With notoriously bad traffic and next-to-impossible parking, it’s best to avoid driving until it’s time to leave San Francisco. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to get around.
Most locals walk, bike, ride Muni (a network of buses and streetcars) or ride-share instead of taking a car or cab — unsurprising when faced with hills so steep, a ski jumper might reconsider shooting down one. The city also has a network of cable cars that are frequent, slow and scenic; riding one is a must for first-time visitors.
Here’s how to navigate San Francisco.
Regularly ranked as one of the most walkable cities in the US, most major sights in San Francisco are reachable on foot and walking is often the best way to explore a neighborhood.
Once a month, a section of San Francisco is closed off to cars as part of Sunday Streets, a program which gives the space to pedestrians and cyclists instead. Expect ad hoc music, wellness activities and streets given over for children to play.
The Sunday Streets team also organize Walkway Weekends in Chinatown where Grant Avenue, between California to Washington Streets, goes car-free between 11am-5pm every weekend.
Their epic, eponymous 17-mile trail from Candlestick Point to Lands End is divided into five sections, which can be tackled separately and give a great overview of the city.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has eyes on the city becoming the most bike-friendly in the US, and while many locals have already jumped on the saddle (some 82,000 trips are completed each day), there’s still plenty of work to do before the city is safe for all riders.
Still, San Francisco has an extensive bike network and most sights are reachable on two wheels. The network covers 448 miles, but only 19 miles are protected bike lanes and 77 miles are off-street bike paths. The rest is either unprotected bike lanes and sharrows (roads shared by cars and bike, which give cyclists more room).
Station-based and dockless bike-sharing is available citywide through Bay Wheels. Both traditional bikes and e-bikes (electric bikes with removeable batteries) can be hired from stations throughout San Francisco and the East Bay (plus San Jose), and are available within SF for single trips, day use or with monthly access passes.
Bay Wheels stations are located downtown, and at major intersections – but bikes come without helmets, and biking downtown without proper protection can be dangerous. Bring your own helmet and plan bike routes before you hit the road.
Tips for cycling around the Bay Area
Within San Francisco
Muni has racks that can accommodate two bikes (only) on the front of most buses.
Bikes are allowed on the Golden Gate Bridge, so riding north to Marin County is no problem. You can transport bicycles on Golden Gate Transit buses, which usually have free racks (three bikes only; first come, first served). Ferries also allow bikes on board.
To transport your bike to Wine Country, take Golden Gate Transit or the Vallejo Ferry. Within Sonoma Valley, take Arnold Dr instead of busy Hwy 12; through Napa Valley, take the Silverado Trail instead of busy Hwy 29.
The most spectacular ride in Wine Country is sun-dappled, tree-lined West Dry Creek Rd, in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.
Cyclists can’t use the Bay Bridge. Bikes are allowed on uncrowded BART trains, but during rush hours special limits apply: between 6:30am and 9am and from 4pm to 6:30pm, passengers with bikes can’t board the first three cars. (Folded bikes are allowed in all cars at all times.)
During commuting hours, you can also carry your bike across the Bay via the Caltrans Bay Bridge Bicycle Commuter Shuttle, which operates from the northwestern corner of Main and Bryant Sts in San Francisco, and from MacArthur BART station in Oakland (on 40th St, between Market St and the BART entrance); shuttles fill up – arrive early.
Muni operates bus, streetcar and cable-car lines. Buses and streetcars are referred to interchangeably as Muni. Some areas are better connected than others, but Muni spares you the costly hassle of driving and parking – and it’s often faster than driving, especially along metro-streetcar lines J, K/T, L, M and N.
Map and schedule
For route planning and schedules, consult Transit 511. For real-time departures, see www.nextmuni.com, which syncs with GPS on buses and streetcars to provide best estimates on arrival times. This is the system tied to digital displays posted inside bus shelters. It’s accurate for most lines, but not always for the F-line vintage streetcars or cable cars.
Nighttime and weekend service is less frequent than on weekdays. Owl service (half-hourly from 1am to 5am) operates only on a few principal lines; for schedules, see All Nighter 511.
Tickets and costs
The standard cash fare for buses or streetcars is $2.75, and each ticket is good for 120 minutes of travel on Muni buses or streetcars. Buy tickets on buses and streetcars from drivers (exact change required) or at underground Muni stations (where machines give change). With a reloadable Clipper card, discounted fare is $2.50.
