In whichever little Los Angeles burg you plant your roots, you'll find a bevy of key places accessible on foot: bank, post office, shops, restaurants. But the truth is—and you've heard this before—nobody walks in L.A.
The best way to get familiar with the city and its idiosyncratic traffic rhythms (and find out which areas you'd like to live in) is to get in your car and drive. Buy a Thomas Guide (or use an in-car navigation system), gas up, and bring patience along for the ride. Try the freeways. Expect to sit in traffic. Locate the studios. Find out where the Los Angeles and Burbank airports are. Focus particularly on the triangle from Santa Monica and Venice east to downtown L.A. and north to North Hollywood.
Now for logistics: Angelenos tend to measure distance in minutes, not miles. Map out specific destinations before you go. Allow plenty of time. Look for alternatives to freeways and major thoroughfares: Sepulveda (seh-pul-veh-duh) rather than the 405; Ventura Boulevard or Riverside Drive instead of the 101; Olympic Boulevard rather than Wilshire or the 10. Check your radio for traffic hang-ups; a Sig Alert means avoid the area in question. Try to avoid honking and, ahem, gesturing. Use a headset for phone calls; it will be the law, beginning July 2008.
A car is generally the most convenient mode of transportation here. Bicycling, though popular in the beach communities and Griffith Park, isn't especially safe in crowded areas such as Hollywood and on narrow canyon roads. A motorcycle or moped may mean less stop-and-go; in California it's not illegal to "lane-split" (or pass cars between lanes) on such motorized vehicles, though mopeds can't be driven on the freeway. But make sure to wear a helmet (it's the law) and look out for yourself.
To get a driver's license here, you must visit a California Department of Motor Vehicles office and pass a written test; making an appointment may shorten your wait. The department's website (www.dmv.ca.gov) provides information and regulations for getting your license and registering a vehicle, including smog checks. Conveniently, AAA members can register their vehicles at one of the automobile club's offices, rather than at the DMV.
Also on the DMV website: the Car Buyer's Bill of Rights. Read this if you're buying a vehicle from a licensed dealership. If you're purchasing from a private party, it's buyer beware. Either way, check Kelley Blue Book for fair pricing on used cars. Keep several things in mind when buying a car for use in L.A.:
Size and sight lines: In many areas, parking a large vehicle isn't easy or convenient. Hone your parallel-parking skills; a car with easy-to-see corners will simplify the process. Fold-in side mirrors are a plus for vehicle protection.
Transmission: Manual transmissions may be fun and get better gas mileage, but only the most die-hard enthusiasts will put up with a stick shift during rush hour.
Energy usage: Gas prices here are higher than the U.S. average, so get the most efficiency for your buck. Take engine type into consideration, too; qualifying hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles may offer perks such as tax credits and single-occupant access to carpool lanes.
If you don't own or plan to purchase a car, or you can't or don't like to drive, there is what could be loosely termed a public transit system. Plenty of people rely on it every day, and it can save you money, especially if you're commuting more than 10 miles. It's worthwhile to know how to use it in case your car conks out when you've got somewhere to be.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (www.mta.net), or Metro, runs the main public transit system. Metro has an extensive network of bus, rail, and subway lines that link to various cities' individual bus systems—such as L.A. Department of Transportation's Dash and Commuter Express, Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, BurbankBus, the Glendale Beeline, and Culver CityBus, among others. There's also Metrolink, a train service that links communities in Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties with the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Fair warning: Rumor has it that the legion buses here aren't the most punctual. And we don't have a "subway" so much as a very limited underground extension of the aboveground light-rail system. A variety of payment options are available for bus and/or rail travel. The $58 monthly EZ transit pass is the most comprehensive, offering unlimited boarding on most of the municipal and county lines. Discounts are available for senior, disabled, and Medicare riders.