L.A.’s The Place
L.A.’s The Place is the official slogan the City of Los Angeles uses to promote tourism. But any visitor will soon realize that “L.A.” isn’t a “place” in any usual sense. Rather, it’s a diverse and very exciting collection of places, scattered in all directions over a 100-kilometer radius from wherever you happen to be staying, and separated by too many kilometers of frustratingly congested freeway.
Even residents can’t agree on what “L.A.” actually is. The city of Los Angeles itself sprawls over 1,290 square kilometers. In the early 20th century, it “annexed” nine formerly independent cities and dozens of unincorporated towns that traded their autonomy for access to the city’s Eastern Sierra water supply. Southern California is, after all, a desert. Hollywood is the most famous of these erstwhile cities.
But the city’s boundaries blur into an unofficial vaguely defined agglomeration called “Greater Los Angeles.” The bean-counters at the federal Office of Management and Budget have defined an official entity called “Metropolitan Los Angeles” as Los Angeles County (which includes 88 incorporated cities and 10 million people) and the adjacent Orange County to the south (home of the Disney theme parks and Mission San Juan Capistrano, among other attractions). The same agency has also defined a “Los Angeles Combined Statistical Area” that adds Ventura County— the coastal region between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara— to the “metropolitan” area. Unofficially, “Greater Los Angeles” or “the Southland” also includes parts of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the “Inland Empire” to the east, from which many people make lengthy daily commutes. For that matter, it could be most accurate to define Los Angeles as the central core of a nearly continuous conurbation that stretches some 400 kilometers along the Southern California coast from Santa Barbara in the north to San Diego in the south.
However you define it, the sheer expanse of “L.A.” creates unique challenges for the visitor. If you’ve visited other major cities, you’re probably familiar with the standard guidebook recommendation to select a “home base” hotel in a central location convenient to mass transit. But that won’t work in Los Angeles! There is nothing resembling a central location. And as Southern California’s sprawl co-evolved with the automobile, mass transit is neither convenient nor practical for most vacationers.
Yes, Los Angeles does have a Downtown. On a rare day when the smog and haze temporarily abate, it’s visible as a cluster of skyscrapers sprouting from the flat “L.A. basin.” As the historical city center where Los Angeles was founded as a Spanish colonial pueblo in the eighteenth century, it’s a major center of finance and commerce for the Pacific Rim. It’s also a fascinating place to walk around.
Some people who haven’t done their homework choose a Downtown hotel as their base for a Los Angeles vacation. Downtown is a great destination in itself, well worth spending several days— or perhaps even an entire vacation— exploring on foot. But it’s nowhere near most of the other places tourists want to visit. Parking and driving are costly and difficult, and after dark most of Downtown becomes deserted and often dodgy.
(Downtown is now undergoing redevelopment and gentrification, as high-powered business executives who want to live close to their offices move into new astronomically-priced housing developments converted from former office space. It’s increasingly developing exciting nightlife, although it’s still not the safest place after dark. It could eventually become a vibrant if unaffordable enclave, even though it will probably still be nothing like a conventional city center.)
The Challenges of Getting Around
So where is a good place to stay while exploring Los Angeles? It’s easy enough if you’re confining your visit to one specific area, such as Hollywood or Santa Monica, or if your plans extend only to spending your summer vacation waiting in endless queues with the kids for rides at Disneyland® park. But if you’re looking to explore the exciting diversity of Southern California, the inescapable fact is that no matter where you stay (or live) in the Los Angeles area, any itinerary you plan will necessarily involve a lengthy daily “commute” on the nation’s most congested freeways.
Guidebooks note that the Los Angeles area has a very extensive patchwork of mass transit systems. Then they invariably warn against relying on any of it, unless your time and patience are limitless. Because of the distances between the places you’ll want to visit, that’s generally true. But if you can make a trip entirely on the modern and mostly reliable Metro Rail light rail system, or a trip on a single bus, you should definitely do that instead of driving. It will significantly reduce the stress on yourself, your wallet, and Mother Earth. You can find out if that’s possible by using the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (“Metro”) trip planner.
