Help me map out driving difficulty levels in San Francisco
October 13, 2020 8:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently stuck at advanced beginner driving and trying to map out what are intermediary steps between my current skills and my goal, with some anxiety complicating the matter.

Always had my license but never used it and have been too scared to drive in SF. I have been practicing driving w my partner's car every week or two since the start of this year but honestly haven't made much progress -- my end goal is to be able to drive anywhere in the bay area without much of a second thought (like, not anticipate it and plan out the route, just hop in the car) or do a reasonably short road trip.

I'm pretty comfortable driving around easy neighborhoods like Haight, Sunset/Richmond, etc. but did a drive around SOMA the other week and almost had three separate collisions, which makes me think that was too big of a jump up. There are also individual intersections seemingly sprinkled around randomly that are just really tough -- I just read about a pedestrian getting hit at one in the Castro I always seem to have trouble with.

I would say my 3 main challenges with driving right now are:
1. Busy situations where I can't take in all the information at once (the SOMA case, or in Mission where there's buses/cars/bikes/people wandering into the streets) - this is where I think having neighborhoods or even specific routes ranked in order of difficulty would be super helpful.
2. Not great at parking so even if I go somewhere there's no guarantee I'll be able to stop there (this is fine, but it means I can't work practice into regular errand running)
3. Pretty extreme physical anxiety about driving making it hard to practice for more than 15-20 minutes without it totally draining me for the rest of the day. Rationally I don't have fear about it, but even just typing this out my body starts to go into fight or flight mode and tears are forming in my eyes, I guess because it's quite overwhelming? But like, emotionally I don't care that I can't drive, I'm not upset about it, however my body does this pretty reliably.

My therapist hasn't helped about this at all, just has said he's sure I'll figure it out and SF is the hardest place to drive, and my partner has been driving so long they can't figure out how to explain it with words, it's all muscle memory.

What I'm currently thinking is stop actually going places until I have fully mastered parking (tips on this welcome too, can't reliably do parallel or perpendicular). And then, wondering what steps after that will be. What would be harder than super residential areas but easier than SOMA/Mission? How hard is the golden gate bridge or bay bridge? I hope the anxiety will reduce if I build a little bit of confidence by having successful drives, but tbd - it's certainly less bad than on Jan 1 of this year but still quite unpleasant / partially day ruining.
posted by internet of pillows to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (15 answers total)
Do you have the budget to hire an instructor for a couple of sessions? I think a good teacher could really help with the anxiety and put you more at ease (and help you learn to park as well).

FWIW I’m a decent driver and I find driving in many parts of SF hellish, Market Street area included. It’s just super hard!
posted by mekily at 9:22 PM on October 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First some validation.

I'm a confident driver with decades of experience, most of that in the Bay Area and specifically in San Francisco. I used to commute to the peninsula daily on 101 and/or 280 for years. I have no particular anxiety about driving. I have a spotless driving record. And yet ... driving in San Francisco is HARD. We're weird, dense, bumpy, and occasionally non-Euclidean. I've driven in tougher places in the US, but not many. SOMA? Yep, way hard. That one intersection in the Castro? Super weird. The Mission? Yep, folks are just popping out at you from all directions. Not your imagination.

That said, I think your therapists support here is unhelpful. This sounds like a major block and anxiety trigger for you, and while I am not anyone's doctor, I'm guessing you need some more serious backup through this process than "you'll figure it out". I would bring it up with them, and maybe look for other resources if that's necessary and feasible.

Also worth pursuing if you have the resources: a driving instructor who specializes in folks who have these issues. You're far from alone! There will be people out there who can break processes down for you into easier steps.

So, assuming you either do (or can't do) those things and have to fly solo -- you're taking a good approach! I love the idea of just concentrating on parking for a little. You could even chunk that into smaller pieces. I recommend Ocean Beach on a NOT nice day, mid-week if you can. Less stressful driving to get there, and then a nice array of easier parallel parking (like in GG Park), angled parking on La Playa, some perpendicular. But don't do them all at once -- give yourself a small goal of 5 spaces of one kind followed by a treat.

Don't rush into other neighborhoods -- if you keep doing the western half there are enough *slightly* harder areas that you don't need to venture downtown. Feeling less brave? Outer Richmond! Feeling more brave? Inner Richmond on a Sunday, like Clement! Lots of varied inputs and stuff happening to test you, but ... at way slower speeds than SOMA.
posted by feckless at 9:29 PM on October 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

When I did my motorcycle training course in the mid-zeros we did it in this giant parking lot: City College of San Francisco.

