The Ultimate Guide to San Francisco's Transportation (A Local’s Take)

Here's a fun fact: Both My sister and I don't drive everyday in San Francisco. In fact, we’re not the only ones - only 66% of residents own a drivers licence and 54% have cars registered in the city. That makes us quite the expert when it comes to the various modes of transit in San Francisco. 

So take it from a local – here's our breakdown of the public transit and popular apps you can use to get around the city like a pro!

Should I rent a car in San Francisco? 

One thing we hear a lot from friends who don’t live in the city: “I hate driving in San Francisco!” So if you’re visiting from out of town and debating if you need to rent a car for your stay, you may want to consider the other options first. 

If you ask us, don’t rent a car if you’re staying in the city proper. Get a car for the days  you plan to drive out to places like the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, a day trip to Napa Valley, or spend a few days in Yosemite, but when you’re in the city, skip the headaches of finding parking, navigating the weird narrow streets, and unfortunate car break ins (if you do drive in, always, always don’t leave bags visible in your car!). Tips on Saving Money on Rental Cars

Here’s everything you need to know about navigating San Francisco without a car: 

The Options

  • Muni Bus & Muni Tram 
  • Cable Cars
  • Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
  • Ride Share Uber/ Lyft
  • Taxis
  • Share Bikes & Scooters

Operates in the city as well as the greater Bay Area: 

  • SamTrans
  • Golden Gate Transit

Getting Around San Francisco

Muni

Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) is San Francisco’s bus and metro system that runs throughout the city, operating buses, trains, cable cars and the F-line heritage streetcar. 

Muni buses remain above ground and on streets while Muni Metro runs on rails and sometimes go underground. 

Where are Muni Bus / Metro Rail Stops located?

Bus stops come in many forms and you may have to look around to find them. There are small bus shelters, yellow paint on street poles with numbers printed on them, and white paint on streets with the bus number. There are many bus stops throughout the city, so it’s easier to plan a ride with your smartphone (next section). Muni Service Map

Metro stops can be found on an island in the middle of the street and in underground stations. Look for the letter of the line J, K/ T, L, M, N. Stops are named after the street, area, or major destination at that stop. Metro Map

 

How do you Ride Muni? 

There are many ways you can plan your Muni Rides:

How to Pay for Muni? 

Muni Bus: 

Cash: You can purchase a tiket when you board the front of the bus with exact change. 

Clipper Card: You can scan a Clipper Card when you board the bus (payment terminals at every door)

Phone: 

  • Load your Clipper Card into Apple Wallet or Google Pay to scan phone or smartwatch at Clipper Card terminals
  • Download the MuniMobile app to purchase tickets on your smartphone

Muni tram:

Cash: At underground stops you can purchase a ticket at the machine before you enter tram platform. At above ground stops you can pay with exact change at the front car door. 

Credit Card: At underground stops you can purchase a ticket at the machine before you enter tram platform.

Phone: 

  • Load your Clipper Card into Apple Wallet or Google Pay to scan phone or smartwatch at Clipper Card terminals
  • Download the MuniMobile app to purchase tickets on your smartphone

How much does it cost to Ride Muni?
You pay per ride, and a ticket is good for 120 minutes of travel. Any transfers made within the 120 minutes is free. Transfers between bus and light rail are included. 

For a single ride for Adults (age 19-64) it costs $3. For a discount, it is $2.50 a ride if you pay with the MuniMobile App or Clipper Card. 

Seniors (age 65+) and People with Disabilies pay a discounted rate of $1.25. You will need to be able to provide proof of eligibility. (More Details

Youth (18 years and younger) are free, with the exception of Cable Cars. 

What time does Muni busses & Metro run?

Muni routes run from 5am to 12 am. Limited late night lines marked Owl run from 12 am to 5am. 

Muni Metro runs: 

  • Weekdays: 6 a.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Saturdays: 8 a.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Sundays: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Cable Cars and Street Cars

Cable cars and street cars are San Francisco’s historic public transit cars. Cable cars are located downtown and run on three lines: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California Street. The F-Line streetcar runs up and down Market Street all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Where to Buy Tickets for Cable Car and Street Car Rides? 

Purchase in Advance

To board cable cars at Powell & Market, Bay & Taylor and Hyde & Beach Streets, you must purchase your fare in advance (applies 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily). 

