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One of the biggest surprises for new arrivals to the Bay Area is how far apart things are, and just how long it takes to get around, even to places that are relatively close together, because of the high traffic volume. You can spend all day driving for two or three meetings, watching the clock as you sit in traffic jam after traffic jam. And forget about getting to that happy hour on time.
But what if you didn’t have to drive at all?
It may not be as sexy as a new Tesla, but when you’re flying past the parking lots that are highways 101 and 280 at rush hour, public transit can be a more pleasant, convenient and efficient option for travel. Complaining about traffic is a favourite Bay Area pastime, and driving a California institution, but you can arrive relatively stress-free, having accomplished some actual work instead of despairing at the locals’ driving habits, by learning to use local public transit like a pro. Read on for some tips from the Moose for how to make the most of your travel time.
Pro tip 1: Get a Clipper Card.
The Clipper Card is the Bay Area’s electronic payment option. Make this investment once (it’s $3) and never worry about having enough silly $1 bills or the right zone on your ticket again. Use a Clipper card to pay less than with cash, and easily connect to all the major transit operators in the Bay Area (even the ferries!). They are available at Walgreens, Whole Foods, and various ticket offices on the Muni in San Francisco, but the easiest way to get one if you live in the area is by mail, ordering one at clippercard.com.
(Yes, this is a real video.)
Bonus: register your card online to easily top it up with cash, or report a lost or stolen card and get the balance back on a new card.
Pro tip 2: Know your major transit operators.
Many people are intimidated by using unfamiliar public transit systems for the first time. When do I pay and how? How often does this bus come? Why are there five different maps? Read on for a handy guide to what the locals know.
The main commuter rail service for the Peninsula, the Caltrain runs from 4th and King Streets in the SoMA district of San Francisco to downtown San Jose, with the occasional train going further south to Gilroy.
Caltrain runs through the downtowns of most of the cities in the area (including Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo, and others), has an airport connection to San Francisco Airport, and is a pleasant way to travel. It is heavily used, with frequent service at peak hours. Off-peak it runs once an hour or slightly more often, so get there with a few minutes to spare — missing the hourly Caltrain is a mistake you only make once!
Get updates and schedules on the free CaltrainMe (iPhone) or Caltrain Droid (Android) apps.
Pros: Bookending the route in SF-SJ, the AT&T ballpark (home of the Giants) and SAP Center (home of the San Jose Sharks) are within a 5–10 minute walk of the stations, making this a popular way to travel to and from sports games here. Related: you can eat and drink on the Caltrain en route (even alcohol).
Cons: The final stop in San Francisco is on the eastern edge of the city, so be prepared to spend a bit more time getting to where you need to be. For example, the financial district is a 30 minute walk, and getting to Golden Gate park can take 45–60 minutes just about any way you travel in rush hour.
And it can get busy, as in, standing-room-only-on-the-steps busy, especially at rush hour. Arrive at least 10 minutes before the train leaves if you want to get a seat, and be prepared that there may not be room for your bike if there are too many passengers.
Cost: zoned service; $4-$12 regular one way fare
How to pay: Caltrain is a proof-of-payment service. Use your Clipper card to tag on before the journey at a Clipper machine, and remember to tag off at the end of your journey. Single use and day passes are available at ticket machines on the platforms, but leave extra time to get these tickets in case there’s a line at the machines.
Short for the [Santa Clara] Valley Transit Authority, the VTA is Silicon Valley’s transit provider, offering buses and light rail service all the way from Gilroy, south of San Jose, to Palo Alto. Most VTA vehicles have wifi and bike racks. Light rail travels the heavily built up North First Street corridor in San Jose, where many well-known tech firms are located, and connects downtown and Diridon train station with neighbouring towns of Campbell and Mountain View.
Pros: Frequent express buses run along San Carlos/Stevens Creek and Santa Clara/El Camino Real, two of the busiest retail routes in the region, and the vast majority of trains and buses run on time.
