If you’re one of my loyal readers (hi Mom!), you know that I have a soft spot for public transportation. But even I’ll admit that the train can’t get you everywhere. Though I survived without a car for 4 years, when I moved away from the convenience and questionable odors of downtown, I had no choice but to embrace the convenience and slightly-less-questionable odors of a new car.

That said, every time I have to drive downtown, I cringe. The City-by-the-Bay was clearly not built for drivers. In fact, it may be one of the worst cities for drivers. If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco, here’s a quick rundown on reasons you may want to skip the rental car and try the cable car instead.

1. The hills

San Francisco is known for its near-insurmountable hills (a source of big-time bragging rights for walkers and cyclists). As a result, I’ve become the master of 2-footed driving. The trick? When my car comes to rest on a hill, I keep my left foot on the brake and my right foot just above the gas so I’m ready to gun it before I start rolling backward (gulp!) downhill.

I liken driving on hills in San Francisco to taking off in a rocket ship (though, admittedly, my experience with rockets is limited to riding Mission: SPACE at Epcot Center): both place you in a near-vertical position staring at the skies above and praying for dear life that nothing goes wrong. In other words, you can’t see a dang thing at the top of the hill … until you reach the top. San Francisco pedestrians, consider yourselves warned.

True, going downhill’s easier, but still torture on your brakes.

You win this round, SF topography!

2. The traffic

According to the latest census, the San Francisco Bay Area is the second most densely populated urban area in the country. And a lot of those people have cars. In fact, in 2012, there were 466,448 registered vehicles in our 7-mile-by-7-mile city — not to mention all the people who commute in from surrounding suburbs each day! Perhaps it’s no surprise that the entrance to the Bay Bridge toll plaza is nicknamed “The Parking Lot.”

San Francisco ranks third on the list of cities with the most traffic congestion. Add to that the cyclists, pedestrians, buses, and cable cars (plus the occasional double-parker, parade, or fender bender), and you’ll soon realize that Top 40 stations play the same 10 songs over and over.

3. The parking

Ugh. Where to begin?

There’s street parking, which is so hard to find in some areas that many people just give up and double-park (see traffic section above).Then there’s lot parking — about $20 a day gets you a spot that’s always just a little too small for your car (see dings on passenger side of Camry).

And then there are the tickets: street cleaning, not curbing your wheels, parking over the time limit, not having the right parking permit, hanging a smidge into the red zone (just an inch, I swear!).

4. The fog

San Francisco is known for having its own microclimates (and even submicroclimates). While some areas generally stay bright and sunny, others are socked in with fog on a regular basis. And fog makes for terrible visibility (duh). My colleague has provided some nifty tips for driving in fog, but if I can’t see the car in front of me, I’d just as soon stay home.

5. One-way streets and no left turns

Since I generally travel by public transportation or on foot, I’m usually immune to one-way streets and turning restrictions. So it’s that much trickier to navigate these same roads from behind the wheel.

“Wait, I can’t turn there!? I have to go 6 blocks out of my way?!”
“Yes, Jessica, you do. And you’re probably going to get stuck behind a bus, too.”

I can’t tell you the number of times my “shortcuts” have ended up adding 20 minutes to my drive.

Is San Francisco one of the worst cities to drive?

Having lived in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, I’d have to say it’s a bit of a toss-up as to which driving climate is worse. Tomorrow, we’ll provide you with reasons why driving in L.A. is the pits. But I’ll leave you with this food for thought: on more than one occasion, it has taken me over an hour to drive across my 7-mile-long city.

P.S. Don’t let this diatribe poison you against San Francisco. It’s a lovely city with tons to do and see (just be sure to use public transportation to do it).

Think San Francisco Driving is tough? See how it compares with Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York.

Getting there


about Jessica

During her time as senior copywriter at Esurance, Jessica wrote about everything from automotive trends to insurance tips to driving dogs (it’s a thing!). In her free time, you can find Jessica hiking with her dog (who cannot drive), devouring a good mystery, or very slowly learning Spanish.