Everything You Need to Know About Driving in San Francisco

San Francisco can be a difficult city to drive in, but you can avoid the worst of it if you know what to expect.
Written by Zachary Morgan
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
San Francisco, California is famous for its sourdough, steep hills, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, to name just a few things. As one of the bigger cities in the US, it also has a bit of a reputation when it comes to traffic.
San Francisco is the 17th-most populous city in the United States, with a population of 870,000+ residents. On top of that, it is a part of the
San Jose
-San Francisco-
, CA combined statistical area. Known colloquially as the “Bay Area,” its 9.6 million combined residents make it one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country—which can make driving a little hectic, to say the least.
Fret not, though, because we've thrown this handy guide together to help you get around in San Francisco. We’ll tell you about traffic conditions, local road laws, and what to expect while driving around in The City by the Bay.
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What is driving in San Francisco like?

San Francisco was ranked the
7th most congested city
in the US (34th in the entire world), with drivers losing an average of 103 hours a year to traffic. On top of that, parking is hard to find, gas is expensive, and
California car insurance costs
are some of the highest in the country.
Here are some other things to watch out for when driving in San Francisco.


San Francisco does not have a grid layout for its streets like other major cities. Instead, it is made up of 49 square miles of hills, long boulevards, curvy streets, and hidden alleyways. Getting used to driving in San Francisco is more a matter of practice than studying a layout.
Although San Francisco is adjacent to some major freeways, most of the city is made up of surface streets. Out of 1,088 miles worth of streets in San Francisco, only 59 miles are composed of freeways. Most interstates are dedicated to crossing from one side of the bay to the other, usually via one of the city’s famous bridges.
Keep an eye out for cyclists, pedestrians, and hidden side streets. The weather is typically very nice in San Francisco, so you’ll see a lot of people out and about on foot. Make sure your brakes are in good shape, too, because you’ll be using them a lot for both steep hills and start and stop traffic.
Try to familiarize yourself with the city’s unusual layout and memorize important road names (Bayview Ave, Noriega St, Marina Boulevard, etc.). You’ll have an easier time getting around that way.


Finding a parking spot in one of America’s most densely-populated cities can be a bit of a chore, to say the least.
Metered street parking is available throughout much of the city. Rates go anywhere from $1 to $7, but you have to keep an eye on your meter because rates fluctuate up and down throughout the day. Meters are typically enforced between 9am and 6pm Monday thru Saturday. Some meters are free on Sunday, but you will still have to pay to find street parking in some of the more popular areas of the city.
There is a very limited amount of free street parking, so snag an open spot if you see one. A curb painted green by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) means that you can park there for free, but only for ten minutes. Parking is also free on Christmas and Thanksgiving days.
MORE: How to find city parking


One of the main appeals of San Francisco and other Bay Area cities is the weather. Winters are short, rainy, and cloudy for the most part. Summer days in the Bay are very nice and clear, but it can still get rainy from time to time.
The main effect that weather has on San Francisco drivers is that it tends to increase traffic congestion. The city is very popular with tourists, who mostly show up during the warmer months and sometimes bog down the roads. The increased heat and humidity will also put a little extra strain on your vehicle.

Traffic and transportation options in San Francisco

Public transportation is very popular in San Francisco, but you can still get caught in a traffic jam in certain areas or during certain parts of the day. 
The worst times to drive in San Francisco are:
  • Between 7am and 9am
  • Between 4pm and 6pm
These are the rush hour periods when people are going to and from work in large numbers, so try to stay off the main roads during these times. Traffic can also get bad around the bridges, especially in the morning between 7am and 8am.
You can tune your radio to KGO 810, All News 106.9, or AM 740 KCBS for traffic updates.

Should I rent a car in San Francisco?

You might be wondering if you even
need a car in San Francisco
. If you plan on exploring the Bay Area outside of the city limits, then it would serve you well to
rent a car
. If you only plan on exploring the city itself, however, you can avoid the traffic, aggressive drivers, high parking costs, and confusing layout by sticking to public transportation.
San Francisco has great options for public transportation, with numerous bus, streetcar, and cable car routes available for those uninterested in driving. Individual bus and rail rides cost $2.50, cable cars cost $7, and numerous discounts (young children, senior citizens, etc.)  are available for both. If you plan on riding a lot, you can get a “Muni Passport” from the SFMTA and enjoy unlimited rides for a one, three, or seven-day period (prices range from $21 to $42).
There is also the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a high-speed rail system that can take you to surrounding areas or the airport. Rates are based on distance traveled, but you can expect to pay around $8.65 for a ride from the airport to downtown and $1.95 for a ride within the city limits.
Taxis are a bit scarce and can be hard to come by, but rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are widely available.
MORE: Road trip from San Francisco to Portland
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Local driving laws in San Francisco

Before you hit the road, take a minute or two to familiarize yourself with some of the local driving laws in San Francisco. Here are a few worth knowing:
  • Texting and driving
    is a primary offense in California, with 59.6% of in-state drivers claiming they have been hit or almost hit by a
    distracted driver
    . Hands-free use is acceptable.
  • Move-over laws in California
    state that a driver must change lanes and/or reduce speed when approaching or being approached by an emergency vehicle with flashing lights.
  • The state monitors traffic with the use of
    red-light cameras

Crime rate in San Francisco

The crime rate is fairly high in San Francisco, which can cause
car insurance
rates to go up.
San Francisco has one of the highest crime rates in the country for any community of any size. 97% of California communities have a lower crime rate and San Francisco residents have a 1 in 20 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime. According to the FBI, the city also has one of the highest rates of vehicle theft in the country. Your chances of having your car stolen in San Francisco are 1 in 146.

How to find car insurance in San Francisco

If you’re going to be hitting the road in San Fran, you need to make sure you have good car insurance coverage first.
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