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Getting around San Francisco

Navigate San Francisco like a native with our guide to public transportation, car rental and cycling in the city

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/gazeronly
Streetcar in San Francisco

Public transportation

San Francisco’s mass-transit network is comprehensive and efficient. Buses, streetcars and cable cars are run by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni (sfmta.com, 415-701-2311 or 311 within San Francisco only), while the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail network, or BART (415-989-2278, bart.gov), connects San Francisco to Oakland, Berkeley and beyond. Maps and timetables are available online, and free leaflets available at stations offer details on popular routes and services. However, Muni’s system-wide Street & Transit Map, which costs $3 and is available from bookshops, drugstores and SFMTA customer service or select transit kiosks, is a sound investment. Further details on Bay Area transit, including route guidance, can be found at transit.511.org, or by calling 511 from a local phone.

For information about single fares on transport in San Francisco, see below. However, if you plan to travel often in the Bay Area, the Clipper card may help: The reusable ticket is valid on all major transit networks, including Muni, BART and Caltrain. Tag the Clipper card when you start your journey (and, on BART, when you exit). The cost of the ride will be deducted, and any remaining value can be used on your next trip. When the card runs low, add funds at machines located in transit stations. Clipper cards are available online and at shops displaying the Clipper logo; for more information, see clippercard.com.

Alternatively, the Passport, valid for unlimited travel on all Muni vehicles (but not BART trains), is aimed at tourists. Passports are valid for one day ($15), three days ($23) and seven days ($29), and are sold at the Visitor Center or the cable car ticket booths, both Downtown at Powell and Market Streets, Ghirardelli Square at Hyde and Beach Streets, Embarcadero metro station, the San Francisco Travel Association booth in Union Square, the SFMTA Customer Service Center and San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Monthly Muni passes are valid from the first of the month until three days into the following month. The Muni & SF BART Pass ($80) is also valid on the eight BART stations within the city of SF, but not beyond (so you’ll have to pay extra to get to Oakland, Berkeley and SFO). The Muni Only Pass ($68) is valid only on Muni. Monthly passes are available at the locations listed above.

BART

Bay Area Rapid Transit is a $5 billion network of five high-speed rail lines serving San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and SFO, and the East Bay. It’s modern and efficient, run by computers at Oakland’s Lake Merritt station, with announcements, trains, ticket dispensers, exit and entry gates all automated. BART is of minor use for getting around San Francisco—it only has eight stops in the city—four on Market Street, two on Mission Street and two further south—but it’s the best way to get to Berkeley and Oakland and a convenient way to get to the airport from Downtown.

Fares vary by destination, from $1.85 to $11.65. Machines at each station dispense reusable tickets encoded with the amount of money you entered (cash and credit cards are both valid). Your fare will be deducted from this total when you end your journey, and any remaining value will be valid for future trips. You can add value to the card at all ticket machines.

Stations are marked with blue and white signs at street level. Trains run from 4am on weekdays, 6am on Saturday and 8am on Sunday, and shut down around midnight. For further information see bart.gov.

Buses

Muni’s orange and white buses are the top mode of public transport in SF. Relatively cheap, they can get you to within a block or two of almost anywhere in town. Bus stops are marked by a large white rectangle on a street with a red kerb; a yellow marking on a telephone or lamppost; a bus shelter; and/or a brown and orange sign listing buses that serve that route.

A single journey on a Muni bus is $2.25; seniors, kids age four to 17 and the disabled pay 75¢, while children under four travel free. Exact change is required. Free transfers, which let passengers connect with a second Muni bus or streetcar route at no extra charge, are valid for 90 minutes after the original fare was paid. (The transfer tokens serve as your ticket/receipt; always ask for one when you board.)

Buses run 5am to 1am during the week, 6am to 1am on Saturdays and Sundays. From 1am to 5am, a skeleton crew runs the Owl, 13 bus routes that run every half-hour.

Cable cars

Cable cars move at top speeds of 9.5mph on three lines: California (California Street, from the Financial District to Van Ness Avenue), Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde (both from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf).

Lines operate from 6am to 1am daily. If you don’t have a Muni pass, buy a $6 one-way ticket from the conductor (children under five travel free). Transfers are not valid. The stops are marked by pole-mounted brown signs with a cable car symbol; routes are marked on Muni bus maps.

Ferries

Ferries are used mainly by business commuters during peak hours, but they double as an inexpensive tourist excursion across the Bay to Sausalito, Tiburon or Larkspur. There are also ferries from San Francisco to Alcatraz and Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

Blue & Gold Fleet (415-705-8200, blueandgoldfleet.com) runs boats to Sausalito and Angel Island from Pier 41 at Fisherman’s Wharf. Commuter services to Alameda, Oakland (both $6 one way), Tiburon and Vallejo ($9 and $12.50) leave from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. The competing Golden Gate Transit Ferry Service (415-455 2000, goldengate.org), meanwhile, runs services from the Ferry Building to Sausalito and Larkspur (both $7.10 one way).

Streetcars

The Muni Metro streetcar—or tram—is used rarely by visitors, though it’s a very useful service. Five lines (J, K, L, M and N) run under Market Street in Downtown and above ground elsewhere, while the F line runs vintage streetcars on Market Street and along the Embarcadero as far as Fisherman’s Wharf. The T runs along the bay front. Fares are the same as on Muni’s buses, and transfers are valid.

