Visiting The San Francisco Bay Area – Tips on Transport, Traffic and Parking

The information below has been derived from personal experience, repeated to several visiting friends, and now captured here for the benefit of a wider audience. Hopefully it saves you some time or trouble. And welcome to the Bay Area!

Getting Around the City of San Francisco

Driving

Steep street in San FranciscoSan Francisco has some steep hills! Remember to adjust your driving accordingly:

  • Use manual break when parking, and turn your wheels the right way to the curb.
  • Slow down when approaching the top of a steep hill because you can’t see what’s ahead.
  • Leave a little extra breathing room between cars when you stop at a light on a hill. The car ahead of you may roll back first before moving forward when the light turns green.

Even though the city is relatively compact in terms of square mileage – it can take some time getting to your destination. That’s because San Francisco is unique in that no highways cross it in the east-west or completely in the north-south direction. So, if you are heading across the city – be prepared to stop at a lot of lights. And it will take longer during peak commute times. Big events like a baseball game at the AT&T Park can also generate high traffic in the area.

Oh, the Parking!

Parking in the city can be is a hassle. In some cases it’s a matter of $$$. For example, parking at the Pier 39 garage near Fisherman’s Wharf – a popular tourist destination – can run you $40 (5 hours or longer). Hotels in certain areas charge $50 or more per day – be sure to check! I’ve tried several phone apps/websites for finding cheaper parking alternatives - www.parkme.comen.parkopedia.com and www.bestparking.com. For the above mentioned Fisherman Wharf garage, they generated a number of cheaper alternatives nearby, the best being $12 for the day (weekend). But when we got to the lot, we found out the rate was actually $18. Still better than paying $40, but out of date information. Bottom line: the apps/websites are not necessarily comprehensive or always accurate, but are still useful for getting a sense of the area and generating some options.

One more thing to pay attention to with parking garages is their operating hours. Not all are open 24 hours. So check the closing time to avoid returning from an everning party only to find your car being locked in a garage until morning (this happened to a friend).

Parking can also be a hassle in a different way – the time it takes. In parts of the city there isn’t much in terms of lots or garages, with the only option being street parking. And sometimes finding a spot can take a while – allow extra time. Also, check the signs for parking time limits – most streets, both metered and free, have them. I often see parking enforcement hard at work, and have a ticket to prove it.

Starting January 6, 2013, parking meters are no longer free on Sundays!  “All SFMTA parking meters in San Francisco will be enforced on Sundays from noon to 6 p.m., with four-hour time limits. Meters in the Fisherman’s Wharf will continue to operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Meters in Port of San Francisco jurisdiction (along the waterfront and some side streets) will continue to operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday.” For more details see www.sfmta.com/cms/pmeter/sundaymeters.htm

Walking

  • If you plan to cover significant distance on foot and have to be somewhere at a certain time, be sure check the topology of your route for big hills – there are some really steep ones in the city! – and adjust your walking time estimate accordingly.
  • High hills and high heels do not go well together.
  • It’s often windy and chilly – dress appropriately.

Cab

There is a shortage of cabs in the city – it can be a challenge to hail one. For better odds, stand where it is easy for a cab to stop, and continuously hold your hand up in the Statue of Liberty position. If you raise it only briefly – a cab might miss you. If an empty cab passes you by without stopping - don’t take it personally – it might be heading off shift or to pick up a dispatched ride. If possible, head to a tourist destination or a large hotel where cabs queue up. Better yet – call for a pickup. A call may still involve a wait if all taxis are busy at the time – so call AHEAD if you can. You may also want to check out Flywheel phone app for locating taxis and requesting a pickup. I haven’t tried the app, but a significant percentage of city cabs use it.

Taxi fares are municipally regulated, so all cab companies charge the same. An average 3-mile trip, including wait time but without tip, might cost around $13. It’s $3.50 to get in (first 1/5 mile) plus 55 cents for each additional mile or minute of wait. The difference between cab companies is in the number of cars they have available and the quality of the management and service they provide. A complete list of all licensed cab companies in the city is available here: www.sfmta.com/cms/xcontact/ContactaTaxiCompany.htm.

Cab Alternatives

Recent years produced a number of alternatives to cabs, thanks to the sharing economy. Check out Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar. Sometimes they can provide cheaper fares than cabs, and other times it’s about better availability and convenience. Their phone apps allow you to request a ride, see if there are drivers in your vicinity, and pay for a ride, among other features. Their rates and business models are evolving, so check individual companies’ websites or apps for details.

Scoot Networks is a new company offering rentals of shared smartphone-activated motorscooters, conveniently placed in various locations around the city.  Short-term scooter rentals do not require a motorcycle license.

Public Transport

  • See this section below covering wider area public transport
  • Use Google Maps to
    • get step-by-step transit directions
    • find transit stops in your area and
    • view station information and schedules
  • Also visit transit.511.org

Driving: Traffic or How Long Does It Take to Get from Point A to Point B in the Bay Area?