A year or two later I taught my then-partner how to drive stick in that same parking lot.

If parking is your goal, start someplace that's totally deserted that has designated parking spots.

Even if the motorcyclists are there, they only take up a fraction of that lot.

In terms of anxiety, it's possible that if you practice parking over and over in the same empty spaces you'll be more comfortable and bored and looking for a "challenge".

Another thing that might work in San Francisco is to practice driving right after the street-sweepers come. Everyone has moved their cars and/or gone to work so street parking is easier to come by.
posted by bendy at 10:34 PM on October 13, 2020

FWIW I think you might also want to consider getting some additional practice outside SF. I am not familiar enough with the bay area to say where, exactly, but I think it would be more helpful to practice in a less stressful place for a 1-2 hour block of time than a highly stressful place for a 15-20 minute block.
posted by oceano at 11:40 PM on October 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

My driving instructor refused to schedule people for less than two-hour blocks - according to him it wasn't possible to get some good driving flow in less than that. My anxiety usually subsided within the first 30 minutes, and the second hour was indeed much calmer and habit-forming. Plus having the instructor as a second pair of eyes was invaluable in getting through tough situations. So much of driving is reflexes and habits, and an instructor makes sure you form the right ones.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:53 PM on October 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had driving anxiety for YEARS. Got my license, but mostly didn't drive and lived places where it wasn't required. Then one day it just... went away. Don't get me wrong, there are still places I won't drive because I feel that they're beyond my skill level, but I want to reassure you that you won't always be fighting panic every time you get behind the wheel.
posted by inexorably_forward at 12:55 AM on October 14, 2020

Best answer: +1 to reassurances that SF city driving can be tricky and scary, but it's doable.

Parking is parking. It takes practice, with the same car, over and over again. A big empty parking lot like City College, a couple traffic cones with brooms stuck in them, and a patient friend, and you'll finally get an intuitive feel for where the edges of your car are. You know why growth-spurt teens are so clumsy? Because they're half an inch taller/longer than they were a month ago, and their body calibration is all off. You need to calibrate with your car. Once you get a feel for where your right front tire is, and how to place it where you want it, you can park anywhere. It's somewhere between piano and using a fork, but you gotta practice.

Speaking of practice, I'm with people saying that longer times spent driving, getting settled in and comfortable with familiar moves / routes for a bit, before trying something new next, is best.

Try following (not tailgating, but the route) the 5 Fulton all the way from the Panhandle to the beach. It's a straight line, multiple lanes, for like 50 intersections. Just stoplight after stoplight, with Golden Gate Park on your left. Sure, you're going to be gripping the wheel so tight your knuckles turn white, but only for the first dozen or so. Then you do another 20 blocks, and then by the end you're in the zone and Over It. Take a pause at the beach for air, because now you have to drive back and do it again. By the time you get home, you're bored with intersections.
Next trip out, try doing the same kind of thing with the 24 Divisadero. Takes you from the Heights, through NOPA, then Castro, then further south? And oh, now you're a little bit lost. But just a little bit. Since you've already mastered plodding through endless intersections, spending an extra 20 minutes to figure out where you are is worth it for the 'Okay, I can see the TV tower from here, which means this way must be East, which will take me downtown which is too complicated, but if I go North again for a while...' experience points. I recommend getting low-stakes lost, because you start thinking less about the act of driving and sweating about it, than about navigating. "I'm not worried about making the left turn, but which left turn?'

The whole point is to drive enough that the operation is washing dishes, not walking a tightrope. So go out there and get bored. If you have someplace you'd commonly drive to for special ice cream or something, just drive there and back home and there again, until you have it memorized. Then pick a second destination, and wear a groove in the street and in your muscle-memory between it and home. Do that a couple places around the city, and eventually you have a repertoire of 'oh, I know where we are now, I can get to 8 different places from here', and then you're driving.

