Driving, Los Angeles
If you're worried about driving in LA, hopefully this will answer some of your questions and concerns.
Because there is a lot of traffic here, people who are coming to visit for the first time are naturally apprehensive about getting behind the wheel and joining the chaos. That's actually a good thing - being worried about it most likely means you'll take it seriously, which is exactly what you SHOULD do. But don't be so scared that you dismiss driving in LA as impossible.
The first thing to bear in mind is that if you've driven in NYC, Boston, DC, London, Paris, etc. then you will be pleasantly surprised upon arriving in LA. Most of the streets here are VERY wide with more than one lane in each direction. This makes driving much easier, in my opinion, because you have a little more elbow room to maneuver.
Secondly, you need to know where you're going BEFORE you even leave. Please, people, as a driver of these roads, I beg of you, don't trust GPS, don't toss a map on the seat beside you and look at as you drive. Figure it out before-hand - write it on stickie note or, if you do have GPS, at least get an idea of where you're going so you can make some smart decisions if something like detours arise. This will prevent you from doing things such as realizing you need to exit RIGHT NOW when you're clear over in the fast lane.
Thirdly, speaking of the fast lane, when you're on a freeway, the slower lanes are on the right, the faster lanes on the left. If this is your very first time on an LA freeway, don't get all the way over to the left. Stay in the right or 2nd from the right lane for a while to get comfortable with the speed of the traffic. The carpool lane is for 2 or more drivers and that is the very far left lane of most freeways. Not all have these lanes. They are marked with a diamond. Also, signal! Drivers here are, for the most part, polite. If you signal, they'll usually let you in.
Most freeways have the entrance and exit ramps on the right. As you enter, there will sometimes be a traffic light right before you get onto the freeway. These are usually active during rush hour to stagger the entrance traffic a little making it easier to merge and easier for the cars already on the freeway to let you merge. Bear in mind though, carpool traffic often have their own lane on the entrance ramp and they don't need to stop at the light. Exit ramps will have signs to let you know where you're coming out at. The hardest part about exit ramps is that you usually have to merge with an entrance ramp, so as you're slowing down and moving to your right to get off, people are also coming on, speeding up and trying to get over to the left and you're both using the same lane or two to do this so be aware of what is going on next to and behind you - don't concentrate too much on the signs ahead of you.
The speed limit on the freeways is 65mph maximum (usually 40 minimum, and, yes, you can get a ticket for going too slow) but some parts of some freeways are still 55mph. It is illegal to not wear a seatbelt and it is illegal to talk on your cell phone while driving. If you don't have a hands-free device maybe check into getting one.
Remember you don't have to take the freeways. The surface streets will also get you where you need to go (sometimes faster than the freeways depending on the situation). Some streets also have a number (for example, Pacific Coast Highway or PCH is Hwy 1, and Santa Monica Blvd is Highway 2). These highway roads are usually bigger, wider, and move a little better than other surface streets. One important thing to remember on surface streets is that you can get a ticket for blocking an intersection. That seems obvious but may not be when you're in traffic and it's moving slowly. You're following the car ahead of you and, as you get out into an intersection, the light changes to red. The car ahead of you still hasn't moved forward and so now you're stuck out in the intersection blocking the opposite direction of traffic. Not only will doing this make the other drivers seriously mad but the police can ticket you. Don't move forward into an intersection unless you can make it all the way to the other side.
We also have a lot more red light cameras here nowadays. If you're unfamiliar with these, they are set up to be timed with the red lights. If you begin through the intersection after the light has turned red, the camera will take a picture of your license plate and send you ticket in the mail. If you have a rental car, know that the time and date of the offense will be on that ticket so the car rental agency can figure out who was using that car at that time and track you down to pay the ticket. So, basically, if the light turns yellow, try to stop so you don't get your picture taken.
The most important piece of advice I can give, though, is that if you feel uncomfortable driving in LA then don't do it. While it isn't as bad as a lot of people think, it still can be challenging and if you're not up to the challenge there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It would be better and safer for you to use public transportation. Taxis here aren't as plentiful as they are in other large cities so you usually have to call for one (or have your hotel call for you). You could also look into hiring one for the day. You can also use shuttles for trips to and from the airports (and Disneyland has its own shuttle). There's also the metro system for LA, Pasadena, and Long Beach as well as "metrolink" trains to take you down into Orange and San Diego County.
Always wear your seat belt otherwise you will receive a ticket. If your passengers are under 18 years of age or do not have a valid California driver's license and they are not wearing their seat belt, you will receive a ticket for each one of them as well.
Beginning July 1, 2008, it is against the law for the driver of the vehicle to hold and use a cell phone while driving. Any "hands free" device is okay. Anyone 18 years or under cannot be on a cell phone while driving - even the hands free device is illegal.
Smoking in a vehicle when a minor (child 18 years or younger) is present is against the law.
When a school bus is stopped with red flashing lights on, you must stop as well. Children may be exiting or getting on around the bus at that time.
In California, you can make a right hand turn on a red light as long as you have come to a complete stop first and make sure it is clear and safe to make the right turn. UNLESS, it is posted otherwise - NO TURN ON RED.
