L.A.’s infamous Thanksgiving traffic gridlock expected to return with vengeance

Heavy traffic is seen in both directions on a freeway
Traffic slows on the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In Los Angeles, the official start of the holiday season isn’t marked by changing leaves or a fine dusting of snow, but by the blinking red-and-white taillights snaking along the 405 Freeway as millions of people head out of town for Thanksgiving.

Last year, that annual tradition was upended by tightened travel restrictions amid the burgeoning winter surge of COVID-19.

But travel experts expect numbers to bounce back to almost pre-pandemic levels this week: An estimated 3.8 million Southern Californians will be driving to their holiday destinations — up 9% from last year and only 1% less than in 2019, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.


Many of the top nationwide holiday destinations are in California, including Anaheim, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Yosemite National Park, the auto club said, so drivers should be prepared for heavy traffic.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic and a river of taillights have become as symbolic of the holiday in Los Angeles as Norman Rockwell’s famous painting.

Nov. 27, 2019

However, not all peak travel times are created equal. Major metro areas will face the heaviest congestion on Wednesday from 1:30 to 6 p.m. as commuters leaving work join holiday travelers on the road, the auto club said.

Los Angeles will really start to feel the crunch after 3 p.m. Wednesday, auto club spokesman Doug Shupe said.

“It’s going to progressively get more and more crowded,” he said, adding that there will also be some “pretty good congestion” Tuesday night.

Experts at the transportation analytics company Inrix said the busiest local highway segment will be the southbound 5 Freeway from Colorado Street in the Griffith Park neighborhood to Florence Avenue in Downey, where traffic is expected to soar to 385% above normal levels Wednesday afternoon and evening.

All outbound freeways are likely to be congested Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, the analytics firm added, so drivers should plan to leave early and prepare for longer travel times.


Those looking to avoid the rush can also wait until Thanksgiving morning, if schedules allow, when roads are typically clearer.

Travel numbers are nearing pre-pandemic levels, and experts warn that a surge in passengers could also lead to a surge in coronavirus infections.

Nov. 19, 2021

Meanwhile, those looking to fly to their feasts also will be met with long lines and gridlock as air travel is expected to soar this Thanksgiving.

Officials at Los Angeles International Airport estimated that 2 million passengers will travel through the terminals during the two-week Thanksgiving holiday period, Nov. 18-30. That is double the number from last year but still 1 million fewer than in 2019.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is likely to be the airport’s busiest day, with a projected 175,000 passengers passing through, LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said last week.

“That’s still not pre-pandemic level, but it’s definitely the busiest we’ve been since early 2020,” he said.

Smaller regional airports are also preparing for an increased volume of passengers, with officials at Long Beach Airport projecting passenger numbers five times greater than in 2020 — though still not quite back to 2019 levels.


Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino also anticipates high numbers, officials said. Wednesday is slated to be the highest point, when more than 19,000 travelers are expected.

Soaring gas prices are one more challenge for residents heading into the second holiday season of the pandemic, with supply chain issues and inflation too.

Nov. 16, 2021

But much of the headache remains on the road, as most drivers will notice soaring gas prices in addition to traffic. A gallon of regular unleaded on Tuesday was averaging $4.705 in California — just one-tenth of a cent below the state’s all-time high set Monday.

In Los Angeles County, gas prices Tuesday were nearing record levels at $4.704 per gallon. The county’s record high, $4.705, was set in 2012.

The auto club noted that prices among stations can differ by as much as a dollar a gallon.

Patience and courtesy will also make a big difference on the road, Shupe said.

“This is the first time that so many people are going to connect with their loved ones, and everyone’s looking forward to the next few days of good food and good friends and good family,” he said. “Just know that it’s going to take a little bit longer.”

As for those traditional red-and-white taillights, he said, “We’ll see the candy-cane freeways of Southern California for sure.”