San Francisco: Public transportation survival guide
By Spencer Spellman—
If you’re spending most of your time in San Francisco itself, you’re not likely to be renting a car. The expense of parking mixed with the difficulty of finding a parking spot are reasons enough to bypass a car rental in favor of public transportation.
You’ll likely be ready for a ride after climbing just a couple of San Francisco’s steep hills. Fortunately, San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in America, with bus or train stops usually within easy reach from wherever you may find yourself.
The following guide will help you get around San Francisco more efficiently using public transportation. For more details and ticket prices, make sure to read our “Getting Around San Francisco” guide.
Familiarize yourself with MUNI, because this is where you’ll be spending a majority of your time while getting around San Francisco. While you’ll probably spend much of your time on the MUNI bus, other forms of MUNI public transportation include cable cars, trolleys and street cars.
Buses, trolleys and streetcars have a fare of $2, which includes a transfer ticket that is good for an hour and a half. This can be paid in cash or coins, but make sure to have exact change, as the drivers do not carry change. Cable car rides are $6 for a single-ride ticket.
If you’re in San Francisco for a few days, consider buying a MUNI passport. These are 1-, 3- or 7-day passes that offer unlimited rides. If you know you’ll be using MUNI on a daily basis or even multiple times per a day (and especially if you plan to take the cable car a few times), then this will typically save you both money and time, and save you the hassle of carrying single dollar bills or coins.
If you plan on getting outside the city, you may be using Caltrain, the Bay Area’s commuter train that travels between San Francisco and San Jose. Significant stops include Candlestick Park, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Stanford Stadium, Santa Clara and San Jose.
Fares depend on the length of your trip, starting at $2.75.
BART is San Francisco’s subway system, although you won’t find nearly as many lines as you would in New York City. There’s one primary line that goes through San Francisco, which can get you around much quicker than MUNI. It runs from the Embarcadero, through downtown and into the Mission District.
You’ll likely use BART when going to the airport, Oakland or Berkeley, all of which are a short BART ride away and much cheaper than taking a taxi. You may even find it to be quite a bit cleaner and tolerable than most subway systems around the world. (Another fun note: Those civilized San Franciscans even have the tendency to line up when the train approaches—not something you tend to see in other cities!)
Fares on BART depend on how far you travel. BART tickets work like debit cards: You enter them when you start your journey and then again when exiting, at which time the correct fare is debited. For detailed information on rates and cards, see this page on the BART Web site.
Public transportation schedules
Since San Francisco has such an interconnected transportation system, it’ll probably be overwhelming at first when considering which public transportation method to use, where they stop, and when to get off.
While I recommend using a map, you can also access this information from your phone, even if you don’t have a smart phone. Dialing 5-1-1 or going to 511.org on your phone or computer gives up-to-the-minute information on traffic and when and where to catch your next ride. It also has a very useful route planner.