Unfortunately, the Metro Rail system covers a limited portion of the Southland sprawl. Its routes better serve the needs of the politicians who originally supported it in the 1980s than those of today’s transit users. High costs and NIMBYism have hampered its subsequent expansion, although voters have recently passed sales tax increases that will eventually improve its coverage. Metro Rail is most notable for all the places it doesn’t go. If you want to use Metro Rail, you’ll probably need to make a lengthy drive to the nearest station that has a parking lot.
The Metro bus system has been the subject of continuing and costly litigation about a range of problems that include infrequent service, inadequate routes, and overcrowded and dilapidated buses. A trip of any distance will probably involve multiple buses, possibly operated by different transit agencies. That means you’ll spend far too much time standing on nondescript and possibly dodgy street corners waiting for connections that no transit officials have even thought about synchronizing. (In fairness to those officials, the very same gridlocked traffic that bedevils automobile drivers makes any bus schedule little more than a statement of intent.)
Some places have no usable bus service. For example, the one Metro line that serves the residential area where I live has no stop within walking distance of my home. And parking near any of the stops along this route is limited to two hours. (A large shopping center near a stop even has special signs that warn NO PARKING FOR BUS COMMUTERS.) To use mass transit, I need to ask a neighbor or pay for a taxi, Uber, or Lyft to drive me to and from the nearest bus stop. Or else I can drive 13 miles (21km) to the nearest Metro Rail station that has a parking lot, which is what Metro’s customer service representatives recommend. This might be an extreme example, but there are many parts of Southern California where access to mass transit is too inconvenient to be practical. (Actually, if I’m making a day trip to somewhere like Downtown Los Angeles, I will very happily make the 26-mile [42km] round trip drive to and from the Metro Rail station. As inconvenient as that seems, it’s much better than driving 54 more stop-and-creep miles [87km] on perpetually-jammed freeways, and then paying extortionate parking fees.)
A likely reason for these deficiencies is that, according to Metro’s most recent available data, the median household income of bus riders in 2015 was $14,876. (The median income for riders of Metro Rail trains was $19,374.) Given the $55,909 overall median household income for Los Angeles County, bus riders are among the least affluent residents. And many of those bus riders aren’t citizens. Politicians are naturally disinclined to spend any money on a service mainly for low-income people whose time isn’t considered valuable, especially when many of them can’t even vote. Although federal courts have forced some improvements in recent years, buses in Los Angeles can best be described as the transportation of choice for those who have no other choice of transportation.
That said, it is possible to enjoy a visit to Los Angeles without driving. You’ll need to plan carefully, choose accommodations convenient to a Metro Rail station or a major bus route, and limit your itinerary to places that don’t require unreasonably lengthy trips involving multiple bus connections. This article in the “alternative” newspaper LAWeekly offers useful tips, as does a guidebook specifically devoted to visiting Southern California without a car. (The guidebook, Nathan Landau’s Car-Free Los Angeles & Southern California, has comprehensive information about numerous places and how to get there. I have it, use it, and recommend it— with a caveat: As of July 2017, the publisher is still selling the 1st edition, published in 2011. It’s long overdue for a 2nd edition.)
If you’re an athletically-inclined thrillseeker, you could fill in the mass transit gaps with a bicycle, as the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler” Seth Kugel has done. Metro Rail trains have space near the doors for bicycles, and many buses have bike racks. Bike paths are also proliferating throughout Southern California. But riding a bicycle in traffic, on streets designed around automobiles, poses a significant risk to life and limb.
