S.F. Public Transport Tips for Newbies
San Francisco is a city with a decent public transportation system, at least compared to other American cities. Train, bus, uber, taxi, cable car — name your desire and chances are S.F. has it running, although locals agree, not yet perfected. Do you know how each S.F. transportation system works for a traveler? Which forms of transportation are better than others? And which forms of carriage can be a rip-off? With this San Francisco transportation guide, we hope to shed some light on ways you can travel around the city for less.
As a traveler, your first opportunity for mobility comes when you land at the airports. Upon arrival, you can choose to book an airport shuttle van to reach downtown S.F. (such as Airport Express, or for 24-hour service, American Airporter) or you can ride the train, otherwise known as BART.
Bay Area Regional Transit
Bay Area Regional Transit, otherwise known as BART, is the best form of public transportation to travel the immediate Bay Area vicinity. And for the most part, it’s the only form of public transportation which can move you quickly between downtown S.F. and Oakland.
Just purchase a ticket, descend to the underground and hop on board.
The downside with BART, though, is it only goes to a limited section of San Francisco, mainly the downtown area holding a scarce supply of landmarks. If you want to visit attractions such as Pier 39, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Palace of Fine Arts, you’ll need to ride a bus.
Another unfortunate fact: BART doesn’t run 24 hours. If you fly to SFO or decide to party in Oakland past midnight, you might need to plan an alternate route, like sleeping in the bushes until morning.
In the next few years, BART plans to extend to San Jose and the Silicon Valley (the Google part of town). It’ll be interesting to see how the extension changes San Francisco travel.
BART Rules of Thumb:
- BART tickets are NOT valid on other forms of San Francisco transportation. BART is considered it’s own system; you need to buy a separate ticket specifically from the BART machine.
- Trip prices vary according to distance. From SFO to Powell Street Station (Union Square) the price is around $10. From Union Square to Oakland the cost is around $4.
- BART is more of a way to travel TO San Francisco, rather than IN San Francisco (unless you’re sightseeing The Mission). The track only goes through one portion of the city —it’s just the way it is.
- BART map & hours can be found here.
- BART airport info can be found here.
Once you arrive in downtown San Francisco, the public transportation rules change. Instead of BART, you’ll travel by “Muni,” a term used to describe the bus, train and cable-car systems of S.F.
San Francisco Buses
The buses are an easy way to travel in San Francisco. All you need to know is where you’re going and the bus number involved. The rest is simple.
Arrival times are posted electronically on most bus stops, and you can download an app called NextBus to see when your next bus arrives.
The bottom line is the buses are a solid way for a traveler to sightsee San Francisco.
S.F. Bus Rules of Thumb
- Bus fares are $2.25.
- No change is given. In other words, if you give the driver a $10 bill, say goodbye to your $7.75 change. Instead, grab some quarters and be ready to pay the exact fare.
- A “transfer” is another word for ticket. When you pay your fare at the front of the bus, the driver will hand you a transfer. Authorities rarely check your transfers, but if they do, you want to have it ready. Don’t lose it.
- Many times the driver is nonchalant. If you are switching buses and already paid, feel free to hop in the back door. Rarely will they ask to examine your ticket —usually you can just flash it from the back.
- Your driver determines the length of your ride. The standard length is 90 minutes, but if he rips your transfer in a longer spot? You just lucked out and got a longer ride.
- Muni transfers are NOT valid on BART.
- Traveling with a Muni map is recommended. Of course you can ask a local for directions, but a Muni map is power. Make your life easy.
San Francisco Muni Trains
Labeled by the letters K, L, M, N, J and T, the Muni train is a good choice for transport in San Francisco, but only for certain parts of the city. The train is clean, efficient and (mostly) reliable; however, the ground coverage is less than comprehensive for the total city of S.F.
You can reach outside neighborhoods such as The Mission, Ocean Beach and Cole Valley, but north of Market Street (where several attractions are located) is mostly unavailable.
You can think of the Muni train as an addition to the bus system, but for more local parts of town. For the first-time S.F. traveler, you’ll likely use Muni to reach downtown S.F., make your way to Ocean Beach or visit AT&T Park for a baseball game.
Muni Train Rules of Thumb
- Fare is $2.25, just like the bus
- Muni trains are located underground in downtown San Francisco (near Market Street) and above ground in the more local parts of town, such as Ocean Beach or Lakeside.
- Transfers are valid for 90 minutes and are electronically timed (while underground). If you hop on a train on an above-ground route, consider it the same rules as the bus.