Along Market, Muni makes the same stops as BART; past the Civic Center, routes branch out towards the Mission, the Castro, Sunset and beyond. Lines run 5am–1am Mon–Sat; 8am–1am Sun. Buses replace K, L, M, N and T for an irregular night Owl service.

Taxis

Taxi travel in San Francisco is relatively cheap, since the city is compact. The base fare is $3.50, with an additional charge of 55¢ per one-fifth of a mile ($2.75 a mile); there’s a $2 surcharge for all rides starting at SFO. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough cabs, especially during morning and evening rush hours and sometimes late at night. If you’re downtown, your best bet is to head for one of the bigger hotels; or, if you’re shopping or at dinner, to ask the shop or restaurant to call a cab. If you’re in an outlying area, phone early to request one and ask how long you’ll need to wait.

City Wide Dispatch 415-920-0700
Luxor 415-282-4141, luxorcab.com
National 415-648-4444
Veteran’s 415-552-1300
Yellow 415-333-3333, yellowcabsf.com

Outside San Francisco

The CalTrain commuter line (800-660-4287, caltrain.com) connects San Francisco with San Jose and ultimately Gilroy. Fares are calculated by the number of zones through which the train travels, ranging from $3 to $13 one way; discounts, eight-ride tickets, and daily and monthly passes are all available.

Several companies run bus services around the rest of the Bay Area. AC Transit (800-735-2929, actransit.org) runs buses trans-bay and to Alameda and Contra Costa Counties; buses A to Z go across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley and Oakland. Golden Gate Transit (415-455-2000, goldengate.org) serves Marin and Sonoma Counties from Sausalito to Santa Rosa. And SamTrans (800-660-4287, samtrans.org) looks after San Mateo County, with a service to Downtown San Francisco.

Driving

Three words: don’t do it. The traffic is no worse than in the average U.S. city. However, the hills are hellish, the streetcars are a bitch and the parking is horrendous. There’s very little street parking, and private garages charge can charge as much as $15 to $45 a day.

However, if you must drive, be aware of a few things. The speed limit is 25mph and seatbelts are compulsory. Texting or talking on cell phones (unless you’re hands-free) is also prohibited, and if you’re caught, you’ll pay a hefty fine. Cable cars always have the right of way. When parking on hills, set the handbrake and “curb” the front wheels (toward the curb if facing downhill, away if facing uphill). Always park in the direction of the traffic, and never block driveways. Don’t park at curbs colored white (passenger drop-off zones), blue (drivers with disabilities only), yellow (loading and unloading commercial vehicles only) or red (bus stops or fire hydrants). Green curbs allow only ten-minute parking. And if you venture across the water using the Bay Bridge, make sure you have enough cash to pay the $4 to $6 toll levied on the return trip. If using the Golden Gate Bridge, you must pay in advance (goldengate.org/tolls/tolltipsforvisitors.php, 877-229-8655/415-486-8655) or ask your rental car company about their toll policy.

For information on the latest highway conditions, call the 24-hour CalTrans Highway Information Service on 511, or check online at dot.ca.gov.

Parking

There are garages around town, but you’ll pay for the privilege of parking in them. Inquire about discounted (or “validated”) rates, but always ask your hotel: Few have their own lots, but many have an arrangement with a nearby garage.

If you’re parking during the day, look out for the few large city lots where you can plug a parking meter by the hour (keep your quarters handy). Otherwise, there are garages at these locations; with the exception of the Financial District, Marina, Mission and Western Addition garages, closed overnight, all are open 24 hours.

Financial District 250 Clay St between Battery and Drumm Sts
Union Square 333 Post St (enter on Geary St) between Stockton and Powell Sts
SoMa 833 Mission St between 4th and 5th Sts
North Beach 735 Vallejo St between Stockton and Powell Sts
Chinatown  733 Kearney St between Clay and Washington Sts
Mission 3255 21st St between Bartlett and Valencia Sts
Western Addition 1610 Geary Blvd between Webster and Laguna Sts
Marina 2055 Lombard St between Webster and Fillmore Sts

Car rental

Most rental agencies are at or near the airport, though some have satellite locations Downtown. Book well ahead if you’re planning to visit during a holiday weekend. Every firm requires a credit card and matching driver’s licence; few will rent to those under 25. Prices won’t include tax, liability insurance or collision damage waiver (CDW); U.S. residents may be covered on their home policy, but foreign visitors will need to buy insurance.

Alamo 888-233-8749, alamo.com
Avis 800-331-1212, avis.com
Budget 800-527-0700, budget.com
Dollar 800-800-3665, dollar.com
Enterprise 800-261-7331, enterprise.com
Hertz 800-654-3131, hertz.com
National 877-222-9058, nationalcar.com
Thrifty 877-283-0898, thrifty.com

Cycling

San Francisco is a real cycling city. A grid of major cycle routes across the town is marked by oval-shaped bike-and-bridge markers. North–south routes use odd numbers; east–west routes even; full-color signs indicate primary cross-town routes; neighborhood routes appear in green and white. You can check the Bicycling Resource Guide for maps of bike routes and other details. Daunted by the hills? Pick up the San Francisco Bike Map and Walking Guide from the San Francisco Bike Coalition (or print a copy here), which indicates the gradients of the city’s streets. There are also two scenic cycle routes: one from Golden Gate Park south to Lake Merced, the other heading north from the southern end of Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County.

You can take bicycles on BART free of charge (except in rush hour). Bike racks on the front of certain Muni buses take up to two bikes. On CalTrain, cyclists can take their bikes on cars that display yellow bike symbols. You can also stow bikes in lockers at CalTrain stations.

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