual trouble spots people have mentioned it pretty much covers the greater L.A. area: Santa Monica! The Sepulveda Pass! The 405! The Valley! Burbank! Sports/DTLA! WLA! Avoid the freeways! Point A to point B! Point F to Point U! Going to the airport! Leaving the airport! At least we don't have to deal with it all in three or four months of inclement weathr.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:57 PM on May 1, 2013

Response by poster: I disagree with your assertion that you cannot plan for being stuck for 30 minutes trying to get 1/2 mile to the 10 on ramp in Santa Monica and that sort of thing - I do plan for it and, consequently, am nearly always able to avoid it.

Oh, I meant that the 1/2-mile I mentioned is not a place where that kind of back-up would normally happen. Unless you meant that you check all those resources even within a half-mile radius of your front door, or constantly while you are en route somewhere; you have built in a few steps to avoid the traffic, but the traffic still exists. (And if you are that vigilant, more power to you!)

I bought my truck in 1995 with ~1000 miles on it, and only just broke 50K miles on the odometer, so I agree that it's possible to arrange chunks of your life to avoid traffic, although that was a lot easier when job and housing options weren't as limited.

Anyway, I was just responding to the question of why people don't just get used to the traffic and to me, it would be like wondering why anyone who lives in Minnesota would complain about shoveling snow or anyone in Seattle would be sick of the rain. Anecdotes and individual specifics aside, a few themes emerged and I think it will definitely improve the way I answer L.A. answers in the future!
posted by Room 641-A at 6:41 AM on May 2, 2013

I definitely want to say as an east coaster, that built-in traffic checking is a way of life. When I lived in the burbs and commuted to the city (25 mile drive), I would check before I left and, before I left, every 10 minutes on the radio (KYW, traffic on the twos). Once smartphones came along with built-in traffic, I used that for my traffic. Now that I live in the city I pretty much avoid driving and use public transportation. But when I do drive, I use my real-time traffic info and know about 10 ways to get anywhere. I know what places I can count on to be backed up unless it's 2 am. Case in point, we carpooled from Philly to new Haven in 2 cars. The other driver is from the west coast. They didn't use a GPS and took 95 the entire way. I used my GPS (with traffic option), and it took me on and off 95 three times. I made it in 3 hours flat -- he got there exactly 1 hour after me. There seems to be a different mentality in that east coasters are more proactive about traffic so if we end up in it it's our fault for either not checking traffic, or for driving somewhere we know not to.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:02 PM on May 2, 2013

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