Walking can be an enticing option to get from one neighborhood to another, so long as you are aware of where you are and keep your street smarts. San Francisco is a city of friendly neighborhoods, but it is also a big city so be aware of your surroundings and keep in mind the dangers that commonly accompany a city of San Francisco's size.
However, streets that often go straight up and down hills may make walking challenging when attempting the uphill portions (but provide good exercise). Driving can be difficult up and down hills but have breathtaking views. There are many stairway walks scattered throughout the city when the streets are too steep. You can find maps that include hiking trails, bikeways, and the grade pitch of all streets marked in varying colors by how steep each segment is, that can help you orient to city walks suitable to your ability and temperament, such as the downloadable map issued by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Note that locals rarely use the designations "street" or "avenue," even when differentiating the numbered streets and avenues. Numbered roads designated "Street" are located on the east side of the city, south of Market in Downtown,
, Noe Valley, and Mission. Numbered roads designated "Avenue" put you in the Richmond and Sunset districts on the west side.
By public transit
San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in the United States, arguably the most comprehensive system west of Chicago. Transport services within San Francisco are provided by several bodies; they are separate organizations and although they have many interchange stations, tickets are not normally transferable across the systems (except for monthly or longer period passes). The major transit systems are:
- Muni — Metro subway, streetcars, buses, trolley buses and cable cars within San Francisco proper.
- BART — regional subway services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Caltrain — commuter rail services to San José.
San Francisco Municipal Railway or Muni, +1 415 701-2311, runs a network of local transport that covers most areas of touristic interest well.
The Clipper Card was fully introduced in 2010 and is a contact-less, multi-agency fare card similar to Octopus in Hong Kong
and Charlie Card in Boston
. Clipper cards are free at any MUNI ticket machine and are accepted on BART, CalTrain, San Francisco ferries, and many regional transit systems outside the City of San Francisco, in addition to all of MUNI's vehicles (streetcar/subway, busses and cable cars). Clipper can either be set up with pay as you go with all transfers calculated automatically or a 1 day, 3 day, 7 day or monthly pass. MUNI has also created a single use "Clipper Ticket" as the new subway turnstiles no longer accept cash. You can still pay with exact change when boarding a streetcar above ground or a bus.
MUNI operates on a proof of payment basis, sometimes called an "honor system with teeth." 90 minutes of travel on the Muni system (Metro, F-line streetcar, buses) costs $2.25 ($0.75 for youth 5-17, disabled, and seniors 65+) including transfers and return trips if they fall within the 90 minute limit. If you're using a Clipper Card, be sure you "touch on" at any of the readers located near the streetcar or bus door to pay your fare and start the 90 minute clock (you can board at any door as they all have readers). If you aren't using a Clipper Card, don't have a Muni passport, and pay cash, you must board at the front door and obtain a transfer ticket from the driver. The MUNI Saturation Team (fare inspectors) and sometimes the SFPD randomly and frequently patrol streetcars, subway stations and buses with handheld Clipper Card readers checking for proper fare - residents who ride MUNI regularly report being checked once or twice a week.
Many of the city's bus stops also have posted copies of this map with the location of the stop marked, a godsend for lost pedestrians.
You can plan your Muni travel online. Muni arrival times are also available online for many lines at NextMuni. An unofficial site is RescueMuni.com, which often has information on routes that are not listed officially.
If you have strong legs and a bit of urban cycling experience, bicycles are an excellent option for transportation within San Francisco. The city is fairly small in land area - just about 7 miles from north to south and 7 miles from east to west - so it's fairly quick to get from one end to the other, and in recent years, the city's Municipal Transportation Agency has installed many miles of new bike lanes and paths. Cycling is a common transportation choice for San Francisco residents, moreso than in most other American cities, as it is often the quickest way across town. This means that motorists will generally be aware of the presence of cyclists on the roadway. However, it is extremely important to ride with caution, as gridlock and congestion can lead motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike to act unpredictably and in an unsafe manner, at times. Theft of bicycle parts and entire bicycles is unfortunately very common in San Francisco, so it is recommended to avoid leaving a bicycle unattended in public for extended periods of time, and if it is necessary to do so, to lock the bicycle as securely as possible, with a strong lock.
If you plan on cycling in San Francisco, consider that much of the terrain is extremely hilly, making for some tough climbs. In addition, coming downhill means, if you're not careful, you may find yourself barreling out of control into cross traffic at the bottom of the hill. However, there is almost always a bicycle route to get you from one place to another while avoiding major climbs within the city. If you're unsure of how to get around the hills, ask a local cyclist for advice.
Do not be misled by maps depicting the city's street grid and assume that these streets are always flat. Even the straightest of San Francisco's streets might include steep hills or even staircases instead of a roadway. And remember, children may tire even sooner than adults will. A recommended easy ride for children and cyclists with little experience is from the tip of Golden Gate Park
's panhandle in the Haight, along paths and JFK Drive through the park to Ocean Beach
. JFK Drive is lightly trafficked, and its eastern portion (between Kezar and Transverse Drives) is closed to cars on Sundays.
SoMa, the Mission, the Sunset, and Richmond districts are relatively flat. There are a number of bike paths and bike routes on city streets; the San Francisco Bike Coalition keeps a lot of information about them. There are a number of bike rental companies in town, including Dylan's Bike Rental, Bay City Bike, Bike and Roll and Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals with locations in Fisherman's Wharf
, and the Bike Hut and Pacific Bicycle in SoMa.