You can make a U-turn in any intersection UNLESS a NO U-TURN sign is posted.
Do not cross double yellow lines even if you need to turn left from a driveway.
There is no such thing as a "California Stop". That's a stop that you slow down but not really stop the car and look to see if it is safe to go. You will get a ticket.
Pay attention to your parking meters. Most cities stay on top of these meters running out. If the meter is broken, you can park there and you won't get a ticket. I always make sure to put a note on my windshield that the meter is broken or money won't go into the meter.
In parts of LA, when parking on a slope or hill, there may be a sign posted that your wheels must be turned into the curb. If you do not do this, you will get a ticket.
When driving through small towns outside of LA, pay attention to your speed! It's easy to drive 35-45 miles per hour though these small towns because there is no traffic. If the speed limit is posted 25 miles per hour - you better be driving 25 miles per hour! The police are waiting on the side streets to give you a ticket.
For tourists who want to drive anywhere in the United States, see this website for more info:
A car might give you much freedom to explore LA, but, depending on the places you go during your visit, it might not be necessary. Consider that between Griffith Observatory (north) and Long Beach (south) there are about 50 km.
However, if you drive by car around Los Angeles beware of stress, especially if you are not used to drive in large and busy cities. Freeways can be very fast at certain times and almost parking lots at rush hours. As a tourist I would suggest not to use freeways but inner city roads. City roads are often large and plenty of traffic lights but you'll see more of LA and you might find some interesting graffiti to look at on some walls. I strongly suggest to get a GPS: set it to the least use of freeways, insert addresses of spots to visit and enjoy your trip.
If you want to save money on car rental I suggest " Rent a Wreck" company
I drive from San Diego to L.A. Having the use of a car while in Los Angeles is generally thought to be the ideal. It is a big town and an even bigger county so more efficient getting from one place to another with a car.
Also, using a car can be problematic especially for those on a budget. These days you'll most likely have to pay $10.00 to $35.00 per night for parking at your hotel. Many tourist places will offer a Paid parking lot or valet service when visiting them, which will add on to the cost of the admission. This is not even counting the traffic that converges on the city streets near and around the popular tourist spots or traffic jams on the freeways day and night.
While driving in Los Angeles you'll need to be calm and patient.
Driving around town is also a major headache and time consuming. When making plans for the day add at least an extra hour for travel!
If you are not familiar with the California Rules of the Road, visit the website below and take a look at the Drivers License Handbook. The rules are mostly common sense but the book will help you spot the oddities of this state.
With LA traffic, if you're smart about it, you can dodge it pretty well.
First, you should try to limit your driving to between 9am and 3pm and after 7pm.
Still though, LA freeways will randomly go crazy throughout the day, so you have to check traffic reports. If you have a "smart" mobile phone (mine is only relatively smart, but it still works), you can go onto Google Maps and check traffic conditions using their "Traffic" tab. Failing that, you can call 866-MY-TRAFC and get the reports. Or, of course, you can listen to all news stations (mostly AM band, I usually use KABC, 790) and wait for the traffic reports to come up.
Welcome to the California USA. You will likely find that public transportation in the Southern California region less developed than many parts of the world since the automobile and a vast freeway system is the primary means of travel here.
However, you can travel the nearly 100 miles (160 kilometer) several hour distance from LAX airport to the "Coaster" train station stop called "Poinsettia" in Carlsbad by taking a bus and trains with 2 transfers. I actually live in Carlsbad near the Poinsettia Coaster train station. I've traveled this route on public transportation before.
The route from LAX via the LA Union Train station to Poinsettia Carlsbad is as follows:
LAX bus to Union Train Station (AMTRAK) on "Flyaway" bus $6
(see time tables & pick up location here --> http://www.lawa.org/uploadedFiles/LAX/pdf/FLYAWAY%20PAMPHLET%202009-FINAL.pdf
and -- > http://www.lawa.org/welcome_LAX.aspx?id=292 )
Once at Union Station take AMTRAK train to Oceanside AMTRAK station adjacent to the transit center (tickets & schedules here - -> http://www.dot.ca.gov/rail/go/amtrak/fares_tickets/index.cfm )
Once at Oceanside take either the "COASTER" local commuter train southbound to Poinsettia Carlsbad station (2nd stop) or take North County bus #101 from the adjacent Oceanside transit center ( see details and schedules here ---> http://www.gonctd.com/coaster_schedules.htm )
Once at the Poinsettia Carlsbad "Coaster" train station you'll need to arrange to be picked-up or taxi to your final Carlsbad destination.
Hollywood Blvd is often closed for special events or demonstrations.
Hollywood between Highland Ave. and La Brea Blvd.: Movie premieres and events at The Kodak Theatre and El Capitan often take over the street. DO NOT take La Brea or Franklin to circumvent the problem - they become clogged, quickly. Better to travel several blocks south to Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood Blvd near Vine: This is the de facto corner for political protests. Protests usually begin in this intersection and travel west towards Hollywood and Highland.
I wish I knew of resources for advance warning...if you find one, let me know! Puhleeze!
