Southern California Freeways

They’re California Freeways, Not Expressways!

Once upon a time, I was doing some phone research, trying to get directions to a particular location in the New York City area. Obtaining driving directions from a gentle, patient and courteous New Yorker on the other end of the phone, I asked if my destination was near the freeway offramp that appeared on the map I was holding.

What the #$%& is a freeway?” came the response.

That day my life changed. I learned with absolute certainty that the proper term was expressway, tollway or interstate; turns out there aren’t any freeways in much of our great country.

Well, in Southern California, freeway is the proper name (unless there is a toll, which we’ll talk about later). We will talk in detail about cruisin’ the SoCal freeways, and also a bit about public transportation and AMTRAK.


The Southern California freeways are second to none, a system that handles the needs of a population of like 30+ million people. The California Department of Transportation is known as CALTRANS, and the signage and other design details they have developed take a backseat to nowhere, and are superior to the expressways of New York (c’mon, we love New York but you know it’s true!).

Although it is intimidating to drive in any large city, the key to safety and mental health is having plenty of advance notice whenever you must change lanes or exit the freeway.

Southern California freeways have an advantage over those in many eastern cities in that SoCal experienced much of its expansion after WWII and in the ‘50s, so there was a better chance to design the roadway system to deal with the high traffic volumes and high speeds. An example of a SoCal freeway that is more like you’ll see in the east is the Route 110 freeway going north of downtown. That stretch is very windy, with onramps and offramps that test your reflexes more than most.

Of course, we now have exceeded the capacity of the original Southern California freeway system and, for decades, have been expanding the regional freeway system at tremendous cost. People are gradually moving towards the ever-improving public transportation system, which we touch on below. One area where CALTRANS has played catch-up to other states is in numbering freeway exits. I believe all are numbered but that is a more recent development, and one that is quite helpful.

CALTRANS is very good at giving you a heads up 1 mile (or more), then ½ mile, then ¼ mile before your exit. It is usually not too difficult to get off and go back if you missed your offramp. If you have GPS this is even easier. But if you’re paying attention, and don’t insist on always driving in the left lane, you should be able to hit your offramps without any trouble.

Remember that the green overhead signs tell you how many lanes are allocated to the offramp. You can tell by the number of down arrows on the sign; each arrow represents one lane. This may be common everywhere, but it is very helpful when you are transitioning from one freeway to another.

Most offramps on Southern California freeways are right-exits; unlike some cities we don’t have a large percentage of exits to the left. Of course, having seen that here, I’ll bet your first day in town will send you past six left-exit offramps.

Southern California Freeway Organization 101

OK, as far as getting around is concerned, it’s helpful to realize that, the freeway identities are influenced heavily by the two main interstates, I-5 and I-10, and to a lesser extent by I-15. As you probably know, all the north/south freeways within the national interstate system are given odd numbers The east/west freeways are given even numbers. I-5 runs generally diagonally through the Los Angeles region because the coast runs at an angle there, straightening up more in San Diego.

As in most metro areas there are loops and alternate routes that are given numbers related to I-5. Southern California freeways are no exception–with a few exceptions. The I-405 loop (half-loop) runs down the west side and around the South Bay area, into Orange County and connects back up with the mother ship in Irvine (check out the large Spectrum commercial area clustered around the intersection of I-5 and I-405).

I-605 runs in sort of a north/south fashion, whereas I-105 is somewhat more east/west. But both are intended to serve as alternates to I-5, which can get really crowded. It has been widened through much of O.C., with work now underway in parts of south L.A. County. It is often worthwhile to drive a bit further to avoid this artery, especially during rush hour.

I-10 starts in Santa Monica and runs all the way to the east coast. This Southern California freeway connects with I-8 out of San Diego out in the Tucson Arizona area. In the L.A. metro area it is very busy, with I-210 being an alternative route up along the base of the mountains.

