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Driving in San Francisco can be a challenge because of the one-way streets, snarly traffic, and steep hills. The first two elements can be frustrating enough, but those hills are tough for unfamiliar drivers.
Be sure to leave plenty of room between your car and other vehicles when on a steep slope. This is especially important when you've braked at a stop sign on a steep incline. Whether with a stick shift or an automatic transmission, every car rolls backward for a moment once the brake is released. So don't pull too close to the car ahead of you. When it's time to pull forward, keep your foot on the brake while tapping lightly on the accelerator. Once the engine is engaged, let up on the brake and head uphill.
Remember to curb your wheels when parking on hills—turn wheels away from the curb when facing uphill, toward the curb when facing downhill. You can get a ticket if you don't do this.
Market Street runs southwest from the Ferry Building, then becomes Portola Drive as it nears Twin Peaks (which lie beneath the giant radio-antennae structure, Sutro Tower). It can be difficult to drive across Market. The major east-west streets north of Market are Geary Boulevard (it's called Geary Street east of Van Ness Avenue), which runs to the Pacific Ocean; Fulton Street, which begins at the back of the Opera House and continues along the north side of Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach; Oak Street, which runs east from Golden Gate Park toward downtown, then flows into northbound Franklin Street; and Fell Street, the left two lanes of which cut through Golden Gate Park and empty into Lincoln Boulevard, which continues to the ocean.
Among the major north-south streets are Divisadero, which becomes Castro Street at Duboce Avenue and continues to just past César Chavez Street; Van Ness Avenue, which becomes South Van Ness Avenue when it crosses Market Street; and Park Presidio Boulevard, which empties into 19th Avenue.
Gas stations are hard to find in San Francisco; look for the national franchises on major thoroughfares such as Market Street, Geary Boulevard, Mission Street, or California Street. Once you find one, prepare for sticker shock—the fuel is notoriously expensive here.
Aside from their limited numbers and high costs, everything else is standard operation at service stations. All major stations accept credit and ATM cards; self-service pumps are the norm. Most gas stations are open seven days a week until 11 pm or midnight. Many national franchises on well-traveled streets are open 24/7.
San Francisco is a terrible city for parking. In the Financial District and Civic Center neighborhoods parking is forbidden on most streets between 3 or 4 pm and 6 or 7 pm. Check street signs carefully to confirm, because illegally parked cars are towed immediately. Downtown parking lots are often full, and most are expensive. The city-owned Sutter-Stockton, Ellis-O'Farrell, and 5th-and-Mission garages have the most reasonable rates in the downtown area. Large hotels often have parking available, but it doesn't come cheap; many charge in excess of $40 a day for the privilege.
766 Vallejo Garage (766 Vallejo St., at Powell St., North Beach, San Francisco, CA, 94133. 415/989-4490.)
Ellis-O'Farrell Garage (123 O'Farrell St., at Stockton St., Union Square, San Francisco, CA, 94102. 415/986-4800. www.eofgarage.com.)
Embarcadero Center Garage (1-4, Embarcadero Center, between Battery and Drumm Sts., Financial District, San Francisco, CA, 94111. 415/772-0670. www.embarcaderocenter.com.)
5th & Mission / Yerba Buena Garage (833 Mission St., at 5th St., SoMa, San Francisco, CA, 94103. 415/982-8522. www.fifthandmission.com.)
Opera Plaza Garage (601 Van Ness Ave., at Turk St., Civic Center, San Francisco, CA, 94102. 415/771-4776.)
Performing Arts Garage (360 Grove St., between Franklin and Gough Sts., Civic Center, San Francisco, CA, 94102. 415/227-0114. www.performingartsgarage.com.)
Pier 39 Garage (Embarcadero at Beach St., Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, 94133. 415/705-5418. www.pier39.com.)
Portsmouth Square Garage (733 Kearny St., at Clay St., Chinatown, San Francisco, CA, 94108. 415/982-6353. www.portsmouthsquaregarage.com.)
Sutter-Stockton Garage (444 Stockton St., at Sutter St., Union Square, San Francisco, CA, 94108. 415/982-7275.)