At the start of your Muni journey, free transfer tickets are available for additional Muni trips within 90 minutes (not including cable cars or BART). After 8:30pm, buses issue a Late Night Transfer good for travel until 5:30am the following morning.
Cable car tickets
Cable-car tickets cost $7 per ride, and can be bought at cable-car-turnaround kiosks or on-board from the conductor. Hang onto your ticket even if you’re not planning to use it again: if you’re caught without one by the transit police, you’re subject to a $100 fine (repeat offenders may be fined up to $500).
Muni Passport passes
A Muni Passport (1/3/7 days $23/34/45) allows unlimited travel on all Muni transportation, including cable cars. It’s sold at the Muni kiosk at the Powell St cable-car turnaround on Market St; SF’s Visitor Information Center; the TIX Bay Area kiosk at Union Sq; and shops around town – see www.sfmta.com for exact locations. One-day (but not multiday) passports are available from cable-car conductors.
Muni Monthly Pass
The Muni Monthly Pass (adult/child $78/39) offers unlimited Muni travel for the calendar month, including cable cars. Fast Passes are available at the Muni kiosk at the Powell St cable-car turnaround, and from many businesses around town; for exact locations, see www.sfmta.com.
Downtown Muni/BART stations have machines that issue the Clipper card (www.clippercard.com), a reloadable transit card that costs $3 with a $2 minimum that can be used on Muni, BART, AC Transit, Caltrain, SamTrans and Golden Gate Transit (but not cable cars).
Clipper cards automatically deduct fares and apply transfers – only one Muni fare is deducted per 90-minute period. A Clipper Card will save you 50 cents per ride on Muni, so it’s worth the investment if you’re planning to take more than six Muni rides.
The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit trains) is the fastest link between downtown and the Mission District also offers transit to San Francisco International Airport ($9.65), Oakland ($4) and Berkeley ($4.60). Four of the system’s five lines pass through SF before terminating at Daly City or SFO.
Buy tickets at BART stations: you need a ticket to enter – and exit – the system. If your ticket still has value after you exit turnstiles, it’s returned to you, with the remaining balance for later use. If your ticket’s value is less than needed to exit, use an Addfare machine to pay the appropriate amount. The reloadable Clipper card can be used for BART for fare discounts.
At San Francisco BART stations, a 50¢ transfer discount is available for Muni buses and streetcars; look for transfer machines before you pass through the turnstiles.
The train in San Francisco is primarily a commuter line, with frequent departures during weekday rush hours and less frequent service outside rush hours and at weekends.
From the depot at 4th and King Sts in San Francisco, Caltrain heads south to Millbrae (connecting to BART and San Francisco airport; 30 minutes), Palo Alto (one hour) and San Jose (1½ hours).
Taxi fares start at $3.50 at flag flag and run about $3 per mile. Add 15% to the fare as a tip ($1 minimum). For quickest service in San Francisco, download the Flywheel app for smartphones, which dispatches the nearest taxi.
Lyft and Uber are available in San Francisco, but licensed taxis have greater access, specifically to dedicated downtown bus and taxi lanes, notably along Market St. Taxis also don’t charge surge pricing at peak times.
Other notable firms include worker-owned collective Green Cab, which only uses fuel-efficient hybrids, and Homobiles, secure, reliable, donation-based transport by and for the LGBTQ+ community. Their drivers provide 24/7 taxi service – text for fastest service. Luxor and Yellow Cab also ply their trade here.
With the reinvention of the Ferry Building as a gourmet dining destination, commuters and tourists alike are dining before taking the scenic ferry across the bay.
Alcatraz Cruises has ferries departing Pier 33 for Alcatraz every half-hour from 8:45am to 3:50pm and at 5:55pm and 6:30pm for night tours. Reservations essential.
San Francisco Bay Ferry operates from both Pier 41 and the Ferry Building to Oakland/Alameda on the East Bay. During baseball season, a Giants ferry service runs directly from the landing at AT&T Park’s Seals Plaza entrance to Oakland and Alameda. Fares cost $7.20.
Golden Gate Transit Ferries runs regular ferry services from the Ferry Building to Larkspur and Sausalito (one way $12.50), plus game-day ferries to Warriors and Giants games ($14 one way). Transfers to Muni bus services are available and bicycles are permitted.
Blue & Gold Fleet operates ferries to Tiburon or Sausalito (one way $12.50) from Pier 41.
