Is it crazy to have a car in San Francisco?
October 30, 2011 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Is it totally insane to have a car in San Francisco?

I'm moving to San Francisco... tomorrow! I'm in the middle of a road trip down the coast in my beloved minivan, but the question of where to park and if it's worth it is bugging me. I'll be living off of the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. Is it crazy for me to keep my car? I specifically moved within walking distance of my work, I'll be pretty broke (paying back a loan that helped me move) for months, and I'm not a big driver anyway. But I do want to be able to go on iconic California road-trips, and I love the freedom and spontaneity of having a car-- my long-distance partner will be visiting me periodically and I'd like to be able to get out of town with them since we're both newcomers to the area. If it really doesn't work out, I might just have to make a breakneck long road trip to leave it with my parents during Thanksgiving, but that's not optimal.

Any tips, recommendations on long-term parking options in the Laurel Heights/Presidio/Panhandle area, suggestions on sneaky ways to park somewhere on the side of US-101 and hitchhike into town? Is it really just crazy to consider keeping a car in the city?
posted by verbyournouns to Work & Money (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I loved having my car when I lived there. I burned out the clutch sometime in the first few months I was there, but I got it fixed and learned to hill drive and it never happened again. Mass transit for going downtown, car for road trips north south and east. Parking can be a royal pain, but it was worth it for me.
posted by saffronwoman at 9:31 AM on October 30, 2011

I'm not American and I don't live in SF (or indeed the US) but I've lived in big cities with and without a car, and I've done road trips in California in hired cars.. If you're just going to be spending a few days each month driving around, hiring beats owning. Also, you can splash out and rent a nice car if/when funds allow. Highway 1 in a Mustang convertible?
posted by dickasso at 9:36 AM on October 30, 2011

Also, SF has zipcar.
posted by dickasso at 9:37 AM on October 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I learned to drive manual transmission in San Francisco at the behest of my father, whom I've never forgiven ;) I really like dickasso's idea of just renting a car when you need one. Zipcar is getting convenient for really short-term car needs (i.e. shopping for something too big to carry on your bike, etc). The trad rental places can be good for trips. Probably there's in-between stuff for day trips to Marin and the like. I'd leap at the chance to do without the hassle of registration, inspection, maintenance, and parking; and the cost of gas and insurance.
posted by zomg at 9:41 AM on October 30, 2011

Also: my best friend has lived with a car in the City for 30+ years. Parking tickets and sub-deductible vandalism repair are line items in her personal budget. Necessary if you don't have a garage.
posted by zomg at 9:42 AM on October 30, 2011

My memory is that we didn't drive much, but if you don't have a washer/dryer, or live very close to a grocery store, you'll find yourself wanting a car badly on laundry and grocery days. Hauling heavy stuff on the bus is a real drag. Of course, I'd make sure you had a legal parking place first, since those are tough to come by.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2011

Best answer: I know this! I lived on Haight street near the Panhandle for 8 months with a car I didn't use much. I wouldn't say it was particularly sane, but it wasn't that bad. It won't generally be practical to use your car for short trips in the city very often (like quick grocery runs or the like) because you'll spend a while looking for parking when you get back and might not end up parking very close to your house anyway. But keeping it parked on the street somewhere within...let's say 5 blocks of your walk to for when you want to get out of the city or head someplace hard to get to on MUNI shouldn't be too bad. Oak Street tends to be good for parking since there are only houses/apartments on one side of it (=fewer driveways and fewer people living on the street.)

