Right Turn on Red Lights: Allowed unless otherwise noted.
Cell Phone Use While Driving: Must use a hands-free device.
Park & Ride Lots: Map of lot locations and related information.
San Diego Traffic Overview
San Diego is a relatively modern city. Most of the area’s development took place after the interstate highway system was built. As a result, the width of highway construction was not constrained by earlier development, allowing the system to include at least 4 to 5 lanes going in each direction. Combined with the state highway system, most of San Diego can be reached in a short driving time from anywhere else in San Diego. If you ask someone how long it will take to get from point A to point B, the typical response will be 10 – 20 minutes. With the following exceptions and notes about common traffic choke points, that response should be quite accurate.
Sample Travel Times
The following travel distances to the various corners of San Diego County all start in the downtown area of San Diego. This will give you an idea of travel times if you are staying someplace near Downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park, or the San Diego Airport. Times will be similar for those staying near Old Town, Hotel Circle or SeaWorld, all of which are just a few minutes north of downtown.
Mexican Border at San Ysidro – 18 miles / 18 minutes -southwestern corner of San Diego County
Oceanside – 38 miles / 40 minutes – northwestern corner of San Diego County
Julian – 62 miles / 1 hour – mountain area of San Diego County
Borrego Springs – 93 miles / 1.75 hours – desert area of San Diego County
Common Traffic Choke Points / HOV Lanes
Highway On-ramp Traffic Lights – Many highway on-ramps have traffic signals. These traffic lights turn on during rush hour to limit the number of vehicles on the highways. Many on-ramps have multiple lanes, each with a separate traffic light allowing one lane to proceed at a time. Check signs attached to the signals, which tell you if 1 or 2 cars can proceed at a time. Most of your rush hour travel delays will occur at these ‘metered’ on-ramps. If you have more than one person in your car, look to see if an on-ramp offers a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane.
The Merge – Unlike most cities, San Diego’s employment center is not downtown. The employment center for San Diego is about a 15-minute drive north of downtown San Diego. It is near the location where highways I-5 and I-805 merge. Thus, traffic is very heavy heading into this area on weekday mornings and heading out of this area on weekday evenings. If you want to travel during evening rush hour between locations in the northern part of San Diego (north of the Merge and Marine Corp Air Station (MCAS) Miramar) and places south the Merge and MCAS Miramar, be sure to plan a lot of extra time. This includes those traveling north and south on highways I-5, I-805, and I-15. The heaviest area of traffic on these highways occurs between the interchanges for SR-56 and SR-52, which run east-west. Unfortunately, there are no good alternatives because the few local roads that travel north and south through this area are usually quite busy as well. State Routes 56 and 52 are also very busy during weekday evenings heading eastbound away from this area.
North-South Freeways (starting closest to the ocean and moving inland)
Bypass Lanes – There is a highway bypass that is adjacent to The Merge. This is a great alternative during rush hour for solo drivers using the I-5 and I-805 through this area. Just follow the Bypass signs. Those who want to use the I-5 HOV lanes will not be able to use the Bypass Lanes.
I-5 – In addition to what was mentioned above about the Merge traffic, I-5 also endures heavy traffic on the weekends in the northern part of the county (from Del Mar up to Camp Pendleton). The traffic is heavy in both directions because there are travelers driving between Mexico and Los Angeles. Weekday evening and weekend traffic is extra heavy during July and August when Del Mar hosts the San Diego County Fair and Del Mar Horse Races. It is best to check the CALTRANS traffic map to see the current average speed of traffic.
I-5 HOV Lane – Currently there is only one set of HOV lanes on the I-5 but more are on the way. Vehicles with at least two passengers may use the HOV lanes. (Be sure to look at signs for any new restrictions.) If you are a solo driver in the HOV lane or cross the yellow line separating the HOV lane from the other traffic lanes, a ticket will cost you over $300 if you are stopped by the police.
- Northbound – Starts just before Exit 33B for Carmel Valley Road and continues to Exit 39 at Manchester Avenue. (Do not use the ‘Bypass’ lanes that start just after Exit 30 at Sorrento Valley Road if you want to use the HOV lane.) As of this writing, vehicles are not allowed to enter or exit the HOV lane at any point between the start and end of the HOV Lane.
- Southbound – Starts at Exit 37 for Lomas Santa Fe and continue just past Exit 33B for Carmel Valley Road. Do not use the HOV lane if you want to use the ‘Bypass’ lanes that start just after Exit 33 at Carmel Valley Road. As of this writing, vehicles are not allowed to enter or exit the HOV lane at any point between the start and end of the HOV Lane. Also, do not use the HOV lane if you plan to stay on the I-5 after The Merge unless you are prepared to quickly cut across several lanes of traffic. In summary, use the southbound HOV Lanes if you plan to head southbound on the I-805 once you arrive at The Merge. Otherwise, skip it.
I-805 – Other than the traffic associated with the Merge noted above, the I-805 southbound starts slowing just past the exit for SR-163 to around SR-54 during the evening rush hour.