If your budget permits, you could splurge on taxis to get to places mass transit doesn’t conveniently reach. But that option is quite expensive. Distances are long, and the meter keeps running even when idling in jammed traffic. It also requires some patience. Aggressively-enforced restrictions on where cab drivers can pick up and drop off passengers mean they don’t cruise busy streets looking for customers. You can’t just hail a cab as in New York or London. Whenever you need one, you’ll have to call a dispatcher on your cellphone and wait. The Uber and Lyft smartphone apps are increasingly popular alternatives to taxis— and, among younger people, to car ownership.
There are also numerous sightseeing tours of major attractions that let someone else do the driving. They’ll pick you up from any of a lengthy list of hotels. Some of them offer “hop on, hop off” circular routes that shuttle between tourist destinations. A ticket is a one-day pass that lets you get off at any stop, explore for however long you want, and then board the next bus to continue the tour.
Any of these approaches may involve more hassle than many visitors are willing to accept. But the challenge of exploring automobile-addled Los Angeles without a car may appeal to adventurous, ecologically-minded visitors. If you’re not committed to that sort of challenge, driving really is the only practical choice. And since the automobile and gridlock are perhaps the Southland’s defining characteristics, driving is essential for any visitor who wants to experience what Los Angeles really is like. Indeed, driving on L.A.’s clotted freeways affords visitors one of those very rare opportunities to experience a place exactly as locals do!
If you’re an easygoing low-stress individual, you’ll know just how to cope when the traffic congeals into a dreaded Sig-Alert: Roll down the window, turn up the radio or MP3 player, sing along with your favorite tunes, and enjoy the sunshine (or the “marine layer” of gray overcast that keeps the temperature pleasantly cool). But if you aren’t blessed with the patience of a saint and the serenity of a Zen master, a carefully planned, methodical divide-and-conquer approach can reduce— but not eliminate!— traffic hassles.
Divide and Conquer
However you choose to get around, the key is to recognize that Los Angeles isn’t a “city” at all. It’s more like its own country. So plan your trip accordingly.
Rather than staying in one place for your entire trip, “divide and conquer” by choosing several locations. Make a list of the places you want to visit, and plot them on a map. Then look for “bases” near where the plots cluster, and make your hotel bookings there. Plan an itinerary that allocates an appropriate amount of time in each “base,” according to your own tastes and preferences. After you’ve explored one area, move to the next “base” during mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or late night hours when the traffic is theoretically lightest. That may sound like a lot of work, but it can make your trip less stressful and much more enjoyable than enduring a daily “commute.” It’s also the only truly practical approach for visitors without a car.
The Endless Summer and Other Myths
As the home of the movie industry, Southern California figures heavily in the myth and fantasy that “Hollywood” spins into its products. That’s an important reason Los Angeles is such a popular vacation spot for couples, families, and friends. Romantics can enjoy basking in the reflected glamor, while cynics will likely find much to appreciate in the reality behind the fantasy. But let me here debunk one pervasive myth: The weather in Los Angeles is not the endless summer meant for surfing and riding in convertibles.
Although the ocean and coastal mountains create a “Mediterranean climate” that lacks the seasonal extremes found in many other places, there are distinct seasons. And I’m not referring to the old joke that they’re “Flood, Fire, Smog, and Earthquake.” A visitor in late spring may be very disappointed with the continuous heavy overcast of May Gray and June Gloom, which can sometimes persist into “No-Sky July” and even “Fogust” (the “Summer Bummer”), or inexplicably appear at any time of year. Near the coast, the peak travel months of July and August can be foggy or overcast. But that’s actually a blessing, since it keeps temperatures delightfully cool while inland areas swelter under a smoggy blanket. (This is the result of the ocean and mountains creating an “inversion layer” that traps both clouds and smog. The Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first to document this entirely natural phenomenon in 1542. When he noticed that smoke from Tongva Indian fires accumulated instead of dissipating, he named what is now Los Angeles Harbor Bahia de los Fumos, “Bay of Smokes.”)
