Navigating Public Transportation in San Francisco

From the Famous Cable Cars to Buses and Trains and Everything in Between

BART Train on Elevated Track
••• Hal Bergman / Getty Images

Navigating San Francisco's public transportation system is fairly easy to understand, once you get the hang of it. Here is a full overview of everything you need to know.

Route Information

There are two main operators within the city that manage all of the different types of transport: the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). MUNI includes an extensive network of buses, and streetcars that are located in San Francisco proper, including the famous cable cars which been a San Francisco Institution since their induction in 1873.

There are three cable car routes: two that begin downtown and go north to south and end near Fisherman’s Wharf, and the third travels east to west along California Street. BART is a subway and commuter line that runs in one straight line through the city. Beyond the city limits, it opens to all directions and makes frequent stops in both urban and suburban stations within in the greater Bay Area, including Oakland. You can also use BART as a very efficient and inexpensive way to get to and from both the Oakland and San Francisco airports. 

Operating Hours

It's important to note that public transportation in San Fransico is not 24 hours a day. For example, the MUNI trains only run until roughly midnight, while buses offer limited service late into the evening. Schedules are prone to change, so it's always best to double check on the MUNI or BART websites before traveling. Although it may cost you a lot more than public transportation, local cabs and ride sharing programs like Uber Pool and Lyft Line (which you can also book privately) are fully operational well past midnight, so not to worry if you missed the last train!

Fare and Passport Information

While prices are always changing, the basic fare for the bus, trolleys, and streetcars is roughly $1.50 (children under four ride for free) and free transfers are valid for 90 minutes after the initial ride. Cable car tickets are slightly more costly at about $7 per ride, but they are a true historic gem that will you give the best views of the city and a very memorable experience (certainly more than the subway).

To save money, particularly if you plan on using public transportation frequently, you should purchase a MUNI visitor's passport, which is good for unlimited rides on MUNI transit (this pass excludes BART transportation).

The passports are a good choice for travelers staying more than one day in the city, or Bay area, and they are available for purchase as a 1, 3, or 7-day pass. Prices for the passports vary, depending on the number of days. Passports are available at various locations throughout the city, and also online. To plan your trip ahead of time, and to see daily schedules with detailed maps, visit the SFMTA website.