Public Transport in San Francisco
The San Francisco Bay Area is blessed (some would say cursed) with about 28 different transit operators. Many of them operate several different types of transit service (buses, streetcars, heavy rail, ferries, and cable cars). Coordination between different operators is improving but still needs work. Regional public transit information is available from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Clipper Card – The Clipper Card is the San Francisco Bay Area’s multi-agency transportation fare card. You can use it on Muni, BART, Caltrain and most of the other Bay Area transit agencies. Check the website for more information.
Don’t drive in San Francisco – San Francisco is a hard place to drive a car. There’s lots of traffic congestion and not enough places to park. The city’s transit system is good, taxis, while not plentiful are OK, and the city is ideal for walking and biking. So, don’t drive!
San Francisco Public Transit – San Francisco’s public transit operator is the San Francisco Municipal Railway, affectionately known as “Muni”. Muni offers great coverage of the entire city, although buses can be crowded and late.
TIP: Muni offers a series of visitor-oriented passes which are an excellent value considering a single ride on a cable car costs $6 (March 2015), and who doesn’t want to ride the Cable Cars?
Cable Cars – The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable cars pass by the west border of Union Square (Powell Street). No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a cable car ride; the only trick is finding a time when they are not too crowded.
My favourite ride is an evening run on the Powell-Hyde line. It has the most hills, travels through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and drops you in San Francisco’s Maritime Park with its museum, historic ships, and weekend bongo concert. You will be just steps from Fisherman’s Wharf (Cannery) or Ghiradelli Square (one of the first historic festival marketplaces).
Cable-car fares are higher than normal Muni fares and transfers are not valid. Best to buy a several-day Muni tourist pass good for all Muni services, including the cable cars.
Cable Car Museum – Cable car fans should visit the cable car museum at the corner of Mason and Washington Streets. The museum is located in the cable-car powerhouse, so you can watch the machinery pulling the cable through the streets. Hours vary so check the Cable Car Museum website for more information.
Muni F Line – Muni’s “F-Line” provides historic streetcar service from Market and Castro Streets down Market to the Ferry Building, where it turns north along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. Regular Muni fares apply for “F-Line” service.
The historic streetcars are supported by non profit group called The Market Street Railway. Their website offers information on the historic streetcars and they operate a museum and souvenir store in the hotel located at Mission Street and The Embarcadero.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) – For a look at a 1970s idea of modern public transit check out BART which operates in a subway under Market Street and on through the Mission to Daly City and San Francisco Airport.
BART was the nation’s first modern (post World War II) transit system and it’s full of technology from the US space program – some of which works well and some of which, well, has been replaced. You can ride BART to the East Bay through the Transbay Tube; a tube constructed of 200-foot-long segments built in a shipyard and then sunk into a trench in the bottom of the bay.
BART was a major engineering and planning achievement for the 1960s and it continues to be expanded today. In 2003 BART was extended to San Francisco International Airport. If you are staying in downtown San Francisco, the airport trip is a fast 45-minutes, with a reasonable fare. For more information on BART history and planning go to the BART History page on their website – be sure to scroll down to see the employee uniforms from the 1970s … fantastic!
Ferry Service – Taking a ferry ride is a great way to experience San Francisco. Several public agencies and private companies operate ferry service in San Francisco Bay. Golden Gate Transit, which also owns the Golden Gate Bridge, operates service from the Ferry Building to Sausalito and Larkspur. Other lines operate to Oakland, Alameda, Vallejo, and Tiburon. There is a Ferry Information Store in the Ferry Building with up-to-date schedules, information, souvenirs, and staff with a sense of humor. The Bay Area Water Transit Authority is coordinating plans for expanded service and has the latest information on ferry service in the Bay Area. See especially the link “Fun trips on Ferries”.
Caltrain – Caltrain provides commuter rail service to the San Francisco Peninsula (including San Francisco Airport, Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley, and San Jose). The Caltrain Station is located in the heart of Mission Bay, San Francisco’s former freight rail yard, which is being redeveloped into a new neighbourhood. Caltrain is planning a major extension to a new multi-modal transportation station called the Transbay Center located in downtown San Francisco (at the site of the former Transbay Terminal).