If you’re planning on staying in Los Angeles for more than a day or two, it’s smart to rent a car to get around. Los Angeles has always been a car-centric place. Public transit is spotty compared to other big cities like New York. Driving in Los Angeles is slightly more complicated than simply looking for the cheapest monthly car rental you can find and turning on your GPS. If you’ve never driven in Los Angeles before, you’ll soon find out that drivers do things a little differently here compared to the rest of the country.
Because of the sunny weather and the big highways, many drivers find that it’s simpler to make your way around Los Angeles than it is in almost any other major American city. However, it still pays to understand the city’s neighborhoods, traffic patterns, and local traffic laws and driving customs. We’ve assembled an insider’s guide to driving in Los Angeles to make it easier!
What To Call It
Los Angeles is a big city. It has a definable vibe, and that vibe is based in large part on the automobile. Drivers in Los Angeles have their own particular vocabulary for most everything that has to do with getting around in a car. You’ll have fewer problems getting from point A to point B in Los Angeles if you know some driving terms that are peculiar to the Los Angeles area:
Los Angeles Has Freeways, Not Highways
Get used to every big road being called a freeway. You’ll almost never hear a Los Angeles driver referring to anything as a highway, an interstate, or a state route. If you want to sound like you belong in Los Angeles, call everything with guard rails a freeway.
Los Angeles freeways all have names. For instance, the 405 freeway is called the San Diego Freeway. The Golden State Freeway is the 5 freeway anywhere north of Downtown L.A. It’s not really necessary to learn all the freeway names, however. Los Angeles drivers don’t use freeway names very often. They simply refer to roads by their number, preceded by “The.” If you ask for directions in Los Angeles, you’ll most likely hear something like, “Take The 405 to The 10.”
Even the road signs are set up for following freeways by number. Road names are mostly absent from freeway signage. Most simply list the freeway number and the compass direction. Some add the largest city or neighborhood for each direction. For example, if you’re looking for signs for the Santa Monica Freeway, you might miss your turn. Look for “The 10,” and you’ll be fine.
Telling Surface Streets From Service Streets
It can be easy to be confused by the difference between the terms “surface streets” and “service streets” when you’re getting directions in Los Angeles.
Surface Streets in Los Angeles
You’ll hear the term surface street a lot when you’re driving in Los Angeles. For the most part, locals refer to any street that isn’t a freeway as a surface street. If it’s not a limited access road, it’s a surface street. Los Angeles is an enormous grid of surface streets that’s crisscrossed by big, limited access freeways.
Service Streets in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is the city of boulevards. In general, a boulevard is a wide, multi-lane road, often with a median strip. Boulevards can also have lanes that run parallel to the main road. These lanes are called service streets, and are usually separated from the main boulevard by a grassy island. If you’re trying to visit an address on a boulevard that has a service street, you’ll have to make a turn before you reach your destination, or turn around shortly after.
Luckily, service streets don’t usually have a different name than the boulevard they serve. The signage will read the same as the main road. If you’re from a crowded eastern city, you’ll appreciate how much easier it can be to drive slowly along a service street to find a street address. It makes finding a parking space, easier, too.
There Are Cities Inside The City of Los Angeles
You can drive at full speed for more than an hour and never leave Los Angeles. It’s a big city, and really spread out. However, it’s also possible to pass through four different cities in about ten miles of road. Cities like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are completely encircled by the City of Los Angeles.
All these smaller cities inside of Los Angeles makes the city much more vibrant and interesting. They can pose problems for out-of-town drivers, however. Street names can change when you enter a new city. Sometimes a street name changes when you enter a city, and changes back when you reach the other border.
Sometimes streets just end when they reach a notable destination like a park, a lake, or an airport. The road may begin again on the other side of the obstacle, but they’re disconnected.
Beware Familiar Street Names in Unfamiliar Places
If you’re stuck in traffic, it can be tempting to see a familiar street name on a sign, and take the exit thinking you can go the rest of the way on surface streets. Be careful. Many smaller cities inside of Los Angeles have roads with the same names as other local cities, but that are completely unrelated to roads with the same name elsewhere.
How Los Angeles Natives Drive
Driving in Los Angeles isn’t much different than anywhere else in the US. There are some laws and habits you might not be aware of, however. Here’s a short list of traffic rules for L.A
Law enforcement is very strict for driving under the influence. The legal limit for blood alcohol is 0.08%, and sobriety checkpoints are common. You can still be charged with driving under the influence for even lower levels if you exhibit other signs of intoxication. If you’re out for a big bash in Los Angeles with a bunch of friends, it’s smart to rent a party bus or use limousine service to avoid trouble with a DUI.
Los Angeles was a pioneer in the use of carpool lanes. On L.A. freeways, they’re called High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, or simply HOVs. You can recognize HOV lanes by they diamond painted on the road surface. You’ll have to be vigilant about what constitutes a HOV lane. Some require only two occupants, others are reserved for three or more.
If you’re visiting from other parts of California that have HOV lanes that are only restricted during rush hour, don’t forget that in LA, carpool lane rules apply 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Some motorcycles and low emission vehicles are eligible to ride in the HOV lane at any time, so don’t get confused if you see a car in the HOV lane with just a driver.
Cell Phone Etiquette
It’s legal to talk on your cell phone while you’re driving. You must use a hands-free device, though. If you’re spotted holding a smartphone to your ear while driving, you can expect a hefty ticket. Texting is specifically banned, including reading texts. You shouldn’t use the GPS in your handheld phone while driving, either. Even the cheapest monthly car rental deals are available with dedicated GPS now, and it’s smart to use one.
Leaving Children in the Car
It gets hot in Southern California. It’s not smart to leave a small child in an unattended car even for short periods, and it’s also against the law. Children under the age of six can’t be left in a car alone, and a child must be at least twelve to look after another child in a parked car. It’s also illegal to leave pets unattended in parked cars. One more thing about kids and cars: it’s against the law to smoke if you have a child in the car.
Traffic Is a Fact of Life in LA
If you’re new to Los Angeles, you might be astonished by the number of cars on the road, and the number of roads for cars to be on. LA natives are accustomed to heavy traffic, and have smart strategies for avoiding freeways during rush hours. There are plenty of major surface streets that can look like parking lots for long stretches during commuting hours. If you have a traffic app like Waze, Google Maps, or Mapquest, you’ll be able to avoid many traffic tie-ups. You’d do well to ask LA natives for advice on the best times to travel, too.
If you’re more old school, you can tune in t KNX-AM 1070. They feature traffic reports six times an hour, all day and night. You can also dial 511 on your phone for an instant traffic report, but remember to use hands free mode on your phone.
If you’d like to get a real feeling of what it’s like to drive in downtown Los Angeles, check out this video:
Remember, for the cheapest monthly car rental in greater Los Angeles, contact Value Rental Car, with convenient locations in Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Photos courtesy of the The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division