California has a pretty notorious reputation for having bad traffic, so I am wondering if it would be worth my time to rent a car when I visit there. If I stay within the LA area, is public transportation good enough for me to get by without renting a car? I would like to visit Hollywood as well, so will I be able to easily get around by public transportation? Or would I be better off to rent a car if I need to get around?
Rent the car!
Los Angeles is built for cars. It has some of the worst public transportation imaginable, ever since General Motors conspired to eliminate the city's trolley system. Yes, there are busses and taxis, but you will find that busses take forever (and get stuck in the same traffic), and taxis are hard to find and expensive.
Only 11% of Los Angeles residents get to work by public transportation (compared to, say, New York with 54%).
There are plenty of cities where public transportation is an option (New York, Chicago, San Francisco), but LA is not one of them.
I've been living in the LA area (in Long Beach, exactly) for 7 months, being there for studying abroad. I made the choice of not buying a car and solely relying on public transit.
Well... as said earlier, LA is clearly made for cars. Most busses don't take the freeways and move rather slowly. It depends on which route and which agency. Also, even if Metro is the primary agency in the area, the whole bus network in LA and suburbs is made up of lines that belong to many different agencies. Nearly every city has its agency, for instance Long Beach is served by Long Beach Transit. You may find express busses that run on freeways on some routes.
Rail transit in the area compounds a single subway line and three light rail lines (these are small trains which run partly on the street like streetcars and need to stop at street crossings, partly on dedicated tracks), all operated by Metro. In addition, there is a commuter train network called Metrolink, which is focused on commuter service (few trips outside morning/evening weekday rush and on weekends, no late night trains).
Luckily, some interesting spots in Hollywood are well served by transit. The Walk Of Fame has a subway stop right next to it, and Universal Studios is linked by shuttle to the next stop on the same line. If you plan on visiting other amusement parks which are popular attractions, Disneyland and Knott's are served by Metro bus from downtown LA, check the website metro.net for timetables. If you want to go to Six Flags, it's tricky. You would need to take the commuter train then two busses to reach the park, including a long layover at the transit center.
Santa Monica by bus is more than one hour away from Downtown LA using the Metro Rapid.
Therefore, if you plan on visiting a lot of different places, get a car. And beware of traffic jams on freeways, especially the I-405! Hopefully if you're not travelling alone, you will be allowed to drive through carpool lanes that help go past single-occupancy traffic.
I have been to LA several times and have used different kinds of transportation: car, public transport, bicycle and walking.
I experienced the city very differently depending on how I got around. I agree LA is a car city and I would recommend to drive around at least once to get a feel for it, but using a bike or walking is always better if you really want to experience a city.
I depends quite a bit on where you are based, sometimes a metro station and useful bus routes are close by or attractions are even in walking distance.
If you have time walking is fine. I walked from downtown via Hollywood and Beverly Hills up to the Getty in the hills. I wouldn't walk everywhere though, some distances are just too big.
Taking public transport lets you get a different feel of the city and its people.
On my last visit (in 2007) I was surprised how many people are now cycling; still a minority but many more than on previous visits.
So even though many locals go everywhere by car, even if you decide to rent one, try the other options as well.