By Car, San Francisco
S.F. can be a hard city to negotiate by car, especially if you're not used to big city driving. Unlike most cities, San Francisco has a major shortage of turnpikes and throughfares... you can thank the 1989 earthquake for that. Most of the old double-decker freeways were torn down and really nothing has been built to replace them. Even if you're just passing through, driving through SF requires using city streets.
Here's a few freeway driving tips...
1) Hwy 101 & 280 are the two major north/south roads going to and from downtown. 280 is ALWAYS faster than 101. Hwy 101 is especially bad right where it goes onto the Bay Bridge (Hospital Curve); this area is congested at all hours of the day. Definitely try to avoid the city streets around 2nd and Mission during the afternoon rush hour - it is usually gridlock.
The fastest way through the city from north to south is to take Hwy 1 along 19th Ave. This bypasses the more densely populated areas of the city.
2) Hwy 380 connects hwy 280 with the airport, allowing you to bypass 101. Most of the time, this is the quickest and easiest option.
3) Hwy 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) is very beautiful, but is usually only 2 lanes, is very twisty, and can be very slow. However, the drive down the coast from SF to Monterey is breathtaking, and, if you have a car, you should definitely do it. The drive north through Marin County is equally gorgeous, but even more twisty.
4) Going around SF can be done by driving through the East Bay, but often these roads will be jammed up as well - especially during rush hour. If you REALLY want to avoid the traffic of the Bay Area, you'll have to go all the way over to Interstate 5.
5) Watch out for "Fastrak Only" lanes at the bridge tollbooths.
Listen to KCBS 740 AM or KGO 810 AM for traffic reports - usually every 10 minutes.
One of the most frequently asked questions by potential visitors to San Francisco is "shall I rent a car?"
A car can be a major headache in the City; or it can be a complete boon. For anyone not used to driving in a city, navigating the streets of SF can be a major challenge. Double parked trucks alone can drive a person to drink. Parking can be horrendously expensive and hard to find. Or it can be free and plentiful, depending on where you go.
For a thorough visit to SF, a car can be very helpful. The 49 mile drive is an excellent way to see what the City has to offer, and you must have a car to navigate the route. If you want the pleasure of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge (and paying $5.00 to come back) you must have a car. For the unbeatable views on the Marin Headlands, you must drive to get there (or be one heck of a cyclist).
Visitors who decide to bring a car into the city, will want to choose accommodations outside of the Financial District, Union Square area, Fisherman's Wharf area. There are hotels along Lombard St. that provide free parking to their guests. Otherwise, should you choose to stay in a hotel downtown, prepare to pay hefty parking fees.
Finding parking in San Francisco is like herding cats - difficult at best and impossible much of the time!
But I was able to find weekend parking in the NE corner of the city for just $5 per day (several open lots). But leaving your car in one of these places overnight probably isn't such a great idea.
The best overall deal I found was an indoor lot near Sutter & Leavenworth. It's run by some great guys and costs just $15/day; more for in&out privileges.
HEARST PARKING CENTER
45 3rd Street (Right behind hotel)
$19.00 (24 hours)
680 Mission St.@Third
$19.00 (Starts after 2 ½ hours--
Good until 6am the next morning)
Early Bird Special: $15.00 (Arriving @ 8am)
$16.00 (Arriving before 9:30 am)
123 O’Farrell @ Powell
$2.00 per hour
$10.00 (5 hours)
$13.00 (6 hours)
$28.00 (24 hours)
SUTTER / STOCKTON STREET GARAGE
Sutter/ Stockton Streets
$2.00 (every 2 hours)
$10.00 (5 hours)
$13.00 (6 hours)
$31.00 (24 hours)
FIFTH & MISSION YERBA BUENA GARAGE
$2.00 (1 hour—increases by $2.00 every hour)
$20.00 (24 hours)
UNION SQUARE GARAGE
$1.00 (½ hour)
$1.00 each ½ hour after (Increase amount may vary)
$28.00 (24 hours)
SF Airport - $8-10/day
If you are coming from or going to the East Bay and you aren't taking B.A.R.T, most likely, you will be going over the Bay Bridge. This bridge connects San Francisco to Emeryville, Berkeley and Oakland. The city in the distance is Oakland.
Better come and take a picture - quick! When all the internal squabbling stops, this bridge will be torn down and replaced with one intended to withstand a major earthquake. The new bridge has a very modern design and of course the very opinionated San Franciscans are all weighing in. Either you love the new design or hate it.
Driving is an excellent way of getting around San Francisco, especially if you want to explore more off the beaten path places especially away from the city center.
If I'm staying with or meeting up with friends who live in the SF Bay Area they usually pick me up at the airport and wisk me away wherever we are going.
If we plan to meet other friends for dinner or drinks and don't want to worry about cabs or the BART, we'll drive in the city as well. Driving in San Franciso can be a bit congested but nothing horrible, it is quite manageable. We've never had problems driving around the city and finding a parking spot hasn't been an issue either.
If you are in a business trip to one of the many companies in the Silicon Valley of Santa Clara, San Jose, Milpitas, etc, you would probably drive into San Francisco during the weekends or at nights during the weekdays.
There are several routes.
1) Highway 101 is the fastest, goes along the west side of the San Francisco Bay and will pass by the SFO Airport.
2) More hinterland Freeway 208, between the bay and Pacific Ocean, rolling hills and vistas along the way.
3) Scenic, winding and longer Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean.