Street cleanings are once a week there, which isn't that bad. Just make SURE that EVERY SINGLE TIME you park your car, you look at the street cleaning sign and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to move it. You will get a ticket 100% of the time if you leave it parked during street cleaning. Officially you aren't supposed to leave a car parked in the same spot for...I think it's 72 hours, and I think you can get towed, but generally they put a pink notice on your car telling you it might be towed first, and I never had this happen in that neighborhood (I think someone has to call about it - it's only happened to my friend in quiet neighborhoods like Twin Peaks when she's left it there while on vacation.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:47 AM on October 30, 2011

Also, given what Devils Rancher just said: if you don't have a washing machine/dryer, the laundromat on Oak and Divisadero has a parking lot with free parking. And wifi, if you can get the employee to remember the password. And fancy electronic cards so you don't need to have quarters. Changed my life.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:48 AM on October 30, 2011

I have friends that have no car and rely on Zipcar without regret.

Both my husband and I have a car and appreciate having it -- both for the practical (groceries, going to Costco, Target, Home Depot) and the emotional (spur of the moment road trip to Alameda, Santa Cruz, Oakland Hills or even LA).

If you do not have assigned parking, it's a pain. Really. Street cleaning, how filthy your car gets, scraped bumpers and side panels. I'm hoping this is not a pretty car that you will not cry over if it gets scraped and that you are very skilled in parallel parking -- and that it's a short car. That being said, if you time it right, you will be able to get a spot -- when the people who work in Marin or Silicon Valley go to work, when folks go out for dinner in the evening. You will be walking quite a few blocks back home sometimes once you find a spot. But it's doable.

Good luck.
posted by Gucky at 10:00 AM on October 30, 2011

Best answer: I also lived near the panhandle for four months with a car. It's actually not a bad place for a car because there is street parking all along the panhandle, so more spots than most neighborhoods. I would drive to work sometimes, and bike/caltrain others.

Life in this setup involves endless concentric circles in the evening when you return from work, hoping for a spot close to home, and going further and further afield. If you get home by 5pm you'll have a spot, but at 6 or later, it's not uncommon to spend 20 or 30 min circling, and you might have to walk 10 min to your house. Street cleaning happens once a week on every street but different streets are on different days, so often you can find a spot on a street that will be cleaned the next morning, and then you have to be gone early (before 8:30 maybe? I forget). If you leave your car parked and don't drive it, you will still have to re-park it at least once a week for this reason. They are very quick on the ticketing, so I'm told.

If you are not commuting to work, this would actually be pretty painless, I think. Just get up early on that one day a week you need to, and re-park the car. There will be lots of spots in the morning because people have already left for work.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:11 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Zipcar is your best bet. (There are other programs, like City CarShare and another whose name escapes me, which differ in the details, so check them out before you pick one.)

If you can walk to work and don't drive much anyway, all you really want is a car for weekend getaways and occasional major schlepping like trips to Home Depot. That's exactly the niche that car-sharing programs excel at filling. We have Zipcar (Hubby and car live out of state now, long story) and it works great for us.

For short-haul low-level schlepping (e.g. laundromat, farmer's market) get a wheeled cart like this. It's "the professional's choice for transporting pharmaceutical supplies" WTF, Container Store? No worries about looking uncool any more - your granny cart is now a drugmobile! They're great for walking and BART, OK on Muni streetcars, but not so great on buses, which have narrow aisles and tend to get really crowded. You'll have to be a bit strategic about riding transit with one in tow. But you really don't need to own a car here.
posted by Quietgal at 10:19 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I would go with Zipcar instead of owning one in SF. So much better than the hassle of keeping track of parking, paying insurance, etc when you only plan for occasional car use (also, getting around SF by bike is much faster than by car when you take parking into account).
posted by zippy at 10:23 AM on October 30, 2011

I've lived with a car in a couple different SF neighborhoods (though not the Panhandle / western addition), and my experience is most consistent with that of needs more cowbell. You can do it, it's not easy, but it's nice to have the flexibility to get out of town for a weekend (or just go to CostCo in the east bay). I hear the people saying "try zipcar," but since you already HAVE a car, why not try keeping it for like 3 months and see if it's just too much of a hassle? And if it is, consider switching to zipcar then.
posted by rkent at 10:37 AM on October 30, 2011

SF resident, for 15+ years, here.

