It's Not Just You, LA's Freeways Have Gotten Slower Since 2015

Heavy traffic clogs the 101 Freeway as people leave work for the Labor Day holiday in Los Angeles. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Feeling like your commute is taking longer than ever?

It probably is.

Earlier this month, we took at look at which freeway in L.A. is the slowest. Hint: it's not all of them.

Now we have the stats on which freeways have gotten progressively slower over the past five years, thanks to USC's Crosstown data project.

The group of journalists and data scientists examined the average weekday rush-hour speeds on 52 freeway stretches (they call them "segments") across Los Angeles County since 2015.

Turns out 31 of our beloved roadways have gotten worse, in terms of forward momentum.

And the speeds on 11 segments dropped 5 mph or more.

5 mph, you say? That's not so bad.

Well, we hate to break it to you, but it is bad. That 5 mph actually adds up to significant time wasted in your car.

Take for example, the I-5 from Santa Clarita to Downtown. In 2015, the morning commute took roughly 46 minutes. This year, those same drivers sat in traffic for one hour.

Over a week, that's an extra 70 minutes of pain. 70 minutes!

And that's just one way.

The return trip to Santa Clarita in the evening doesn't fare much better. It now takes on average nine-and-a-half minutes longer than it did four years ago.

In one month, drivers making that round-trip commute spend roughly 7 hours and 20 minutes more time in their car than they did in 2015.

That's almost a full working day, folks.

And you know what they say — time is money, and money is a thing you need to live in this city, so that you can spend more time sitting in traffic. Yay!

THE STATS

Crosstown crunched the numbers for the average weekday rush-hour speeds from 2015-2019, during the same period: Feb. 1 - March 25.

Here's what they found:

  • 31 freeways slowed down.
  • 17 sped up (more on them below)
  • 4 stayed the same.
Graphic by Crosstown L.A.

To see if your specific commute has gotten slower over time, scroll to the bottom of this article.


FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT

Commuter Bob Hays knows the slowing freeways all too well. He lives in Canoga Park and makes the 32-mile commute to El Segundo four days a week. That means he drives the 101 to the 405 to the 105. (I know, we sound like an episode of SNL's The Californians).

"I've done this drive for - oh my God, almost ten years - and it's not a pretty drive," he said.

He bought his home in the valley back in 2008, so he would be fifteen minutes away from his office. Then he got a new job, and he said he wasn't willing to depart from his four-bedroom suburban home just to be closer to work.

"A house like that down in the basin would be twice the price," he said. "I couldn't afford that."

Hays has flexible work hours. When he started in 2010, he left the house at 6:30 a.m. and got to work in 45 minutes. Today, he leaves the house at 5:45 a.m., and it still takes him 45 minutes. He said if he leaves later than that, the traffic gets worse.

"I leave at 5:45. If I leave at 6, I'm spending ten more minutes on the road. If I leave at 6:30, I'm spending like half an hour more on the road. That's like 45 more minutes. And that's way earlier than most people think is reasonable for going to work."

The drive home takes him over an hour, if he leaves by 2:30 p.m. That's at least an hour and 45 minutes total in the car, per day.

Bob Hays drives the 101 to the 405 to the 105 four days a week. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

Ten years into this drive, Hays has become a commuting pro. He knows which lane travels fastest when, down to the exit. He waits for big openings so he's not slowing down the person behind him and adding to congestion. He keeps a GPS on all the time, in case of rain, wildfires or car accidents.

To pass the time, he has a playlist of about 500 pre-vetted songs that he plays on shuffle every day.

"Being stuck with music I don't like for 45 minutes to an hour is not the best time," he said.

COMMUTER BLUES

Lengthening commute times are nothing new to Los Angeles. The steady decline on many routes, however, raises fresh questions about how much more of a slowdown the region can bear, and the toll it takes on the local economy.

"At what point in time is the frustration factor enough that you say, 'I'm outta here'?" asks David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Daily commutes have increased across the country by an average of eight minutes a day since 1990, according to a study by insurer Haven Life. The Census Bureau reports that as of 2017, almost 9% of Americans were "super-commuters," spending an hour or more to get to work, up from 8% in 2009.

A survey by recruiting firm Robert Half found that 23% of workers in the U.S. left a job because of an unmanageable commute.

MORE LANES, MORE PROBLEMS

Throwing money at the problem by expanding the road network rarely produces results. For proof, look no further than the Leviathan Sepulveda Pass Improvement Project on the I-405.

The $1.1 billion dig widened the highway, added a 10-mile carpool lane, and improved several on and off ramps. The work caused long-term disruption to one of the nation's busiest stretches of freeway, including two "Carmageddon" episodes, when the route was entirely closed.

From February 1-March 25 in 2015, before work had concluded, the average speed on the 4-7 pm commute heading north on the I-405 from the 10 through the Sepulveda Pass and into the Valley, was 45.9 mph.

But once the work had finished, speeds slowed dramatically. In 2016, during the same period the evening rush hour was 29.8 mph. This year, it was 27.5 mph.

To recap: that's $1.1 billion to make traffic slower.

That's why the Crosstown Project gives the Sepulveda pass a failing grade.

Hays lived through the construction and the Carmageddon episodes. When he heard the numbers, he wasn't surprised.

"It didn't make as much difference as you might think," he said. "But then it filled up. The whole problem with cars and driving is it always fills up."

He said carpool lanes encourage more lane changes. And more lane changes means everyone moves slower.

"The problem with HOV lanes is that they have to cut across the fast lane to get to the exits. I understand their value but they also really obstruct traffic."