4) Freeway 880 along the east side of the bay and crossing Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Can stopover at Treasurer island for a panoramic view of San Francisco.
If you are travelling for some time here, suggest trying all above routes to see more of the Bay Area.
As is the case with most megalopolises (megalopoli?), what is referred to as "rush hour" lasts much longer. In addition, since Oakland and San Jose are both major employment hubs, there is no real "reverse commute" - traffic tends to be bad in all directions at once. Still, the conventional commute (to the city in the AM and from the city in the PM) is the heaviest.
The afternoon rush hour starts at about 3 PM and gets progressively heavier. It starts to die down about 6 or 6:30. Friday is, of course, the worst - it starts earlier and lasts longer. If you're going to pick a day to avoid driving, make it Friday.
Weekend evenings going into the City from the Bay Bridge can be very heavy at times.
For some reason, the morning commute is much more typical than the evening. Going against the grain in the AM is usually pretty smooth sailing - though in the afternoon, it isn't. Go figure.
I'm not suggesting that you skip seeing what you came to see just to avoid the traffic. Just remember that the Bay Area is the 4th largest urban area in the USA - with nearly 7 million people - most of whom go to and get off work at about the same time!
If you're driving in & around the area (you brave soul) with more than one person in the car you can use the 'carpool' lanes on some freeways and bridges which are marked with a diamond. They operate during certain hours and a carpool is defined in some areas as two people sharing, three in others. Do check the signs as times and requirements do vary between areas. Don't hang about in a > lane solo unless you can afford a fine of around $200. On the Bay Bridge, and some others, carpools don't have to pay the tolls which saves you money and is also immensely satisfying breezing past the other choked lanes of traffic.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTA) maintains a web site and phone service that provides up to date traffic information for the major freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area. The site has a color coded map of the current traffic conditions. It shows if traffic is light, moderate, heavy, or gridlocked. The site will also estimate driving times. This information is invaluable for determining the traffic conditions before attempting to cross the Bay Bridge.
The information used for the site is gathered by a series of data collectors that captures the location of cars that have the Fast Track toll collection transponders. This enables the MTA to track vehicles equipped with Fast Track as they traverse along the major routes. The time a vehicle travels between the collection points is relied back to the MTA and the information is reflected in updates to the traffic maps on the web site.
On a local news report the MTA stated that it does not keep the data collected for more than one day. However, the system does raise some privacy issues. Users of the transponders can place them in a protective envelope when not at a tollbooth and the MTA will not track their movements or use the information on their updates.
The service is also available by phone by dialing 511. A series of menus will lead the user to the traffic information.
It is easier to drive in downtown San Francisco because of the grid lines. But most of the streets are one-way and the many street uses names and not sequential numbers. So you need a street map to navigate.
It can be scary if you are not use to manual stick or know how which auto mode as the road goes up and down like roller coaster and you have to stop at a steep angle at a traffic light or feel the road is going down a valley.
But do not miss Lombard Street, "the crooked road" at Russian Hill. We all took turns going down this short crooked stretch. There are houses with garages and many tourists, so be careful.
If you're planning on staying inside the city of San Francisco, then renting a car is really unnecessary (and costly for parking). You're better off with walking, mass transit, etc.
If, however, you want to get out of the city to take a drive down the coast, across the Golden Gate Bridge, wine tasting, etc., then you'll want a car.
San Francisco is at the very tip of a peninsula. To get there by car, if you're not coming from the south, you will to need to cross one of two bridges. From the West, you'll cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge. This span suffered a major break in the 1989 earthquake. For several weeks, while it was undergoing repairs, it was abundantly clear how important this bridge was! Today there is a new span being constructed alongside the Bay Bridge.
From the North, you will cross the world famous Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate is perhaps the single most recognizable landmark in California.
the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the top tourist sights in San Francisco, and driving across the bridge is a great experience. The bridge was completed in 1938 and covers 1.7 miles across the Golden Gate. Some parking is located at either end of the bridge for those who want to walk, but it can be packed when the weather is nice and on weekends.
Tolls are collected southbound only and cost $5 per car; northbound traffic is free! Bicycles are allowed 24/7, but pedestrian traffic is only allowed during daylight hours.
Our flight from New Brunswick, Canada to SF was delayed by a day due to a freezing rain storm in Toronto. The airport ran out of de-icing fluid for the aircraft wings so they had to cancel all flights. At least that gave me a chance for one final snow blow of the driveway the next morning before we headed out on our Air Canada flight at 5 PM. The 2-hour trip to Toronto and the subsequent 5-hour flight to San Francisco went without any further hitches! Once there, I had a one week rental car booking with Hertz. This turned out to be a good deal as far as I was concerned - we ended up with a new Toyota Camrey with unlimited mileage (we put 520 miles on it) for US $242 and I put US $42 in gas in it. The one-week rental reduced the price by 33%.
San Francisco is a hilly city with streets so steep you occasionally can see just the hood of your car and the sky...no sign of the road! To make it worse, many of the uphill streets have stop signs at very steep places, making very difficult if you drive a standard transmission like me...I think I smelled burning clutch more than once. Good news is the city is fashioned on a strict grid pattern with very few exceptions, making it easy to find your way.
Another difficulty to keep in mind are the cable cars and Muni trains that run at street level and have stations in the middle of the street, often in the middle of two lanes of traffic in the same direction, means you have to choose to drive on one side of the station or the other.