Traffic has a significant effect on the time it takes to drive to a destination. It may take me 45 minutes to get from point A in Palo Alto to point B in San Francisco late at night, but twice that long during peak rush hour traffic.

I usually use Google Maps to get an estimate. First, get directions from A to B. I find the travel time provided by Maps pretty accurate for non-traffic situations, and use it as the minimum travel time (without speeding). If you are making the trip right away, Google also conveniently provides time estimate in the current traffic. If the trip is in the future and during 7 to 10 a.m. or 3 to 7.30 p.m. on a weekday (busiest traffic), I check the usual traffic pattern to adjust my travel time estimate. Select “Traffic” on Google Maps. Then use traffic box in the bottom left corner of the map to specify day and time of interest (Desktop version of Maps only). Examine the traffic on your route and be sure to pay attention to the direction of travel! The same stretch of highway can be breezy in one direction and standing still going the other way. There are no hard and fast rules – just tack on lots of extra time if there are long stretches of red.

Be aware of carpool lanes, aka high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, on highways. Usually they are the left-most lane in each direction, and are marked with diamond shape symbols. During peak commute hours, in order to drive in a carpool lane, you must be in a carpool (defined as 2 people on some highways and 3 on others) or single-occupant hybrid vehicle. Peak hours are usually 5 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. But because hours and minimum required number of passengers vary by highway/location, be sure to pay attention to road signs – an HOV violation can cost you $481! Carpool lanes can be your friend during commute hours – breeze by slow traffic if you have several people in your car. Or your foe – as they reduce the number of lanes available to single occupant vehicles.

On weekends, one potential area of congestion is bridges, e.g., Golden Gate or Bay Bridge, with people heading in and out of the city. Speaking of bridges, there are four of them crossing the San Francisco Bay in the east-west direction. From north to south, they are:

  • The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (I-580)
  • The San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (I-80)
  • The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge (SR 92)
  • The Dumbarton Bridge (SR 84)

All bridges charge tolls, but only in the westbound direction. Toll is payable with cash or a FasTrak device. If you are relocating to the Bay Area and will be crossing bridges with any frequency, get your FasTrak here. And then there is The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most recognized symbols of San Francisco. It connects the city with Marin County to the North. The toll is collected in the southbound direction only.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge.

Public Transport

There are two main rail service systems connecting different regions of the Bay Area: BART and Caltrain.

BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – connects the San Francisco Peninsula (the city of San Francisco and extending South to the San Francisco International Airport) to the various cities in the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, Fremont, etc.) via five rail lines [BART System Map]. BART’s website provides real-time departures, trip planners schedule, fare calculators, service advisories and other info and is mobile device friendly.

Caltrain is a commuter rail line connecting the city of San Francisco to San Jose/Silicon Valley (with limited service extending to Gilroy) in the South. Trains operate relatively infrequently, on an approximately hourly basis every weekday, with more frequent service provided during commute hours and for special events. There are also bullet trains, which stop only at selected stations but significantly reduce travel time. Since the northernmost station in San Francisco is 4th Street, near AT&T Baseball Park, most destinations in the city will require connections to other forms of transport. One way to increase the options is to transfer from Caltrain onto BART at Millbrae station when heading into the city.

If you will be making use of public transport in the Bay Area, consider getting a Clipper card. This is a reloadable smart card that works on BART, Caltrain, Muni (San Francisco system of buses, trolleys, cable cars, light rail and subway), VTA (public transport in the Valley) and others. Even for an occasional public transport user like me, Clipper card saves time and hassle of figuring out and buying tickets for each transport system and ride.

To Drive or To Use Public Transport?

If you have a choice, in many cases a car is a faster and more convenient but less eco-friendly option. I found myself opting for BART when going to the city, if my destination is within a walking distance from the station, and I either want to have a shorter or at least more predictable travel time during heavy traffic, or would like to save on parking hassle or
cost (and toll if coming from East Bay). You can select “Transit” layer on Google Maps to see if there is a station near your destination.

Getting To and From San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

If you don’t a have a ride from friends available:

  • Nearby hotels provide complimentary shuttles.
  • Public transport service is provided by BART.
  • Cabs are convenient but depending on the destination can get expensive.
  • Airport shuttles provide a cheaper but slower alternative to cabs: Super Shuttle, Airport Express (service to addresses in San Francisco), or search for others.
  • If you have far to go, renting a car for a day and dropping it off somewhere close to your destination could be a competitive option.
  • And, for those living in the area and interested in driving and parking your own car at or near the airport, check out BART’s Airport/Long Term Parking option. At $5-6/day, this is significantly cheaper than many of the park and fly alternatives. But check to make sure there is BART service near your flight times, e.g., BART service doesn’t start until 8 a.m. on Sundays.

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