Single ride fares can be purchased at a number of  SFMTA Transit Kiosks including ones located near the terminal stops / turnabouts: 

  • Powell and Market Street 
  • Hyde and Beach Street 
  • Bay and Taylor Street 
  • Presidio Ave and Geary Blvd
    Pay on board

    When you broad at the other stops, you can pay the conduction onboard with exact change (conductor cannot break bills for you), Clipper Card, or MuniMobile App.

    How much does it cost to ride the Cable Car? 

    It costs $8 to ride the cable car in San Francisco, for both Adults and Youth (age 5-18), regardless of payment method. 

    Senior, Disabled, and Medicare holders pay $8 between 7am-9pm, and $4 between 9pm-7am. 

    Youth 4 and under ride for free. 

    What time do Cable Cars run in San Francisco?

    Hours of operations will be 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Sunday.

     

     

    BART

    What is BART?

    Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) operates not just in the city, but in the greater Bay Area so you can check if your destination has a stop here.

    Where does the BART Lines go?

    BART has several stops in San Francisco, particularly along Downtown, but also operate outside the city and can take you to Oakland, Berkeley, Milbrae, and more. Here is a map and Schedule of where BART operates. 

     

    How much does it cost to ride BART? 

    BART costs are associated with how far you travel; the greater the distance, the higher the fare.

    Within the city, a BART ride costs $2.15 with Clipper. 

    A one-trip BART fare from SFO to downtown San Francisco is $10.00

    Fee Calculator

    How to pay for a BART ride? 

    You can either buy a ticket from Bart, or use a Clipper Card (more on this later in the article). 

    Buy your ticket and pass through the gates by slipping your ticket through the turnstile or scan your Clipper Card (or phone with Clipper Card loaded into your Apple Wallet or Google Pay). You'll have to scan again when you arrive at your destination to exit the gates. 

    If you don’t have enough funds on your card when exciting, there are machines near every exit to load more cash. 

    You can also purchase a BART SFO Voucher in advance to save time. The $20 voucher has enough value for a round-trip BART ride from SFO to downtown San Francisco, downtown Oakland or downtown Berkeley, plus a small balance you can apply toward another ride on the BART system.

     

    What time does BART operate? Does BART run 24/7? 

    SFO trains arrive and depart three to four times per hour until 11:50 p.m. daily. The ride to downtown San Francisco takes about 30 minutes. All BART services resume at 4 a.m. on weekdays, 6 a.m. on Saturdays, and 8 a.m. on Sundays.

     

    Ride Sharing 

    When the bus is taking too long, or there isn’t a convenient public transportation line going to your destination, a ride share app can be a great way to get around the city. 

    Popular apps include Lyft and Uber. Just download the app of your choice on your smartphone, enter the destination, and wait your ride to pick you up. Be sure to check the license plate and car model to make sure you hop into the right car! 

    Taxi

    Just like any other city, a taxi can get you door to door quickly. There aren’t as many here like other cities like New York where you can just hail one outside, but you can use apps to call one. 

    Share Scooter & Bike Rentals

    If you’re comfortable with biking or riding an electric scooter, there are plenty of options that you can just pickup from the street.

    There are a couple companies that offer shared scooter and bikes for rental, which is charged based on the the time you use it, and you can just drop them off at your destination. They are a fast, cheap alternative to Ubers or buses. 

    Most will prompt you to download an app to unlock the bike or scooter of your choice, then you can zip around to your heart’s content. 

    Each company may vary in practice so please follow the instructions, park responsibly, and don’t leave scooters and bikes lying in the street or in the way. Many will provide a map of boundaries where they can or cannot be parked. 


    Is it worth to buy a San Francisco Visitor Passport or CityPASS? 

    San Francisco Visitor Passport & CityPASS

    Depending on the length of your trip, Visitor Passports and CityPASS may be a way to save costs on your transit as they provide unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars and cable cars as well as tickets to popular attractions. 

    Visitor Passports

    You can purchase Visitor Passports for 1, 3, or 7 consecutive days of unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars, and cable cars. They are not valid on BART, other transit systems, tour buses, or for transportation to or from San Francisco International Airport (SFO). 

    Where to buy Visitor Passports in San Francisco? 

    You can purchase them on the MuniMobile App for a discounted price. 

    If buying five or more Paper Passports at once, you can now purchase them online

    Passports are available in person at a number of sales locations throughout the City. 

    San Francisco CityPASS

    The CityPASS is a ticket to popular tourist attractions in San Francisco for a discounted price, up to 40-45% off regular pricing. 