A very popular ride for visitors to San Francisco is the ride across the Golden Gate Bridge
to Sausalito, a small town in the relatively undeveloped Marin Headlands
. The Golden Gate Bridge has sectioned off pathways on each side for pedestrians and bicyclists. When open, the Western side of the bridge is for cyclists only. When the Western side is closed for construction, the Eastern side is intended for shared use by pedestrians and cyclists. When sharing the Western side with pedestrians, ride courteously. Avoid riding side-by-side, and do your best to make way for groups of pedestrians, as well as commuting cyclists, who ride at higher speeds, and generally have less patience for obstructions. When the bridge is closed to pedestrians during nighttime, you may continue to bicycle across by stopping to press the buzzer at the automatically closed gates to be buzzed in and out.
Taxis in San Francisco are, for a large city, surprisingly inefficient and expensive. You can get an idea of how much particular taxi trips cost in San Francisco using the San Francisco Taxicab Commission's webpage.
San Francisco is home to several startups which are trying to provide a better ride-for-hire service, including UberCab, Lyft, and Sidecar, which are generally cheaper and more reliable than a taxi. Download the free app for any company to view cars in your area, and request a ride.
Except for taxi stations at or near downtown business hotels, or cruising just a few major arteries, taxis can be hard to find and hail - and calling for a cab can mean a 30-45 minute wait, if the cab shows up at all. Now, if you're anywhere near Union Square
and are holding shopping bags, just by standing on the curb and hailing passing cabs will usually get you one quite quickly. It is significantly easier to catch a taxi on weekdays, not including Friday night.
If you are heading to the airport, your best bet is to call ahead with a specific pickup time to one of the many taxi companies. You will also want to schedule your cab ahead of time because if you are going beyond 15 miles, you will end up paying 50% extra.
Perpetually-clogged traffic, steep hills, a confusing system of one-way streets downtown, expensive parking, and a fleet of parking control officers who enforce parking laws with zeal can make driving in San Francisco extremely frustrating; visitors to the city should seriously consider alternatives to automobiles when possible. Car rental is expensive, registration fees are the highest of any US state, and because collisions are common, rates for liability insurance (legally required) are high as well. In addition, traffic from the Golden Gate Bridge uses surface streets either along CA-1, 19th Avenue or US-101 on Lombard
and Van Ness. A car is really only useful for visiting destinations outside of the city (excluding Oakland and Berkeley, which is served by BART) or parts of the city less frequently served by MUNI. The greatest hazard of driving is on Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth, where a stretch known as "The Crookedest Street in the World" runs one-way down a steep hill making eight hairpin turns. Oversized vehicles such as pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and recreational vehicles should NOT attempt to pass through the winding stretch of Lombard Street
The most difficult problem with your car in San Francisco will be parking. Parking throughout the city is extremely scarce. Garages, where they are available, are quite expensive ($20-30/day downtown). San Francisco has some of the strictest parking laws and enforcement in the country. For day trips into the city, consider a park-and-ride at a Peninsula Caltrain station, at a Peninsula BART station, or at an East Bay BART station.
When parking on a hill (and there are many of them in San Francisco), remember to always apply that parking brake and turn your wheels so that the tires are against the curb (Facing uphill, the front wheels should be turned out until the tires are resting against the curb. Facing downhill, the front wheels should be turned in so that they are set against the curb). Failure to park properly doesn't just run the risk of having your car roll downhill, but it is also against the law and you may be ticketed.
Motorcycles and Scooters are a common sight on San Francisco streets; in fact, San Francisco is known as one of the most motorcycle-friendly places in the US. Street parking for motorcycles is plentiful and relatively inexpensive, but note that parking on sidewalks is usually illegal. There are several motorcycle rental shops like Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals, along with many dealers, service shops, and motorcyclist hangouts. As elsewhere in California, motorcyclists must wear helmets. Motorcycle theft is a problem; always use a disk lock or secure your bike to a stationary object using a cable or chain.
Segways, though more novel, are fairly common in San Francisco. So far there is only one authorized Segway dealer that rents out Segways, though various tour operators (many of whom operate from Fisherman's Wharf) offer guided trips throughout the city.
Ride share programs
Ride Sharing is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to taxi cab services in San Francisco, offering an arguably friendlier and more reliable service at a cheaper price. Programs including Lyft, Sidecar, Uber and Carma involve downloading their mobile application to request a ride. Programs such as Sidecar, Lyft, and Uber's "UberX" utilize local drivers, and Uber also offers a more up-scale service, providing town cars and luxury SUVs at a premium price. The local drivers whom drive for Sidecar, Lyft, etc. usually do not have a taxi license. They are residents who own cars and are looking for an extra income on the side. But be assured, each driver in the ride share programs go through background checks and are tracked via GPS during your ride. Driver photos and their cars are displayed to the rider before pick up to ensure rider safety.
To request ride, the ride share programs usually requires the rider to download their mobile application and create an account and store credit card information. When requesting a ride, the rider enters their pick-up location, and drop-off location. When a driver confirms your ride request, a GPS map will track the driver's location, ETA, as well as show a picture of the driver and their car.