You don't need a car, because Zipcar is a convenient option. The stories of replacing a series of windows due to vandalism, of accumulating parking tickets because you spaced street cleaning at 7am, of driving around for half an hour looking for parking: all true. With a minivan -- or any long car -- you're at even more of a disadvantage, since you'll pass available spaces you just can't fit into. A minivan is an especially impractical city car unless you're constantly hauling around more than 4 people.

The bottom line is that a car is a luxury item in this city, and as such it's expensive. And you're pretty broke, right? If your question is "Can I keep it?" then yes you can. If your question is "Should I keep it?" then I would say no.
posted by nadise at 10:50 AM on October 30, 2011

My wife and I have lived in San Francisco for more than a decade without a car, 8 of 'em in Cole Valley, near the Pan Handle. We have had Zipcar pretty much the whole time, and think it's great.

Without a dedicated parking spot, I really just don't think it's worth it to own your own car in the city. The beauty of Zipcar is that there's always cars available (and a variety of car, from Mini Cooper to Toyota Tacoma), and there's always somewhere to drop it off when you're done with it. Good luck with the move!
posted by hwickline at 11:16 AM on October 30, 2011

I've lived here 10 years. Didn't have a car the first two, had a car the next six, haven't had a car the last two. There are pros and cons to each - while I no longer have parking tickets, insurance woes and traffic headaches, I also can't take a spontaneous jaunt to the beach with my dog (even with a carshare plan). If I was moving to SF without a car, I would not seek one out, but if I was moving to SF with a car, I would not get rid of it. You'll figure out the parking issues in your neighborhood pretty quickly, and then you can see if it makes sense to hold on to it. You might also consider defraying your costs by signing up for something like RelayRides or Getaround so you can earn money when you're not using the car.
posted by judith at 11:34 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not crazy at all. I lived in SF 6 years with a car. I know many people who own cars there. Okay it's only a little crazy. While you don't need a car as much as in many cities, having one is still manageable and useful.

Though, a lot depends on where exactly you live. Some places, it's just going to be a nightmare to find parking and if you lived there you wouldn't want a car without a garage spot. Some places it will be almost effortless. I think in the areas you mention there will be small pockets of you'll-never-find-parking but if you're ready to walk 1-3 blocks and do parking quests you'll be okay.

Don't leave stuff in your car. Even if you think it's all garbage, the guy breaking into it might be willing to try his luck. Cars that are clean and empty inside don't get broken into, coughgenerallycough. If you need to make multiple trips, park in a driveway, (of which there are billions), bring stuff inside, then go find a longer-term spot.

You will have to pay attention to street cleaning signs. Always do this. If one whole side of the street has tons of parking spots, this is why. Also, many neighborhoods have street parking that is limited to 2 hours without a permit, in theory, but I've never heard of anyone getting a ticket for that.

I don't actually recommend parking along the panhandle itself because Oak and Fell can be busy streets and getting into/out of a tight parallel spot is something you probably want to do at a relaxed and careful pace.

Also, since this is your first time driving in SF, please be extra, super duper, incredibly paranoid of hitting pedestrians, and yes, bicyclists—all of whom are assho Mefites, as smug and arrogant as they are reckless, who think they are immune to all traffic laws, always have the right of way in any situation, and have the inalienable right to never have to slow down for any reason. No, seriously, your job is not to avoid the ones who are responsible and careful, it's to avoid the ones who are not. Which is most of them. Be ready to stop at any time, and be careful as hell turning corners.
posted by fleacircus at 11:38 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

+1 about pedestrians and cyclists. +20, really.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:47 AM on October 30, 2011

Ditch the car. Use the money you'll save on gas and parking tickets for a City Carshare/Zipcar membership and an auto-loading Clipper Card. There are numerous bus lines in the Panhandle area, and the various car services will have you covered for spontaneous road trips. Unless you're using it regularly to drive to work, there's really no reason to keep it and you'll appreciate not having to be an expert on confusing local parking & street cleaning regulations.
posted by migurski at 12:24 PM on October 30, 2011

I know about a dozen people who live in various parts of San Francisco, though mainly Mission, Noe Valley, Castro, Upper Haight, so nearish but not in the Panhandle. I think all of them have had a car at one time or another, and most eventually got rid of their cars. Those who have kept them are better-off, financially, than those who have not. It's kind of like asking, "Is it crazy to buy an apartment in San Francisco?"