Other alternatives are the 710 and 110 freeways. It’s funny that these last two routes run roughly parallel to the I-605 freeway, but are numbered based on I-10 rather than I-5. We don’t know why that is and don’t particularly care.

I-210 now runs from Pacoima, out in the Valley where it splits off of I-5 (again, a mystery as to the name being related to I-10), through Pasadena all the way to San Bernardino (aka San Berdo). It did not always go all the way. By continuing out east, it provides another major route for commuter traffic going east, which can be pretty rough in the afternoon. The opposite is true in the mornings.

Getting Out of Town (or Getting Back Into Town)

So if you can avoid driving east from L.A. or O.C. in the later afternoon, you’ll be better off. It’s best to be out of town by say 2:15 pm or earlier if you want to avoid afternoon bottlenecks on any of the outgoing Southern California freeways. The inbound crush starts early (it’s usually very busy by 7 am) but starts to ease up a lot after 9 am.

The main routes out of L.A. to the east are the I-210, I-10, the 60 (actually State Route 60) and the 91 (State Route 91) freeways.

There is no clear answer as to which route to take in general. The 91 freeway is particularly heavy most weekdays, and you don’t have a good way to shift over to a different freeway after you are east of the 55 freeway. So unless you’re sure the 91 is clear, you’re probably safer to take one of the other routes. Listen to local AM radio stations like KFWB at am 980 or KRLA at AM 870 for regular traffic reports.

If you have internet access, check out for fairly accurate information on traffic. A sigalert is a strange name for a major event that totally disrupts traffic on a Southern California freeway or major street. You can get this information for San Diego also.

If you are heading to or from San Diego, you have a couple of options for north/south travel. The I-805 and I-15 are alternatives to I-5; all can get quite busy during rush hour, but they do move, however slowly. You can take I-15 or S.R. 163 northeast into Riverside County. There has been a lot of suburban development along the I-15 corridor in the past decade or two, so these Southern California freeways can also be quite busy.

The commute out of downtown San Diego is generally shorter, on average, compared to the distance traveled by commuters in the Los Angeles Basin. I-8 leads out east and is paralleled by a few smaller freeways and highways. The biggest issue is the north-south travel. Local San Diego radio stations KOGO (am 600 News Radio) and KHTS (fm 93.3 Top 40) have traffic information.

I-5 can be busy for many miles, as it is the best link (on a good day) between San Diego County and Orange/L.A. counties with total population of over 10 million. You really want to avoid traveling this major route anywhere near rush hour if you have a choice. If you find yourself driving north from San Diego on I-5 on a late weekday afternoon consider going back to Lindbergh Field and purchasing an airline ticket instead. Mid-day or later evening travel is highly recommended as a slightly less-extreme option.

In addition to the wonderful Southern California freeways, there are a few tollroads, mainly in Orange County. They sell a transponder for your dashboard/windshield, but one-time users stop at the toll booths. Some of the secondary booths take direct cash only so make sure you have some small bills (they usually can change a $5 or $10, or make quarters from a $1 bill.

More Local Southern California Freeway Wisdom

The preceding paragraphs slipped in some San Diego freeway wisdom, but here are a few other things to avoid when driving up north in the south of California. I-405 becomes a parking lot around LAX in the afternoons especially. Don’t go down the 405 into O.C. if you must pass the airport at rush hour (returning from Six Flags Magic Mountain or the Getty Museum for example).

Downtown L.A. is bordered by the I-101 freeway on the north (this freeway was numbered before the Eisenhower numbering system was applied), I-5 on the east, I-10 on the south and the 110 freeway to the west. These are fairly safe if you’re not at rush hour morning or afternoon. The 110 freeway goes immediately west of the high-rise district and is known as The Slot in that area. The merge of I-5 with the 101 and I-10 on the east side of downtown can be a major bottleneck.