Many road in LA are jammed even late at night or the weekend. The following is a list of problem areas and alternate routes:
The 101 Downtown to Ventura county
Try the 118 instead through the Valley.
The 405 from the 101 to the 105
You're screwed. You can take surface streets for short distances, but if you go to or from the Valley just try avoid rush hour. Possibly go through Malibu Canyon if it is on your way.
The 10 from Santa Monica to Downtown.
Try Olympic Blvd or Pico Blvd or if it is not out of your way too much, the 105 isn't half bad.
The 5 from Downtown to the 91 (near Disneyland)
Maybe try the 110 south to the 91 east.
In addition to the 118 and the 110 mentioned as quick freeways, also try to use:
The 210 north of Pasadena
PCH through Malibu (but not in the summer)
The 170 (usually moves at about 80mph)
If the metro goes where you are going, use it. It will be faster.
The best way to move around the area is by a Car... nearly everyone is driving here. LA is huuuuuge and very spread around. Thus, public transportation will only get you to a few limited areas. Rent a car and dont be afraid driving here. You will find driving much easier then in NY City or large European cities. Yes, there can be traffic, but FW and HW systems is well organized and peple generally follow the rules and being pretty good and respectful toward other drivers on the road... No, I am not kidding... especially if you want to go to the beaches and to Orange County, a car is must.
I've used Hotwire and Priceline before when renting a car in LA, the obvious downside is that you can't cancel your reservation without losing your money. This time I encountered another downside, Budget had apparently rented out so many cars that they ran out of them, I had to wait in a 50 person line to get to the counter and then wait for another 1/2 hour to get a car. I had rented a full size car because I needed four doors and often with smaller cars they will not guarantee 4 doors. I ended up with a Ford Taurus, a bigger car than I am used to driving and I assume with not very good gas mileage.
I got a great rate, $11.95 per day, but I'm not sure that the savings was worth the hassle. I'm tempted to look into one of the major car companies programs where you get dropped off as a fast track booth and a car is sitting there waiting for you, then maybe I will end up with the exact car that I want!
But sometimes Hotwire works just fine, in October 2008 I got the exact car I would have asked for for $13.95 per day plus we got a GPS for no additional fee, it certainly came in handy!
I heard this somewhere: People say that 'Nobody walks in L.A.' but it's more accurate to say you're a nobody if you walk in L.A. or you're a nobody if you don't have a car.
Again, I'm only relaying what I heard; although I would agree with the fact that you need a car in L.A., commentaries aside.
LA is a car city. Everything is so spread out which makes a car a necessity. So is intestinal fortitude if you're planning on getting on a freeway, which is also required if you're going anywhere.
LA traffic is one of the worst in the nation. To compensate for this, anytime the freeways are not congested, Californians drive at a rapid and aggressive pace, weaving in and out of traffic and moving as fast as their car's RPM's will allow. After all, you never know when traffic will come to a screeching halt. This usually occurs when you're driving at a mere 70 mph while all other cars are weaving around you when suddenly brake lights come on in mass and everyone is stopped.
So, in a nutshell, a car is a necessity. Unless you're very wealthy and can afford a driver of your own.
You've heard this before, I know, but I'll say it again . . . you need to get a car! Renting a car in LA is actually not that expensive (but I think you'll find that you do need to be over 25 for most of the major companies). Car culture is big in LA not because we particularly like them, but because it's very hard to enjoy (or work in) the city without one. (By the way, people that maintain that 'in LA you are what you drive' are usually people who are trying to convince themselves that spending more for their fancy car than their (less fancy) home really makes sense.)
If a car is really not an option, try to stay in Santa Monica and use the 'Big Blue Bus' line. This is a good idea as (1) you'll be in Santa Monica/Venice area for your base, which means you are at the consistently most vibrant beach area in town and (2) you will have easy, clean access to a bunch of other places. That said, a car will add to your pleasure a great deal.
Lastly, driving the LA freeways will probably feel daunting at first. Try to know where you are going before you get on as the road signs are not always are good as you would hope. For Brits especially, the fact that you are on a six or seven lane highway where everyone can overtake everyone else in any lane can be scary.
CAR CAR CAR .... You have to have a car to get around L.A since it is such a big city. They have some sort of public transportation look at my tips. BUT it's basically just around Hollywood and Santa Monica. They have busses everywhere but it will take a very long time to get where you want to go.
You can fly, drive, bike, or boat into LA. There are other methods, sure, but the best way to get to LA is by plane. Driving across the desert from Arizona or Nevada will be an adventure, but bring lots of water.
You really must have a car. I got a good deal from Alamo when I first visited LA in 1998, but you should shop around for special rates before arriving. If you're adventurous, you can travel by bus and subway, but you've got to be a good planner and have lots of free time and patience. You must also get along well in crowded situations. Buses run until 1 or 2am and start again by 5am. The drivers went on strike last year, so hopefully that won't happen again for a while. The best bet is to stick with an automobile, if you've got the budget, so that you have the freedom to drive all around the city or drive to the mountains and beaches.
(Photo: The old control tower, LAX International Airport - June 2001)