California may be notorious for heavy traffic, but is that reputation fair to the Golden State? A study of 2019 traffic congestion found that only two of the top 10 highest traffic cities were in California, while the Northeast region of the U.S. snagged five of the top slots.
Sure, there are a few cities in California with exceptionally heavy traffic. But it’s also entirely possible to find low-traffic cities. You just have to know where to look.
Here are the best and worst cities in California for traffic.
The Best Cities in California for Traffic
Let’s start with the best cities in California for traffic. These are the areas you can drive through without riding your brakes for miles at a time. These cities may not be as large or familiar as those on the upcoming worst list, but they’re super livable and well worth a visit.
5. Palm Springs
Located in the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs is a desert city with vintage glamour. While the Coachella Valley population has more than doubled since 1989, available space has allowed for added infrastructure to keep up with the growth. If you’re looking for a long drive through the wide-open desert, you can’t beat the I-10 around Palm Springs. Just watch that speed limit to avoid a traffic ticket! Too late? Take advantage of online traffic school to mask the citation and points against your driving record.
Commuters in Redding, located in quiet Shasta County, enjoy a short commute of just 18.6 minutes on average. There are also plans in the works to improve the connectivity between the downtown city streets and the streets that access the hiking and biking trails along the Sacramento River.
3. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is one of only a few cities directly on the coast that benefit from light traffic. This light traffic is largely thanks to the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD), which runs 42 transit routes around the city. With several colleges and universities in Santa Barbara, MTD is heavily used by the many students and faculty living in the area.
Monterey is another coastal town with lighter-than-normal traffic and relatively short commute times. Commutes average 17.2 minutes, with over 13% of the community commuting to The Presidio of Monterey as military employees. As with Santa Barbara, many of Monterey’s residents take advantage of a well-run public transportation program.
1. San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo was ranked number four on Obrella’s list of the best commuter cities in California, and it’s the top-ranked city with a sizeable population (over 45,000). Obrella’s study found that the average commute time is just 16.8 minutes, with fewer than 3% of residents commuting more than an hour. Interesting side note: San Luis Obispo consistently ranks as one of the happiest cities in America. Coincidence?
The Worst Cities in California for Traffic
Now to the worst Californian cities for traffic. These are the cities that require a daily Waze check and an extra cup of coffee for the road.
California’s capital city, Sacramento, is unique to our list of the worst cities in California for traffic because it is the only city on our list not located on the coast. While most of California’s population centers and corresponding traffic are near the ocean, the capital city pulls people and their traffic inland. The result is an average of 64 hours per year stuck in traffic.
4. San Diego
San Diego’s perfect weather, beautiful beaches, and laid-back vibe have attracted more than three million permanent residents. All those people are bound to create some serious traffic issues. San Diegans spend an average of 70 hours stuck in traffic.
Oakland grabs the number three slot, but in fairness to Oakland, their traffic problem is all San Francisco’s fault. A popular employment hub on limited land area, San Francisco’s rent prices quickly grew unreasonably expensive, forcing the population (and their commute patterns) to expand into neighboring Oakland.
2. San Francisco
Located just across the bridge from Oakland, San Francisco’s traffic is even worse. Founded back in 1776, San Francisco wasn’t built to accommodate automobiles, and the densely packed buildings leave little room for expanding infrastructure for traffic.
1. Los Angeles
San Francisco and Los Angeles compete each year for the top spot on worst traffic lists. LA wins the title for 2019 with the average Angelino spending around 103 hours stuck in traffic (compared to 97 hours for San Franciscans). Heaven help you if you find yourself on the 5 (between the 10 and the 405) on a Friday evening; you may only be moving at around 18 mph.