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Why LA is The World's Best City For Driving
by Bradley B. • January 16, 2019

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Los Angeles is Actually the Greatest City For Driving.

Out of more than 1,300 bustling cities across the globe, Los Angeles has the world’s most nightmarish traffic jams. That’s according to Inrix, the traffic data firm, which has named L.A. the most congested city for the past six years in a row. It’s the frontrunner for 2019.

Angelinos sacrifice 100 hours of their life, every year, stuck in traffic. Despite grumbling about it, SoCal motorists remain defiantly behind the wheel of their cars. Apparently, it’s part of the deal for living in the global capital of car culture. And in exchange, when drivers can escape the congestion, L.A. offers unparalleled opportunities for scenic driving.

The city’s Faustian bargain with cars goes way back. The first automobiles arrived in L.A. in the late 1890s. As cars gained popularity in the ensuing decades, Los Angeles residents grew increasingly fed up with the city’s electric-powered intercity rail system, which in the 1920s was the largest of its kind in the world. The streetcars were viewed as undependable, overcrowded, and (even back then) very congested. Meanwhile, construction of the spectacular Angeles Crest Highway began in 1922—followed in 1924 by the opening of famed Mulholland Drive along the ridge of the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica mountains.

Throughout the 1920s, L.A.’s population more than doubled to about 1.2 million people. The number of private automobiles increased at an even faster pace, expanding from around 160,000 cars registered in L.A. county in 1920 to more than 800,000 vehicles by 1930.

Traffic from those cars and the city rail lines created so much congestion that by the early 1930s, city planners and the influential Automobile Club of Southern California began working on plans for a system of urban highways. Private cars and highways were seen as clean and progressive. The promise of fast-moving commuter-based roadways earned such nicknames as “greenbelts” and “magic motorways.”

By 1940, pro-freeway advocates could point to the success of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which was built for fast commuting between Los Angeles and Pasadena. In post-war boom times, construction of L.A.’s vast highway system began in earnest. Owning a car quickly became not only a source of pride and a symbol of freedom but a necessity for Angelinos.

Experience It For Yourself

Visitors to Los Angeles are often flabbergasted by L.A.’s traffic. That is, until they have a chance to pull off the highway and aim their vehicle to some of the best driving the world has to offer. Motorists wanting the full L.A. driving experience can start with one of these five classic Los Angeles roadways.

Mulholland Drive is the most iconic of all scenic roads in L.A. Built in the 1920s to introduce houses to the Hollywood Hills, it spans 55 miles of sharp curves and dizzying drop-offs, treating motorists to views of exclusive mansions and panoramic vistas of the Los Angeles basin. The ribbon of road splits Hollywood on one side and the San Fernando Valley on the other. Mulholland Drive features eight overlooks, providing the classic L.A. setting for “making out” above the twinkling lights of Tinseltown.

Pacific Coast Highway is a 40-mile stretch of California Highway 1 between Santa Monica and Malibu. If you want to sound as cool as a local, just call it “PCH.” There’s a good reason why stretches of the PCH passing sandy beaches and dramatic mansion-dotted cliffs are often used for car commercials. It’s delightful especially if you can experience it in a convertible with the top down and the wind blowing through your hair. Pause to soak in the splendor in at Zuma Beach. The long, sandy beach is one of city’s most popular beaches and surf spots.

Palos Verdes Drive offers yet another breathtaking drive along the mighty Pacific. The 14-mile coastal road from Palos Verdes to San Pedro is a slow and easy jaunt past ocean cliffs, horse trails, eucalyptus trees, and the Point Vicente Lighthouse. The lighthouse is a popular spot for spotting migrating whales off the coast. Palos Verdes Drive is consistently ranked as one of Southern California’s nicest drives.

Angeles Crest Highway is a 66-mile stretch of asphalt through the Angeles National Forest. It traverses the San Gabriel mountain range, climbing to over 8,000 feet. The Angeles Crest Highway offers views of the San Gabriel Mountains and Mojave Desert. The narrow, mountainous two-lane road is like a roller-coaster ride, with sweeping curves and fast switchbacks past the vast diversity of Southern California’s geology and flora. There are granite mountain faces, towering pine trees, and dusty desert chaparral. It can be rugged at times. In fact, portions of the Angeles Crest Highway are closed in the wintertime due to the potential hazards of falling rocks and avalanches.

Sunset Boulevard proves that Great Los Angeles drives are not limited to mountain passes and ocean perches. They can also transport you through L.A.’s famed urban culture. The 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard winds through historically gritty (now hipsterized) neighborhoods such as Echo Park and Pacific Palisades. But is best known for passing through toney Beverly, star-studded Hollywood, and the chic hotels, nightclubs, and flashy billboards of Sunset Strip. The boulevard traverses all the way west passing by UCLA and Brentwood before providing relief from the city when it reaches the Pacific Ocean.

Car Culture Extravaganza

Great drives wouldn’t mean much without great cars. While Los Angeles is not an auto manufacturing city, but the city’s love of automobiles finds full expression in its vibrant car culture. In fact, it’s a source of inspiration for numerous automakers that locate their design studios in the region. BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, and Toyota all have design centers in and around L.A., where the shape of sheet metal for many future cars is penned. The next generation of those designer are trained at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And all of these folks can access some of the best car collections in the world, including the Peterson Museum in downtown L.A. and the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard.

Car culture in Los Angeles is not a spectator sport. From the earliest days of the automobile in L.A., young people found cheap old cars and turned them into surf wagons and racing machines. They were dubbed Jalopies because the discarded, broken-down models were often shipped to the Mexican port Veracruz and its capital city of Jalapa. By the 1950s, Jalopy racing became so popular that it was televised in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, young Latinos were expressing their automotive creativity by turning American sedans into lowriders bouncing up and down the boulevards.

Customizing cars, now a $30-plus billion industry, became a global phenomenon thanks to iconic L.A. figures like George Barnes (the “King of Kustomizers”) and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who created the hot rod icon Rat Fink. The tradition continued with the legendary Carroll Shelby, who modified Mustangs from his shop in Marina del Rey. Their legacy lives on in the speed shops of Culver City in Los Angeles County. The tuning and drifting movements were later exported directly from the streets of L.A. to the silver screen in the ultra-popular Fast and The Furious movie franchise.

Driving Forward

Despite the best efforts of transit planners to alleviate congestion in Los Angeles, the city’s relationship with the automobile is deeply entrenched. The same holds true for other car-dependent cities from Mexico City to Beijing. But if there’s any hope for relief from global gridlock, the solutions are likely to emanate from nowhere else but Los Angeles.

Responding to what he called the “soul-crushing traffic” of Los Angeles, Elon Musk—the indefatigable chief executive of Tesla Motors—built the first underground tunnel of his Boring Company to alleviate congestion in the L.A. suburb of Hawthorne.

The annual Los Angeles Auto Show, one of the major annual events for the global auto industry, now kicks off every year with its Automobility event. Auto executives and entrepreneurs gather there to explore how the next wave of innovative car technologies—including self-driving cars, electric vehicles, and alternative forms of automotive ownership and access—will create sustainable transportation solutions for the future. The shape of future cars, how they are powered, and even if they will be driven autonomously, is unknown. But even if Angelinos soon start getting around in robotic mobility pods, you can be certain that they will be taking them for a spin on Mulholland Drive with the top down.