- You can use a bus transfer on a train. All you need to do is show the person in the booth underground, or show your driver as you board.
- The Muni train is good for reaching The Castro, Dolores Park, AT&T Park and Ocean Beach. Otherwise, you might want to consider the bus.
Added to the city in 1995, the F-Line is several “world” streetcars brought together to create one uniform transit line. Usually crowded with tourists on their way to and from Fisherman’s Wharf, the F-Line, or F, has different colored cars and is good for sightseeing, especially along The Embarcadero.
However, if you’re in a hurry, the F is the kiss of death when it comes to speed and reliability.
Tourists always seem to slow the cars down, and it’s at the mercy of the traffic signals on Market Street. The F-Line can get you where you need to go, but for the most part, it’s a tourist attraction.
F-Line Rules of Thumb
- Fare is $2.25 and daily operations are just like the bus (how to pay the driver, transfers, etc.)
- The F is usually slow. Think about it. There’s 20 tourists trying to board the car — some are confused, others don’t carry exact change and the drivers, for the most part, don’t give an F. You’re not a speeding bullet in other words.
- Try to catch the F uncrowded. You can sightsee along The Embarcadero, people-watch the locals and other travelers, or read a book while you sit. When you need to slow down, there’s no better ride.
And now we’ve reached the mac-daddy — the number one, most famous and popular public transportation system in San Francisco. It’s the cable car, explained here as follows:
Riding the cable cars is like eating at an over-crowded restaurant. You typically wait too long in line and don’t always sit in the best spot. But we all go through the rite of passage of riding one. And once you do, you’ll see the cable cars have nothing to offer the San Francisco public transportation spectrum, except entertainment.
The functionality, speed and distance of the cable car are all sub-par compared to other methods of transportation in San Francisco.
And who wants to wait for 2 hours only to get a butt in your face? The cable cars, frankly, were a reliable way to move around San Francisco in 1890 when 20+ lines existed, but today are one of the biggest tourist traps in the city. The cost says it all — $7 PER RIDE.
Cable Car Rules of Thumb:
- The two main cable car lines are the California Line (usually less crowded because of the lack-of-landmarks along the route) and the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde Lines, which are basically the same thing except their destination points in Fisherman’s Wharf.
- The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde Lines are basically the same route, except the Powell-Mason Line almost ALWAYS has a shorter line. If you find yourself wanting to depart Fisherman’s Wharf in the afternoon, head to the corner of Bay and Taylor for a possibly non-existent wait (not always).
- Don’t follow the crowd. The majority of people ride TO Fisherman’s Wharf in the morning, and in the FROM Fisherman’s Wharf in the afternoon. If you want to be a master of the cable car, avoid these routes and times.
- Don’t wait in line to purchase a ticket. Just hop on board and buy the ticket on the cable car itself. You can pay with cash or a credit card.
- The best spots to stand are on the front (hanging on the railing like you see in the photos) or on the back, standing next to the conductor. Whatever you do, though, don’t stand on the yellow squares. The conductors will send you in the tiny room faster than you can say body odor.
- Cable cars operate from 6 a.m. past midnight, 365 days per year. Who knew?
- Muni transfers are NOT accepted on the cable car. The only forms accepted are Day Passes ($20), 3-Day Passes ($31), 7-Day Passes ($40), Monthly Passes or cash. And as a side note, we think the Single Day, 3-Day and 7-Day passes as ineffective price-wise when it comes to San Francisco public transportation (in other words, a ripoff).
- Cable cars are good for entertainment, but not much more. Absorb the ring rings, snap your famous photos and move on. There’s so much else to see!
San Francisco is a city that’s better than others for public transportation. But just like every major city in the USA, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re either wasting money trying to learn the system, or spending time and energy using a less-than-efficient way to get around town. And when you travel and only have a certain amount of days, wasting time can be costly.
Instead, study the transportation system of San Francisco and come out a winner.
Are You Not Interested in Public Transportation? Try…
- Lyft and Uber. Use your phone to order a car, see the timing it’ll take to arrive and track your route all the way to your destination. No tipping is involved and no cash changes hands (it’s all done online). It’s very similar to a cab, but cheaper.
- You can take a taxi. Although tougher to find at 2 a.m. on a Friday night, cabs are still a reliable way to move yourself around San Francisco.
- Walk! San Francisco is a city of hills. Why not get some exercise by conquering some of them? You might be sore after the first day, but you’ll survive.