Contrary to the song, it does rain in Southern California— mainly in January and February, when flooding can bring traffic to a halt and unleash hillside mud that sends costly beach homes sliding into the frigid gray Pacific. But it also means the mountains that surround the Los Angeles “basin” get a good dusting of snow. Spring and autumn are the most reliable times for postcard-perfect sunshine, and are probably the best times to visit. But hot and dry Santa Ana winds in autumn promote brush fires that can fill the air with smoke. Postcard pictures showing crystal-clear panoramas of the Los Angeles Basin backed by snow-clad mountains are taken in winter, on the days between the Pacific storms that (temporarily) rinse away the smog. Christmas is equally likely to be a dry 25°C as wet and blustery; and you might experience both weather conditions within a single week in November or December. Though some Southland beaches are as beautiful as those in Hawaii, many people find the water in this part of the Pacific Ocean too cold for swimming or surfing.
Regarding some other pervasive myths, drive-by shootings are newsworthy specifically because of their rarity. And visitors really need not worry about the much-publicized gangs or drug-related violence if they avoid the impoverished areas that are notorious for those problems, such as Compton and “South Central,” which aren’t tourist destinations anyway.
Although violent crime can happen anywhere, by any objective measure traffic accidents are a far greater risk to life and limb. But few people ever think about that. (And of course, the toll of terrorism is minuscule in comparison to the annual highway carnage. But that doesn’t stop the TSA from spending billions of dollars on dubiously-effective measures seemingly meant to transform airports into “secure facilities” where they can treat passengers like convicted felons.) Thefts of and from cars are too-frequent occurrences, so always take the standard common-sense precautions of locking your car and keeping anything valuable out of sight. It’s amazing how many stolen or burglarized cars were unlocked, some even with the keys left in the ignition!
As for earthquakes, if you spend a day in Southern California you will almost certainly “experience” at least one of them. But unless you check the Southern California Earthquake Data Center’s Los Angeles Special Map, you’ll never know about it. Nearly all the earthquakes are so weak that only seismographs notice them. If there is an earthquake large enough to feel, you’ll have something to brag about to your friends when you get home! Yes, earthquakes are an ever-present hazard; but compared to the risk of injury or death in a traffic accident, the chance of suffering any harm from them is effectively nil.
L.A’s Not The Place For A Solo Vacation
As fascinating as Los Angeles is, I cannot recommend it as a destination for solo travelers. That’s not because of the safety concerns women often worry about. It’s no more (and no less) dangerous than any other American major city. Rather, the things that make Los Angeles unique also make it a less than desirable destination for people of either gender who travel alone.
As you’ve surely gathered by now, exploring Los Angeles necessarily involves spending a lot of time in a car, often going nowhere. That can be trying for anyone, but it’s particularly stressful and exhausting if you’re doing it alone. Negotiating clotted freeways and streets is much easier if you’re with someone who can share the driving, read the map or GPS, quickly determine an alternate route when the off-ramp you need is closed due to construction or an accident, and look out for street signs and unoccupied parking spaces (for which GPS provides no help).
The freeways impose a single-occupancy penalty as onerous as that of any cruise line: Cars with two or more occupants can use special carpool lanes on many freeways that often— but certainly not always!— let them zoom right past the creeping horde of solo drivers. (These “high occupancy vehicle” lanes are actually meant to encourage the Southland’s notoriously solipsistic commuters to share rides; they only incidentally penalize the solo visitor.) And if meeting people is what makes solo travel special for you, the isolation that goes with Southern California’s “car culture” can make that much more difficult than in many other places. Those are just some of the reasons to defer your Los Angeles adventure until you can share it with friends or a Special Someone.
If you’re dreaming of a Southern California vacation with the uniquely exhilarating freedom of solo travel, San Diego might be a better choice. The climate, coastal scenery, and recreational opportunities are much the same as in Los Angeles, but they and other attractions are in a more compact area that’s much easier to navigate.