For a lot of people, a car isn't worth it. If you can't commute on transit or bicycle, it probably is. It's not the same decision, but when I visit my friends in the City, I almost always take transit, even if it's slower. There's a lot to be said for letting someone else do the driving, even if you're on a MUNI bus in a rainstorm.
posted by wnissen at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2011

Ditch the car. I live in Oakland and don't own a car. I am a freelancer who commutes all over SF and the bay area to different locations and have no problems getting around.

I use Zipcar if I need to make a Costco or go to Big Sur for the weekend. I added up the cost of owning a car (remember to factor in parking tickets, which are unavoidable no matter how careful you are) and it was a lot more expensive than just using Zipcar liberally.

Day to day, I cycle or take transit.

I moved here after living in NYC so the amount of people who insist on owning a car is kind of baffling to me, but you definitely do not need a car here. Driving and parking (oh god the parking regulations) is the single least enjoyable and most frustrating part of living here, I can't stand getting behind the wheel in SF. Skip the hassle, get a bike, and enjoy our amazing weather!
posted by bradbane at 1:29 PM on October 30, 2011

I've lived in SF for over 20 years and have had a car the whole time. It's a little crazy, but so are a number of things about living here.

I lived in the Panhandle/Lower Haight area for several years, and that was the worst parking ever. I would say try it for a few months and see if you think the hassles are worth it.
Switch your registration to CA so you can get a parking sticker, if you live in a neighborhood with restricted parking. That also means higher insurance rates, most likely, but it will still be cheaper than the parking tickets you'll rack up otherwise.

Check CityCarshare and ZipCar and see which one has a pod closest to your house, in case you want to go that route. Figure out where you'll be doing most of your grocery shopping and if you can walk there.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:05 PM on October 30, 2011

I've lived in SF, briefly with a car, and for years without. If you happen to have free or cheap offstreet parking, and the car costs you little to own, it's feasible. But, unless you spend every weekend driving hours into the countryside, you won't need it. There isn't much in the bay area that isn't harder to get to in a car than without, and a car co-op or short term rental will easily handle those few occasions.

Give city carshare a try. (Unlike zipcar, they're local, non-profit, and a very engaged part of the community. They're also a bit cheaper, or were the last time I checked.)
posted by eotvos at 12:39 AM on October 31, 2011

Not crazy at all. It's San Francisco, not New York.
posted by radioamy at 7:28 AM on October 31, 2011

Response by poster: My van and I are now in San Francisco! Many thanks for all the advice-- I think I'll try it for a while, see where I land on the usefulness, and make a call from there. I'm keeping a careful eye out for street-cleaning (I'm parked off the Panhandle right now, so hopefully I can hang out for at least 72 hours before I have to move my car, as street-cleaning happened this morning).
posted by verbyournouns at 5:10 PM on October 31, 2011

Response by poster: PercussivePaul's "If you are not commuting to work, this would actually be pretty painless, I think. Just get up early on that one day a week you need to, and re-park the car" is what I'm hoping for! I'm not driving to work, just walking a very hilly walk.
posted by verbyournouns at 5:16 PM on October 31, 2011

Response by poster: ...And I'm driving the car to go live with my parents for a while. Parking was just bad enough for me not to drive anywhere, and moving my car every three days added a surprising amount of stress for me and my car.
posted by verbyournouns at 8:19 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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