Caltrans, the state agency that manages the freeways, says that during the construction, speeds were higher in part because of its constant messaging telling drivers to find alternate routes.

When the project was finally completed, the opposite happened: Drivers flocked to the 405, expecting, perhaps naively, for traffic to flow smoothly.

The response from transportation planners? We told you so.

"[If] you add capacity, it gets filled quickly," said Anne Brown, a professor of public planning at the University of Oregon who has studied traffic patterns in Los Angeles. "You can't build your way out of congestion. That's travel planning 101."

Eric Menjivar with CalTrans said that's why the agency has moved away from doing just that. It costs money, and it just doesn't work.

"We've gone away from just widening it just to add a general purpose lane. We're trying to get people out of their vehicles and not add to the congestion," he said. "It's just too expensive to do that."

Plus, he said, the 405 can only get so wide.

Courtesy Crosstown L.A.
Courtsey Crosstown L.A.

YOUR COMMUTE, SPED UP

But, all is not lost — 17 of the 52 routes analyzed showed improved speeds. In some cases, that's the result of public works projects that actually made a difference.

The I-10 in the morning, coming from Pomona to Downtown, for instance, went from 44.3 mph in 2015 to 48.3 mph.

In that time, several projects, such as the completion of a carpool lane, had wrapped up, allowing for less congestion.

Schrank of Texas A&M, said that figuring out what can make a busy freeway improve is tricky. "A construction project on one corridor can have an effect on others, making it worse or better," he said.

"You have to look at all the factors around; something 10 or 20 miles away can make a difference."

A major employer moving away, or a large employer allowing people to work from home or come in on a flexible schedule, can reduce travel time for everyone on the road, he said.

Menjivar said if there are solutions to the congestion, they lie in agencies like L.A. Metro. The answer isn't more lanes and roads, it's fewer cars.

That's why there are already plans in the works to add more rail to L.A.'s commuting landscape, including in the Sepulveda Pass. But the fruition of those plans are still at least 16 years — and a few billion dollars — away.

As Hays nears retirement, he isn't holding out. In the meantime, he said, he's learned how to live with it.

"You have to have patience in this traffic," Hays laughed. "Or [you'll become] crazy."


SoCal's freeways speeds over time: Morning commute

Freeway Freeway segment Direction 2015 2019
405 405-10 to 405-110 North 30.1 24.7
210 210 intersection with 710 (Pasadena) to I-15 West 31.1 25.7
5 Santa Clarita with 10 North 46 35.3
110 Pasadena with 101 South 29 36.2
101 27 with 5 South 33.2 36.8
105 Western terminus of 105, Eastern terminus of 105 West 32.6 37.3
5 Santa Clarita with 10 South 36.4 38.3
110 101 with 105 North 31.31 39
5 5-10 with 5-405 North 28.42 39.8
10 SM with 5 West 45.8 42.2
5 5-10 with 5-405 South 54.5 43.3
605 Southern terminus of 605 to northern terminus of 605 South 47 44.2
405 118 and 405-10 South 50 45.6
10 5 with 57 and 71 West 44 48.4
101 27 with 5 North 50 48.6
110 Pasadena with 101 North 57.9 49.4
10 SM with 5 East 50.2 50.1
605 Southern terminus of 605 to northern terminus of 605 North 53.6 52.2
405 405-10 to 405-110 South 57.7 56.5
405 118 and 405-10 North 54 57.3
110 101 with 105 South 54.6 57.6
105 Western terminus of 105, Eastern terminus of 105 East 61.2 58.3
210 210 intersection with 5 to intersection with 710 (Pasadena) East 54.8 58.4
210 210 intersection with 5 to intersection with 710 (Pasadena) West 61.4 59.9
210 210 intersection with 710 (Pasadena) to I-15 East 61 60.4
10 5 with 57 and 71 East 63.3 62.5



SoCal's freeways speeds over time: Evening commute

Freeway Freeway segment Direction 2015 2019
5 5-10 with 5-405 South South 23.1 21.5
405 118 and 405-10 North North 45.9 27.5
405 405-10 to 405-110 South South 31.7 28.7
105 Western terminus of 105, Eastern terminus of 105 East East 33.9 29.4
10 SM with 5 East East 26.6 31
110 101 with 105 South South 37.1 33.2
210 210 intersection with 710 (Pasadena) to I-15 East East 33.5 33.5
5 Santa Clarita with 10 North North 40.4 34.6
10 5 with 57 and 71 East East 40.3 35.4
101 27 with 5 North North 36.1 38.1
10 27 with 5 South South 38.4 38.4
110 101 with 105 North North 39.6 38.6
5 Santa Clarita with 10 South South 46.2 46.2
605 Southern terminus of 605 to northern terminus of 605 North North 49.4 46.3
605 Southern terminus of 605 to northern terminus of 605 South South 51.9 47.7
405 118 and 405-10 South South 51.7 48
405 405-10 to 405-110 North North 59.2 50.9
10 SM with 5 West West 55.5 53.6
210 210 intersection with 710 (Pasadena) to I-15 West West 49.3 53.7
110 Pasadena with 101 North North 48.4 54.7
105 Western terminus of 105, Eastern terminus of 105 West West 58.8 58
5 5-10 with 5-405 North North 50.2 60.1
210 210 intersection with 5 to intersection with 710 (Pasadena) East East 59.7 60.6
210 210 intersection with 5 to intersection with 710 (Pasadena) West West 62.1 60.8
110 Pasadena with 101 South South 53.7 61.4
10 5 with 57 and 71 West West 65.9 65.2

This article was written by Caleigh Wells in conjunction with the Crosstown Project.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.