Here’s our secret route for coming up from say Disneyland to see a Dodger game (or even into Hollywood), you might want to take I-5 to the 91 west, then up the 710 all the way to I-10. Go west on I-10 to I-5 north (or the 101 to Hollywood). This kind of move gets you away from the East L.A. Interchange, as this bottleneck is referred in the radio reports. If you’re going to Hollywood, consider taking I-5 north to the 134 west.

If you must leave downtown L.A. in the afternoon, I’d take I-10 and listen to the radio for traffic reports. You can take the 710 down to the 60 or even down to the 91 if necessary, or you can go up to I-210 in a pinch. Sometimes the 110 freeway south from Downtown is not bad with its carpool lane.

If you find yourself heading west from downtown, you’ll likely be on the 101 going through Hollywood, and then the south portion of the Valley. The 101 can become very jammed, as the only alternatives are to take I-10 to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Santa Monica, and go north on PCH toward Malibu. That’s a nice cruise if you’re looking for a nice long cruise.

The other alternative is to go up to S.R 118, which is out of the way. There are east/west streets that you can take if the freeway is impossible. If you had to get to say Ventura from O.C. or downtown L.A., you could get up to the I-210, taking that to the 134 and on to the 101; but if you hear that the 101 is jammed, you stay on the 210 all the way up until you can catch the 118 west towards Simi Valley and then out to Thousand Oaks and a connection to the 101. Simi Valley is where the Ronald Reagan presidential library is found, by the way.

Downtown Riverside can be a mess, near the 60/91 interchange, although the completion of recent construction has improved this some. I-15 can be very busy with commuters heading up through the Cajon Pass to high desert communities like Victorville. Again, find one of the good radio stations with regular traffic reports and keep a map with you to locate the places they reference.

Attention Railroad Fans!

By the way, Cajon Pass provides a major route out of the Basin; I-15 is one of the major Southern California freeways (extending to like Canada) and runs up the pass, as do a couple of railroad lines. This is an extremely busy railroad highway, and the lengthy downhill slope is actually a bit of a challenge for railroad engineers. They must watch their downhill speed of course by using air brakes.

Now air brakes are fully applied (no motion) unless air pressure is used to release brakes and permit forward movement. If the engineer uses their brakes too much, they use up all their compressed air necessary to permit movement, and they must stop to recharge the air tanks.

There are huge rail spurs in Colton, in San Bernardino county, and in east Los Angeles. Rail traffic is very heavy in So Cal, largely because of the activity in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This is like the busiest international port complex in the country and all those imported goods must find their way out to the rest of the country. Therefore we have a very high level of truck traffic on the Southern California freeways, and an extensive railroad system that connects to parts east.

Public Transportation

A quick word about public transportation is in order. We’re still getting used to having it and some commuters use it regularly. Metrolink is the regional network, by which you can reach large portions of the greater L.A. metro area and even out into the Inland Empire. Metrolink stretches out from Union Station in downtown, where street-level public transportation is available. You can take Metrolink from O.C. or parts east into Union Station. There you can transfer if you want to go up to Six Flags Magic Mountain up in Newhall (a local bus will get you from the train station to the park). The system does a pretty good job of getting cars off the Southern California freeways.

Local buses will get you around L.A. proper and out to the heart of Hollywood. You can go south to the mission at San Juan Capistrano and further to the transfer station in north San Diego County if you want to go all the way to the San Diego train station. So, if you have time, you can do a lot by public transportation. I took Mrs. Guru and two daughters from Orange County to Union Station, and then by bus to the very interesting Fashion District on the outskirts of downtown, for a nice half-day of shopping.

San Diego offers a solid public transportation system as well. You can get from the airport or the downtown railroad station to almost anywhere you’d really want to go except for way out into the country.

AMTRAK runs trains through Union Station and parts of O.C. and the I.E and down to San Diego. However, it is not designed to be a local or regional carrier, but more of an interstate or intrastate railroad. Just make sure you don’t mix up AMTRAK and Metrolink or you might end up in Phoenix. Here’s some helpful information on train travel in Southern California.