Picture L.A. and you might see a hectic mesh of multilane freeways with their hypnotic streams of cars. Once you've joined the multitudes you'll be caught up in the tempos of traffic: frustration, exhilaration, and crushing boredom. "Freeway culture" is one of the city's defining traits.
In L.A., as of this writing, gasoline costs around $3 a gallon. Most stations offer both full and self-service stations. There are plenty of stations in all areas; most stay open late, and some are open 24 hours. To find the stations with the lowest gas prices in town, visit www.losangelesgasprices.com. Prices are updated every 36 hours by a network of volunteer spotters.
Navigating Los Angeles
Finding your way by car in Los Angeles can be a piece of cake or a nightmare. If you're used to urban driving, you shouldn't have too much trouble, but if you're unused to driving in big cities, L.A. can be unnerving. The city may be sprawling and traffic clogged, but at least it has evolved with the automobile in mind. Streets are wide and parking garages abound, so it's more driver-friendly than many older big cities.
There are plenty of identical or similarly-named street in L.A. (Beverly Boulevard and Beverly Drive, for example), so be as specific as you can when getting or checking directions. Also, some smaller streets seem to exist intermittently for miles, so unless you have good directions, stick to major streets, where you'll be less subject to detours.
Expect sudden changes in street-address numbering, as streets pass through neighborhoods, then incorporated cities, then back into neighborhoods. This can be most bewildering on Robertson Boulevard, an otherwise useful north-south artery that, by crossing through L.A., West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, dips in and out of several such numbering shifts in a matter of miles.
In Santa Monica, odd numbers switch over from the north and west sides of streets to the south and east sides.
Try to get clear directions and stick to them. The Thomas Guide, a hefty, spiral-bound, super-thorough street guide and directory, is published annually and is available at bookstores, grocery stores, and the like. It's worth the money if you're planning to stay longer than a week and spend the majority of your time navigating the area in your car, but for most visitors the compact L.A. city maps available at auto clubs and retail shops are more manageable and work just fine.
If you get discombobulated while on the freeway, remember the rule of thumb: even-numbered freeways run east and west, odd-numbered freeways run north and south.
For some shops and many restaurants and hotels in L.A., valet parking is virtually assumed. The cost is usually $4-$6 and/or an optional tip; keep small bills on hand for the valets.
But there are also some inexpensive and easy garage and lot parking options. For instance, the underground facility at the Hollywood & Highland entertainment and shopping complex, at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, charges $2 for the first four hours and a maximum of $10 for the day; no validation is required.
In Beverly Hills, the first two hours are free at several lots on or around Rodeo Drive (for a detailed map, visit www.beverlyhills.org). There's never a parking fee or a long wait to enter and exit at the Westside Pavilion's open-access garage at 10800 Pico Boulevard.
Parking in downtown L.A. can be tough, especially on weekdays, but the garage at the 7+Fig retail complex at Ernst & Young Plaza (725 S. Figueroa St.) is spacious, reasonable, and visitor-friendly. Validation from a shop or restaurant gets you three hours free; otherwise, it's $7 before 9 am and $8 after 4 pm and on weekends.
Parking rules are strictly enforced in Los Angeles, so make sure you check for signs. Illegally parked cars are ticketed or towed quickly. Parking is generally available in garages or parking lots; some public lots are free all or part of the day; otherwise prices vary from 25¢ (in the public lots) to $2 per half hour or from a few dollars to $30 per day. Downtown and Century City garage rates may be as high as $25 an hour, though prices tend to drop on weekends.
Sometimes businesses will offer validated parking if you've parked in an affiliated lot; validation will give you free parking for a certain time period. At a restaurant, for instance, ask for parking validation from the host or hostess. Metered parking is also widely available; meter rates vary from 25¢ for 15 minutes in the most heavily trafficked areas to 25¢ for one hour; have a bunch of change available. In some areas, metered parking is free on weekends or on Sunday. Another bonus: If a meter is out of order (for example, if it is flashing the word FAIL where the time remaining would appear), parking is free for the posted time limit.
Street parking in L.A. can be confusing because of varying restrictions (during the day, only at night, once a week during street-cleaning hours, etc.)
Beware of weekday rush-hour traffic, which is heaviest from 7 am to 10 am and 3 pm to 7 pm. KNX has frequent traffic reports; the Los Angeles city Web site and southern California CommuteSmart Web site have real-time traffic information maps, and the California Highway Patrol has a road-conditions line. To encourage carpooling, some crowded freeways reserve an express lane for cars carrying more than one passenger.