Get to Napa car-free (weekdays only) via the Vallejo Ferry, with departures from the Ferry Building docks about every hour from 6:35am to 7pm; bikes are permitted. Fares are $15.10. The Route 10 VINE bus connects the Vallejo Ferry Terminal to downtown Napa, where you can catch bus 10 to Yountville, St Helena or Calistoga; fares are $1.60.
Car & Motorcycle
If you can, avoid driving in San Francisco: heavy traffic is a given, street parking is harder to find than true love, and meter readers are ruthless.
San Francisco streets mostly follow a grid bisected by Market St, with signs pointing toward tourist zones such as North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. Try to avoid driving during rush hours: 7:30am to 9:30am and 3:30pm to 6:30pm Monday to Friday. Before heading to any bridge, airport or other traffic choke-point, call 511 for a traffic update.
For real-time details on how to find parking in the city, and also how to pay your parking meter by telephone or smartphone (so you don’t have to return to the car if your meter expires), see SF Park. Parking is tricky and often costly, especially downtown – ask your hotel about parking, and inquire about validation at restaurants and entertainment venues.
Downtown parking garages charge from $5 to $8 per hour and $30 to $55 per day, depending on how long you park and whether you require in-and-out privileges. The most convenient downtown parking lots are at the Embarcadero Center; at 5th and Mission Sts; under Union Sq; and at Sutter and Stockton Sts. For more public parking garages, see SFMTA; for a map of garages and rates, see SF Park.
Parking restrictions are indicated by the following color-coded sidewalk curbs:
- Blue Disabled parking only; placard required.
- Green Ten-minute parking zone from 9am to 6pm.
- Red No parking or stopping.
- White For picking up or dropping off passengers only; note posted times.
- Yellow Loading zone during posted times.
Desperate motorists often resort to double-parking or parking in red zones or on sidewalks, but parking authorities are quick to tow cars. If this should happen to you, you’ll have to retrieve your car at Autoreturn. Besides at least $200.75 in fines for parking violations, you’ll also have to fork out a towing and storage fee ($229 for the first four hours, $50.75 for the rest of the first day, $60.75 for every additional day, plus a $32.50 transfer fee if your car is moved to a long-term lot). Cars are usually stored at 450 7th St, corner of Harrison St.
Typically, a small rental car might cost $55 to $75 a day or $175 to $300 a week, plus 8.75% sales tax and various licensing fees and tourism taxes that add another $10 to $30 beyond the tax. Unless your credit card, travel insurance or personal car insurance covers car-rental insurance, you’ll need to add $10 to $20 per day for a loss/damage waiver. Most rates include unlimited mileage; with cheap rates, there’s often a per-mile charge above a certain mileage.
Booking ahead usually ensures the best rates. Airport rates are generally lower than city rates, but they carry a hefty facility charge of about $20 per day. As part of SF’s citywide green initiative, rentals of hybrid cars and low-emissions vehicles from agencies at SF airport (SFO) are available at a discount.
GoCar rents mini-cars with audio GPS instructions to major attractions in multiple languages. Major car-rental agencies include Alamo Rent-a-Car; Avis; Budget; Dollar; Hertz; and Thrifty.
Car sharing is a convenient alternative to rentals, and spares you pick-up/drop-off and parking hassles: reserve a car online for an hour or two, or all day, and you can usually pick up/drop off your car within blocks of where you’re staying.
Zipcar rents various car types by the hour, for flat rates starting at $11 per hour, including gas and insurance, or per day for $79; a $25 application fee and $50 prepaid usage are required. The maximum damage-loss insurance coverage, which brings the deductible to $0, is strongly recommended.
Drivers without a US driver’s license should follow instructions on the website. Once approved, cars can be reserved online or by phone, provided you have your member card in pocket. Check the website for pick-up/drop-off locations. Other current Zipcard holders may also drive the car; if you want to share the driving with someone, both of you should sign up.
Members of American Automobile Association can call the 800 number any time for emergency road service and towing. AAA also provides travel insurance and free road maps of the region. A green alternative is Better World Auto Club.
Ride-share services Lyft and Uber were founded in SF, and they’re widely used – which means you may have to wait or pay a premium during peak use times, such as weekend nights or right after conferences or events. Fares within SF range from $7 to $20 off-peak for a direct-to-destination ride, depending on traffic and SF destination.