Transit in San Francisco is thorough and largely reliable, meaning many residents get by without a car. The scene is dominated by three public transit options—BART, Caltrain, and MUNI—with help from cabs, Uber, Lyft, and a number of booming tech companies providing exclusive transit to Silicon Valley.
Public transit can get you nearly anywhere in San Francisco or surrounding areas. In fact, only New Yorkers ride their public transit more per capita. But be warned: hours can be limiting. Though MUNI runs all night within city limits, both BART and Caltrain stop service shortly after midnight. Don’t learn the hard way!
BART and Caltrain are both regional rails: BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) runs throughout the surrounding areas, including to Berkeley, Oakland, and the peninsula to the south, as well as in the city, while Caltrain speeds directly south. However, both can also be very useful within San Francisco itself: Caltrain stops directly across from AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, and BART follows the city’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, from the water to the Mission District, stopping near SoMa, North Beach, and Hayes Valley as well.
MUNI: is a city-dweller’s best friend, set up in a typical grid that crosses throughout San Francisco’s many neighborhoods, and up and over its many hills. The MUNI system consists of over fifty bus lines, nearly twenty trolley bus lines, seven light rail lines, three cable car lines, and two historic streetcar lines. MUNI is heavily used and relied upon: according to one study, “the number of boardings on Muni buses and trains [every day] is nearly equivalent to the entire population of the city.” MUNI’s network is particularly strong in the eastern regions of the city, making SoMa, the Mission, and North Beach among the easiest areas to navigate.
Unfortunately the system, owing to its complexity, takes some time to learn. Lucky for you however a number of apps have cropped up to help: iCommute SF, Pocket Muni, and NextMuni.com are all valuable assistants to the SF commuter. If you’re staying a while, grab a Clipper Card; they’re free, offer discounts on BART and MUNI, and are incredibly convenient (including auto-reload).
Cable Cars: Lastly, no description of San Francisco transit would be complete without a discussion of the nation’s only moving national landmark: the cable cars. Though largely a tourist attraction nowadays, these cars—first tested in 1873—can still take you across the city all the way to the bay. Though far less commonly used for commuting than MUNI, the cable cars are a necessary part of any stay in San Francisco—if only for the views from the top of Russian Hill.
By Car: A car is most useful for those want to commute into or out of the city on their own time and schedule. For those with their own cars, be warned that parking is notoriously difficult in San Francisco. Make sure to consider parking in your apartment search, as included parking spots or garages are relatively common. San Francisco also offers car-sharing services ZipCar in addition to traditional car rental services.
By Cab: YellowCab and Desoto Cab Co. are a few local favorites, and Flywheel, an iPhone app, can be very helpful in hailing cabs, which can be very hard to find in many parts of the city, especially outside of downtown. Fortunately, though, regulated cab fares mean consistent pricing across the board. Uber also operates in San Francisco, supplementing traditional cabs.
Going Places Without a Car: Head to Napa Valley on the VINE 29 Express Bus or the ferry-to-wine-train combo; for trips to Lake Tahoe you can take the Bay Area Ski Bus. California Shuttle Bus, among other companies, makes the 7-hour ride to LA doable, even without your own car. Sausalito is commonly accessed by ferry (a beautiful ride) and famous for its Marine Mammal Center and model of the Bay Area.
Airports: Though San Francisco International Airport (SFO) carries the most traffic, San Jose International Airport and Oakland International Airport sometimes offer better fares. All three are accessible by public transit. BART goes directly and quickly to San Francisco International Airport, while a transfer to AirBART brings riders to Oakland International. San Jose International Airport is accessible via the Caltrain and an airport bus.