    You get tickets to the California Academy of Sciences and Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise, and pick from attractions like the Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, The Walt Disney Family Museum, and the Exploratorium. 

    Included in the CityPASS booklet is a seven-day Muni passport for unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars and cable cars.

    Where to buy San Francisco CityPASS

    You can buy them online and use your phone to scan tickets, or print out in advance for a hardcopy. 

    How much does a Visitor Passport and CityPASS San Francisco cost? 


    1-Day Visitor Passport: $24 Paper Passport / Clipper, $13 MuniMobile

    3-Day Visitor Passport: $36 Paper Passport / Clipper, $31 MuniMobile

    7-Day Visitor Passport: $47 Paper Passport / Clipper, $41 MuniMobile

    Adult CityPASS (age 12+): $76

    Children (ages 4-11) CityPASS: $56

    Is a Visitor Passport worth it? 

    Depending on how much you plan on taking Muni. It gives you unlimited rides on Muni bus, Muni Metro, historic streetcars and cable cars.

    Since the cable car rides are already $8 per person, a one day pass may make since if you plan on taking the Muni bus or metro more than twice that day ($2.50-$3 / ride) . 

    If you plan on taking more of a mix of BART, Uber, and renting bikes, it may make more sense to load some cash into a Clipper Card and pay single ride fares instead. 

    Clipper Card

    How to Pay for Public Transit with Clipper Card in San Francisco?

    The Clipper Card is a convenient way to pay for all the various modes of public transportation as this is the all in one transit card that can be used to pay for all of the public transportation in the San Francisco & Bay Area, including BART and Muni (full list of services). 

    Where to purchase a Clipper Card?

    Physical Clipper Cards can be purchased at many locations throughout the city, including underground Muni and BART stations. You can also purchase and reload Clipper Cards at partnered retailers like Walgreens. Staffed locations will be able to help with purchases, reloading value, and lost card replacements. See Locations

    How to add money to your Clipper Card? 

    In Person

    The quickest way to reload is in person. You can find many self-serve machines at underground Muni and BART Stations, and also go to staffed service locations if you need assistance. There are also retailers who offer this service, like Walgreens. See Locations

    On your Phone

    Link your Clipper Card to the Clipper App to see and manage your balance. You can add value on the app. 

    Reload Online

    You can use the Clipper Card website to reload online. Set up your card a day or two before use to make sure it’s ready. 

    You can reload your Clipper card with cash value, passes or both. 

    How to use the Clipper Card? 

    You can either use the physical Clipper Card, or load the card into your Apple Wallet or Google Pay to use your smartphone or smartwatch to pay. 

    When you board the bus or metro above ground, each door will have a Clipper Card scanner. When boarding underground, there will be a spot for you to scan to pay into the turnstiles. 

    Simply hover your card, smartphone, or smartwatch over the scanner until you head a beep that confirms payment. If there is insufficient funds you will have to add value to your card before scanning again. 

    What happens if you don’t have enough money on your Clipper Card? 

    If you don’t have enough money on your Clipper Card, there will be red lights and a different beep sound to indicate that there isn’t enough money on the card to board the bus or metro. You will have to add value and scan again.
    If you are exiting BART or CalTrain you will need to scan to exit. If there isn’t enough value on the card, you will not be able to exit the turnstile. Use the nearby Add Fare Machines to add value to the card to pay and exit. 

    Can two people share one Clipper Card? 

    No, each rider needs their own card to pay for their own fares, as one card cannot charge multiple passengers. 

    Can you use the Clipper Card to pay for Cable Car rides? 

    Yes, just hover your card or phone / smartwatch over the Clipper scanner and listen for a beep to confirm that you have enough value on your card to pay for the fare. 

    Renting a Car

    Depending on how you want your trip to be, if you are traveling to farther places, or areas with less convenient transit, you may want to rent a car. If you do rent a car, be sure to check out our money saving tips!

     

    Helpful Links: 

    San Francisco Bingo Board (Free Download)

    11 Things You Can't Miss in San Francisco

    How to Dress for Every Season in San Francisco 

    Ten Best views of San Francisco.

    FREE Travel Planner Download

     

    Karin is the co-founder of Arden Cove and co-creator of the Anti-Theft Waterproof Crossbodies - bags created for women who want all the practicality and safety features without compromising in style. Shop ArdenCove.com.


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