If you are going to an event at Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers) or Avaya Stadium (home of the San Jose earthquakes, the area’s soccer team), the VTA is by far the best way to go and can save both time spent sitting in traffic and the steep costs of parking at the game. Look for special trains and buses on event days.
Cons: If your destination is off the main drag, be prepared for infrequent service and/or not a lot of coverage. The two light rail lines move at a …leisurely pace through downtown San Jose and take an indirect route to their destinations, so travelling from one end of the line to the other can take a while. Buses don’t have dedicated lanes, so this can also make for slow progress — but at least you don’t have to drive through that.
Cost: one-time payment; $2 per regular ride on each transit vehicle (no transfers) to a daily max of $6
How to pay: using your Clipper card, you can pay as you board the bus. Light rail is proof-of-payment, so tap your Clipper card on the platform before you board. No need to tag off.
With no Clipper card, you can purchase individual or day passes for light rail on the platform at ticketing machines. Buses accept two $1 bills or exact change.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system extends around the northern arc of the Bay, snaking up the East Bay from Fremont to Richmond and from Millbrae through San Francisco on the Peninsula.
Thousands of commuters rely on BART to take them into the city or to the region’s airports (SFO and OAK both have easy BART connections). Within San Francisco, the BART runs along Market Street, the city’s central spine, as well as the Mission district, so is a great way to get further into the city than the Caltrain will take you.
Pros: Service is frequent, at 15–20 minute intervals all day, which makes it a great alternative to Caltrain’s once-an-hour off-peak schedule. And taking BART when travelling between downtown SF stops is cheaper than taking the Muni!
Cons: It can be noisy: the squealing of brakes in the tunnels sounds like the entranceway to hell. And the BART, like many aging transit systems, is subject to occasional delays requiring repairs.
Cost: zoned service; $3-$10 regular one way fare
How to pay: tap your Clipper card to enter and exit the station turnstiles, and your fare will be automatically calculated. You can also purchase paper tickets at machines at each station.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway is the transit operator for the city of San Francisco, with subways, trolleys and buses operating across the city. Even the famed San Francisco cable cars are operated by Muni — though they’re more expensive than their more modern equivalents at $7 per single ride.
Fun fact: if you need to travel along Market St or the Embarcadero, take the “F” Market & Wharves line, which runs above ground, and look out for the vintage streetcar fleet which includes cars from LA, Detroit, Italy and even some Red Rockets from Toronto.
Use apps like NextBus and Routesy to be time efficient with your route selection.
Pros: Like transit in all densely-populated cities, service is frequent (though can be unreliable due to traffic, construction or other typical delays). Almost anywhere you need to get in San Francisco, Muni will take you there.
Cons: It can get very busy — expect a crush of riders if travelling at peak times.
Cost: one-time payment; $2.25 regular one way fare. Transfers between vehicles on the Muni are good for 90 minutes. When going from Muni to BART within 90 minutes you have to pay a fee like any other time you’d use it, but when going from BART to Muni it counts as a free transfer.
How to pay: use your Clipper card and pay as you board on buses and streetcars. Subways have turnstiles.
There are over two dozen different transit operators in the nine-county Bay Area, including ferries, long-haul bus and rail lines, and local networks. For a complete picture, see this fascinating article by the regional urban planning non-profit SPUR.
Pro tip 3: Fill in the gaps with ridesharing.
You may have heard of this little start-up that is making a few taxi drivers unhappy: it’s called Uber— and it has completely reimagined the industry. Lyft is a similar service (and what this Moose prefers for coverage and availability) but they are broadly the same idea. Use them for short and longer trips if your public transit mode of choice doesn’t get you all the way to where you’re going.
Download the app on your phone, add a credit card, input your start and end points, and request a ride. It really is that easy. You’ll know instantly how much it will cost, when they’ll arrive, and who is driving you. It’s usually cheaper and faster than a taxi, all the drivers have GPS so they don’t ask you for directions (and then get lost anyway), and, unlike many taxi services in the Bay Area, Lyfts and Ubers actually show up. Plus, you get some local colour from chatting with the drivers.