Living in a city like San Francisco raises many questions, and one of the most common is whether owning a car is necessary or even practical.
The answer to this question depends on various factors such as your lifestyle, job, and personal preferences. This blog post aims to provide you with insights on whether you need a car in San Francisco.
First, a note about me. I’ve lived in the SF Bay Area for 10+ years. I live in the East Bay now, which means I do own a car! But I spend a lot of time in the city, and can answer this question based on a decade of experience traveling around the Bay Area.
Visiting SF? You definitely don’t need a car!
Understanding San Francisco’s Public Transportation
Before we dive into the details, let’s first take a look at what San Francisco offers in terms of public transportation.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)
The BART system is one of the city’s main transportation options, linking San Francisco with the East Bay, the Peninsula, and the San Francisco International Airport. It is fast and efficient, making it a popular choice for commuters and city dwellers alike.
Yes, ridership numbers are down substantially as I write this, and the system has seen better days. Still, millions of people ride BART each month and it’s the backbone of the Bay Area’s public transit.
Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) and Caltrain
Muni operates buses, light rail trains, historic streetcars, and the iconic cable cars throughout San Francisco. It covers many areas that BART does not, providing comprehensive coverage of the city, at least on the Eastern portion (buses make up the difference on the Western side).
Caltrain provides good service to the South Bay and Silicon Valley.
Bicycles and Scooters
San Francisco is also very bicycle-friendly, with many bike lanes and paths across the city. Docked and dockless bicycle and scooter-sharing services provide convenient options for short trips.
Despite its giant hills, San Francisco consistently ranks among the most cycling-friendly cities in the United States.
San Francisco is the birthplace of the rideshare industry. Uber is based right in Mission Bay. That means you can almost always find an Uber in San Francisco. It’s one of the most popular ways to get around.
The Challenges of Owning a Car in San Francisco
While having a car provides flexibility, there are several challenges associated with car ownership in San Francisco.
Finding a parking spot in San Francisco can be a considerable challenge. Street parking is limited, especially in densely populated neighborhoods. Even if you find a spot, there are often parking restrictions that can lead to hefty fines if not closely followed.
Street sweeping is a special problem for San Francisco car owners. I’ve heard of people getting their cars towed because they forgot it was a sweeping day and left their car in a street sweeper zone.
If you have an EV, things are especially challenging. Unless your building has an indoor parking area, it’s hard to charge an EV. I’ve seen people run an extension cord across the sidewalk from their building, which is almost certainly illegal.
That’s especially true if you need to go to the East Bay or South Bay/Silicon Valley area during rush hour. It can take 1.5 hours or more to make it out of the city.
The costs associated with owning a car in San Francisco can add up quickly. In addition to the vehicle’s cost, insurance, maintenance, and gas prices, you need to consider parking costs, which can be quite expensive.
Remember that fuel in California is some of the priciest in the US. San Francisco’s fuel prices are often even higher than the California average.
San Francisco is overall a very safe city–the “Doom Loop” narrative is overdone. But in a recent survey of Bay Area residents, we found that property crime was indeed the most common type of crime in SF. Catalytic converter thefts and smash-and-grabs do happen, which makes parking a car on the street even riskier.
It goes without saying that skipping a car is better for the environment. San Francisco is one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the world. A lot of San Franciscans either skip owning a car or own an EV in order to help fight climate change.
When Might You Need a Car in San Francisco?
Despite the challenges and excellent public transportation, there are situations where having a car can be beneficial.
If you frequently travel out of town, a car can be handy. It can allow you to explore nearby areas like Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite National Park on your own schedule.
California is beautiful, and there are some amazing places right on your doorstep. A car makes it easier to explore those places when you want to get out of the city. Many are remote and wild, which means limited transit options.
If you have children or family members with special needs, a car can offer convenience for school drop-offs, medical appointments, and other activities.
I’ve heard of people taking their kids to the doctor in an Uber, or even riding an Uber to the hospital to give birth! But still, having a car is very helpful for families.
If your job involves frequent travel, especially to areas poorly served by public transit, a car might be necessary. Ditto if you work in an industry that requires moving anything big or bulky.
Conclusion: Is a Car Necessary in San Francisco?
So, do you need a car to live in San Francisco? The short answer is no: it’s totally possible, and perhaps even preferable, to live in SF car-free. Skipping a car will allow you to:
- Save a bunch of money, which is important because SF is pricey!
- Avoid the hassle of parking
- Hopefully avoid a long car commute. Remote work is alive and well in SF!
- Not have to worry about someone sawing off your catalytic converter
- Improve the environment by reducing carbon emissions
That said, there are some downsides:
- It will be harder to take awesome day trips to California’s beautiful locations.
- Public transit can take longer than driving in certain situations
- Some parts of the city and surrounding areas aren’t well served by transit
- Transporting kids in an Uber can be tricky
You can alleviate these in a few ways:
- Rent a car by the day via a service like Zipcar. I know many San Franciscans who do this to get out of the city for day trips.
- Treat yourself to a tour when you want to see Napa or visit nearby places like Muir Woods. It’s way safer to take a tour if you’re in Napa vs driving yourself anyway.
- Learn your transit routes and get a Clipper card so you can easily BART or take Muni to your destination.
- Take Amtrak if you want to travel down the coast. Amtrak’s Surfliner is known as one of the most beautiful train rides in the America.
- Take BART to SFO and hop a cheap flight if you want to go to SoCal instead of driving on the 101 or the 5.
Given the robust public transportation options, bike-friendly streets, and walkability of many neighborhoods, it is entirely feasible to live in San Francisco without owning a car. However, your lifestyle, work requirements, and personal preferences could necessitate car ownership. Weigh the costs and benefits before deciding if a car is necessary for your San Francisco lifestyle.