Parallel streets can often provide viable alternatives to jam-packed freeways, notably Sepulveda Boulevard for I-405; Venice and Washington boulevards for I-10 from Mid-Wilshire west to the beach; and Ventura Boulevard, Moorpark Street, and/or Riverside Drive for U.S. 101 through the San Fernando Valley.
California Highway Patrol (800/427–7623 for road conditions. www.chp.ca.gov/index.php.)
CommuteSmart (213/922–2811. www.commutesmart.info.)
For lesser problems on L.A.'s freeways (being out of gas, having a blown tire, needing a tow to the nearest phone), Caltrans (California's Department of Transportation) has instituted the Freeway Service Patrol (FSP) 6:30 am-7 pm. More than 145 tow trucks patrol the freeways offering free aid to stranded drivers.
If your car breaks down on an interstate, try to pull over onto the shoulder and either wait for the state police to find you or, if you have other passengers who can wait in the car, walk to the nearest emergency roadside phone and call the state police.
When calling for help, note your location according to the small green mileage markers posted along the highway. Other highways are also patrolled but may not have emergency phones or mileage markers.
Metro Freeway Service Patrol (323/982–4900 for breakdowns. www.mta.net.)
Rules of the Road
The use of seat belts for all passengers is required in California, as is the use of car seats for children five years old or younger or 60 pounds or less. The speed limit is 25-35 mph on city streets and 65 mph on freeways unless otherwise posted.
Turning right on a red light after a complete stop is legal unless otherwise posted. Many streets in downtown L.A. are one-way, and a left turn from one one-way street onto another is okay on a red light after a complete stop. On some major arteries, left turns are illegal during one or both rush hours (watch for signs). Certain car-pool lanes, designated by signage and a white diamond, are reserved for cars with more than one passenger. Freeway on-ramps often have stop-and-go signals to regulate the flow of traffic, but cars in high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes can pass the signal without stopping.
As of July 2008, California law began requiring that all drivers use hands-free devices when talking on cell phones.
Some towns, including Beverly Hills and Culver City, use photo radar at stoplights to try to reduce speeding (these intersections are always identified with signs). LAX is notorious for handing out tickets to drivers circling its busy terminals; avoid the no-parking zones and keep loading or unloading to a minimum.
Also keep in mind that pedestrians always have the right of way in California; not yielding to them, even if they're jaywalkers, may well result in a $100 ticket.
Speeding can earn you a fine of up to $500. It is illegal to drive in California with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or above (0.01% if you're under 21); the cost of driving while intoxicated can be a $390-$1,000 fine plus 48 hours to six months in jail for first offenders.
Parking infractions can result in penalties starting at $30 for a ticket on up to having your vehicle towed and impounded (at an ultimate cost of nearly $200 even if you pay up immediately, more if you don't). In California, radar detectors aren't illegal, but "scanners" (which receive police radio signals) are; per the FCC, "jammers" (which interfere with signals) are illegal throughout the United States.
In Los Angeles, a car is a necessity. When renting one, keep in mind that you'll likely be spending a lot of time in it, and options like a CD player or power windows that might seem unnecessary may make a significant difference in your day-to-day comfort.
Major-chain rates in L.A. begin at $35 a day and $110 a week, plus 9.75% sales tax. Luxury and sport utility vehicles start at $69 a day. Open-top convertibles are a popular choice for L.A. visitors wanting to make the most of the sun. Note that the major agencies offer services for travelers with disabilities, such as hand-controls, for little or no extra cost.
Beverly Hills Budget Car Rental, with six locations, offers the widest range of vehicle rentals, including Hummers, convertibles, minivans, and economy cars. Daydreaming of a restored classic Chevy or the latest Porsche? Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car, a rental facility with branches in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and near LAX, rents exotics, classic cars, luxury models, economy cars (including Mini Coopers), vans, and SUVs. Midway Car Rental, with eight offices on the Westside, in the Valley, and in Mid-Wilshire, has the usual, plus some extra-large vans and, in its "executive class," Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, and so on. Possibly the handiest in the lower-price range is Enterprise, with two dozen branches in the area (some have luxury vehicles as well). You can rent an eco-friendly electric or hybrid car through Budget; for more information contact EV Rental Cars.
In California you must be 21 and have a valid credit card, often with $200-$300 available credit on it (regardless of how you ultimately pay), to rent a car; rates may be higher if you're under 25. There's no upper age limit.
American Automobile Association. Most contact with the organization is through state and regional members. 315/797–5000. www.aaa.com.
National Automobile Club. Membership is open to California residents only. 650/294–7000. www.thenac.com.