SR-163 – Heading southbound, the right lanes of SR-163 back up as you approach the Friars Road exit during evening rush hour. This area will also back up during the holiday shopping season from the end of November through January as shoppers head to Fashion Valley and Mission Valley malls. The right lane slows down again as you approach the exit for the I-5 and Balboa Park. This area can slow down at any point during the day but it is only a short delay (5 – 10 extra minutes). For those heading northbound on SR-163, the only common choke point is at the beginning for those accessing the SR-163 from the I-5 northbound and Balboa Park. This too is only a short delay (5 – 10 extra minutes).
I-15 Managed Lanes – The HOV lanes on the I-15 are on a separate roadway. It is separated into two sections, which together are 16 miles long. You will access the managed lanes on the left side of the freeway. Cars with two or more passengers or solo drivers with a FasTrak pass may use the managed lanes. For more information, visit the SANDAG FasTrak web site.
The southern section is 8 miles long and runs from the area of Exit 11 (Highway 52) to Exit 19 (Highway 56). Two lanes are open for southbound motorists only on weekday mornings. The two lanes are open for northbound motorists only on weekday evenings and all weekend long. There are no access or exit points along this section.
The northern section is 8 miles long and runs from Exit 19 (Highway 56) to Exit 28 (Center City Parkway). There are two HOV lanes heading in each direction. These lanes are open 24 hours a day. There are multiple entrance and exit points along this section.
East – West Freeways
Coronado Bay Bridge – Traffic can be busy heading into Coronado in the early morning (around 7AM) and leaving in the early afternoon (around 3PM). It depends on the level of activity at the Navy base on Coronado, which can host up to three nuclear aircraft carriers and all the personnel associated with them, at any one time.
I-8 – Traffic heading west from I-5 to the beach area is backed up during weekday evening rush hour and during summer weekends. There are significant delays heading towards the beach on holiday weekends. Traffic heading eastbound is slow during the weekday evening rush hour and becomes progressively worse as you pass highways I-805 and I-15. Traffic becomes lighter heading eastbound after passing El Cajon.
SR-56 / SR-52 – As noted earlier, these two highways form the northern and southern boundaries of San Diego’s main employment area. Traffic on westbound SR-56 gets heavy as you approach highway I-5 and traffic on westbound SR-52 gets heavy has you approach highway I-15 during the morning rush hour. These same areas endure heavy traffic in the opposite direction during the evening rush hour.
SR-78 / I-15 – Drivers heading eastbound on SR-78 and exiting onto southbound highway I-15 as well as drivers heading south on I-15 as it approaches SR-78 will face delays during the early morning hours.
Watch out for Cyclists
Motorcycles – If you are stuck in traffic, keep an eye out for motorcyclists. They are allowed to travel in-between cars. This is quite common during rush hour so don’t forget to look for them before changing lanes. You should also keep an eye out for motorcyclists in the San Diego Mountains, especially Palomar Mountain, where the hills and curves attract riders.
Bicycles – It is very common to see cyclists training for triathlons or participating in group rides. The right shoulder of many roadways includes space for bicyclists. Be sure to keep an eye out for them before turning. Bicyclists are allowed to go on the highway in some locations. The most notable spots are on the I-5 near the Merge (Genesee Avenue – Exit 29) and on the I-15 near Via Rancho Parkway (Exit 27). At times, you will see large groups of cyclists occupying a lane of traffic, even on the freeway. Again, keep an eye out for them and be patient. In addition, critical mass rides are popular in San Diego like they are in other cities throughout the world. San Diego’s critical mass rides typically start near the Science Museum in Balboa Park the last Friday evening of each month. Each ride takes a different course throughout the city and includes hundreds of riders.
There is very little delay entering Mexico. However, there is usually a long wait to enter the United States, especially at the San Ysidro border crossing. Wait times generally range from 30 minute to over an hour but can sometimes be much longer. The delays at the Otay Mesa border crossing are usually much shorter as a result of being in a much less convenient location for most tourists. You are required to show a Passport, Military ID, or a state issued picture ID along with a birth certificate to re-enter the United States. United States children are only required to show a birth certificate. For current wait times, scroll to the bottom of the Border Patrol web site.
Traffic Reports – San Diego did not start implementing exit numbers until after the year 2000. Most locals, including the traffic reporters, are tied to their old ways of using street names instead of exit numbers. If you want help matching street names to exit numbers, use this San Diego highway web site created by Philip Erdelsky. Most radio stations offer traffic reports during rush hour. However, your best option for getting the latest traffic information is to visit the CALTRANS or SANDAG web sites or Call 511. Just be sure to use a hands-free device while driving.
Using Cell Phones – Drivers in California must use a hands free device or their speaker phone feature when using their cell phone. Drivers may dial on their cell phone. A cell phone can not be used at all by drivers under 18 years of age except to call emergency personnel. For more details visit the California DMV’s FAQ page on driving with a cell phone.