Rush-hour on California's most congested freeway: solo drivers, potholes, nuclear blast doors

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On traffic maps, Interstate 5 in and around Los Angeles is a very angry road.

It's red. For mile upon mile, hour after hour.

That hardly makes "the 5" (as locals call it) unique in a region where the expansive freeway grid is notoriously traffic locked.

But one route has to be the most congested. And in California, Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County is it, according to new data from the state Department of Transportation.

Add up the time stuck in traffic, and millions of people waste centuries on the road every year.

I made my small contribution to that collective misery this week. My assignment: get stuck in traffic on the 5 during morning drive time, then write about it.

Which editor had I upset?

When I moved to Los Angeles a decade ago, several people told me with grim faces that I'd better like my car because we'd be spending a lot of time together. My car is fine, but my commute is great. A sprint along the cityscape that is Sunset Boulevard to downtown. It's a major reason why we settled in the neighborhood we chose. I can bypass freeways.

Not this day. Just after 8 a.m., I pulled south onto the 5 just east of downtown. Rush hour was several hours old, and even though my initial entry put me on a reverse commute, it wasn't long before I was hitting the brakes.

And this was hardly the bad stuff. Across the median, thousands of cars trudged along. After a fitful drive south, during which I passed a few texting drivers, I doubled back north to join the crush.

Close to 9 a.m., a highway sign said it would take 40 minutes to get back downtown. 40 minutes, 15 miles. I'd be averaging just over 20 mph.

Which let me check out a road I avoid as much as possible.

A few things struck me immediately.

On my left and right, in front and in back, everyone was driving alone. The construction zone I soon entered will bring a carpool lane to this most-congested road, though it will be years before the nearly seven-mile stretch opens.

Lost in thought, many drivers wore vacant expressions. One woman drove with her hand on her forehead. Not everyone seemed to wish they were anywhere else — one guy was rocking out as if trying to escape a straitjacket. Were his eyes even open?

There was no time to investigate further. I had to slow down, or I would rear-end the car in front.

Not that my car was unscathed. While there weren't exactly potholes, the pavement on the 5 has its own texture. It's as if the traffic gods slung down slabs of concrete from on high with little mortal care for how well they connect. The many trucks, often carrying goods to and from the large seaport complex nearby, add their own touches over time.

Though my eyes were fixed on the road, I caught snatches of the areas that flank the freeway, many in industrial or poorer neighborhoods. On my right, a gym to learn Thai boxing. Soon after, same side, a business boasting doors that will, apparently, withstand a nuclear blast. Across the freeway, a place to shop for closed-circuit televisions. Furniture. Truck parts.

Maybe next time, I'll finally stop at that casino.

Downtown LA grew larger and larger, and finally I was off the 5.

Pulling into my office parking garage, I realize the drive wasn't all bad. The road may have been red with traffic, but the drivers were actually quite courteous, despite all the lane changes and merges, construction and congestion.

But I'm not giving up Sunset Boulevard.


Contact Justin Pritchard at