Wharf Garage (2801 Leavenworth St., at Beach St., Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, 94133. 415/775-5060.)
Although rush "hours" are 6-10 am and 3-7 pm, you can hit gridlock on any day at any time, especially over the Bay Bridge and leaving and/or entering the city from the south. Sunday-afternoon traffic can be heavy as well, especially over the bridges.
The most comprehensive and immediate traffic updates are available through the city's 511 service, either online at www.511.org (where webcams show you the traffic on your selected route) or by calling 511. On the radio, tune in to an all-news radio station such as KQED 88.5 FM or KCBS 740 AM/106.9 FM.
Be especially wary of non-indicated lane changes.
San Francisco is the only major American city uncut by freeways. To get from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, you'll have to take surface streets, specifically Van Ness Avenue, which doubles as U.S. 101 through the city.
Rules of the Road
To encourage carpooling during heavy traffic times, some freeways have special lanes for so-called high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs)—cars carrying more than one or two passengers. Look for the white-painted diamond in the middle of the lane. Road signs next to or above the lane indicate the hours that carpooling is in effect. If you're stopped by the police because you don't meet the criteria for travel in these lanes, expect a fine of more than $340.
Drivers are banned from using handheld mobile telephones while operating a vehicle in California. The use of seat belts in both front and back seats is required in California. The speed limit on city streets is 25 mph unless otherwise posted. A right turn on a red light after stopping is legal unless posted otherwise, as is a left on red at the intersection of two one-way streets. Always strap children under 80 pounds or under age eight into approved child-safety seats.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Car-rental costs in San Francisco vary seasonally, but generally begin at $30 a day and $150 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This doesn't include tax on car rentals, which is 9.5%. If you dream of driving with the top down, or heading out of town to ski the Sierra, consider renting a specialty vehicle. Most major agencies have a few on hand, but the best overall service is with two locally owned agencies: Specialty Rentals and City Rent-a-Car. The former specializes in high-end vehicles and arranges for airport pickup and drop-off. City Rent-a-Car likewise arranges airport transfers, and also delivers cars to Bay Area hotels. Both agencies also rent standard vehicles at prices competitive with those of the major chains.
In San Francisco you must be at least 20 years old to rent a car, but some agencies won't rent to those under 25; check when you book. Super Cheap Car Rental is near the airport and rents to drivers as young as 20.
City Car Share and Zipcar are membership organizations for any person over 21 with a valid driver's license who needs a car only for short-term use. You must join their clubs beforehand, which you can do via their websites. They're especially useful if you only want to rent a car for part of the day (say four to six hours), find yourself far from the airport, or if you're younger than most rental agencies' 25-years-or-older requirement. The membership fee often allows you to use the service in several metropolitan areas. If using such a service, you can rent a car by the hour as well as by the day.
GoCar rents electric vehicles at Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square. These cars can travel between 25 and 35 mph and are very handy for neighborhood-based sightseeing, but they're not allowed on the Golden Gate Bridge. GoCars are electric, two-seater, three-wheeled, open convertibles with roll bars (so drivers must wear helmets) with GPS audio tours of the city. You can pick up a GoCar at three locations: two in Fisherman's Wharf and one in Union Square.
American Automobile Association. U.S.: American Automobile Association; most contact with the organization is through state and regional members. 415/553-7200. www.aaa.com.
National Automobile Club (800/622-2136. www.thenac.com.)
City Car Share (415/995-8588 or 877/363-0710. www.citycarshare.org.)
City Rent-a-Car (1433 Bush St., near Van Ness Ave., Van Ness/Polk, San Francisco, CA, 94109. 415/359-1331 or 866/359-1331. www.cityrentacar.com.)
GoCar (800/914-6227. www.gocartours.com.)
Super Cheap Car Rental (10 Rollins Rd., at Millbrae Ave., Millbrae, CA, 94030. 650/777-9993. www.supercheapcar.com.)
Zipcar (415/495-7478. www.zipcar.com.)
Alamo (800/462-5266. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331-1212. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/527-0700. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654-3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (800/227-7368. www.nationalcar.com.)
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