I've never had a problem with long highway driving, but practice getting on and off the 101 and the 5 is worth it. Set yourself a goal of driving to Redwood City and back, or make a couple of dummy trips to SFO and back. Because then you can be confident that you can drive yourself to the airport and home again. And if you can deal with the highway as far as the airport, then heck, you could just keep going south if you wanted. And/or drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to Novato and back a couple times. Once you're at 'oh, I can do this no sweat', then you're prepared to head north for Oregon someday.
posted by bartleby at 1:41 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, and a pro racing car tip for tricky intersections and other complex situations: Pick A Line.
You imagine a VR overlay of a yellow line (or pink hearts or blue triangles, whatever) in front of you on the road, leading through whatever it is.
You'll often find yourself in situations where it would be impossible for anyone to take in ALL the information. So you Pick A Line, follow it, and take in enough to be aware that your own line is clear.
You get to a seven-way intersection, you can't watch everybody.
But you can visualize your path through it over to the other side, and just watch out for that one part, forget about behind you or on the overpass or the weird guy in the wheelchair playing the trombone. Just watch your own line at all times, then expand your awareness from there when able.
posted by bartleby at 1:52 AM on October 14, 2020

I taught my boyfriend to drive in Boston, which is generally considered one of the worst cities for driving in in the US. I can confidently say that practicing for 20 minutes every two weeks is a recipe for disaster. You need to practice driving every day. Like at bare minimum, at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Ideally an hour a day, 7 days a week.

Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge are not the best places to go if you can't practice for more than 20 minutes at a time. While they're not the worst highways to drive on by far, they have tolls, don't really have shoulders (being bridges and all), and the Bay Bridge in particular can require navigating a lot of lane changes in heavy traffic at highway speeds if you're trying to get to any particular destination rather than being OK with ending up wherever. 101 is a better way to get highway driving experience and its onramps are very forgiving.

You might benefit from driving around the southeastern part of the city a bit -- Mission Bay, Dogpatch, India Basin, that general area. I actually like driving around SOMA more than many other parts of the city, but the SOMA streets funnel so much traffic onto the highway that -- especially if you end of east of 2nd or so -- there is a definite risk of accidentally ending up on an onramp, as there are quite a few lanes that turn into Bay Bridge only lanes without that always being completely obvious upfront.

Places to avoid for now would likely be areas with narrow streets and lots of pedestrian traffic (North Beach and Chinatown) as well as places with very steep hills (parts of Potrero, Dolores Heights, Twin Peaks, etc.)
posted by phoenixy at 2:20 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in Oakland and I used to live in SF and can also confirm driving in the city sucks and is nerve wracking at times. Also I cant navigate the city effectively without google maps turn by turn directions and traffic updates and I've lived here since 2008. I would suggest heading to the Outer Sunset and driving around there for a few hours at a time. Plus you can go to the beach to unclench your hands periodically :) It has nice gridded residential streets with minimal traffic.

My mom has bad driving anxiety. Her doctor prescribed her 25mg of Xanax to take 30 minutes before getting in the car. Of course she resisted for months because a)anxiety and b)she was scared it would impare her too much. After a while I convinced her to try it while not driving, and after realizing it just took the edge and didnt make her loopy or sleepy at that dose, she started using it and now she can drive without having a panic attack! It's been a game changer for her.
posted by ananci at 7:33 AM on October 14, 2020

SOMA at rush hour near the Bay Bridge onramps is the city's most unpleasant parking lot and the Mission isn't much better on weekends when it feels like whole city has turned out to randomly run into the middle of the street.

After you've practiced in some of the other places people suggest here that are always pretty quiet - the Dogpatch, Mission Bay, maybe Potrero Hill once you're ready to try some hills - go back to SOMA on a weekend morning or the Mission either on a weekend morning before 10 AM or Sunday/Monday evening after 7 or 8 PM. Those neighborhoods are much more quiet at those times, and you can gradually shift your times towards peak once you get more comfortable with the streets. This is true for other areas of the city too - any part of the Castro along Market is kind of messy, but it's the worst on Friday and Saturday nights and during Pride and other big events.

In the Mission, avoid the busiest streets at first (Valencia, Mission, Potrero, 16th, 24th, Cesar Chavez), and stay on the east side between Folsom and Hampshire where the streets have state names (Alabama, Florida, York, Hampshire). It's a lot quieter over there than the commercial corridors on the west side of the Mission, and as a bonus you're about 3x more likely to find a parking spot.
posted by A Blue Moon at 7:34 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was raised in SF and grew up driving - even though ive been happily carless in NYC for a decade. I think that youre kind of conceiving of this incorrectly - you dont level up to busy downtown areas for a while, until you have the sleepy cadence of the western side of town down pat. The key to surviving the stress and anxiety of those higher-stimulation environments is not having to worry as much about the very basics. The house i grew up in was right between two very busy streets, and while i learned to drive i never once took the car out from our driveway/garage until i was totally comfortable with the basics of acceleration/braking/steering and lane placement.

Honestly this is something that ive kind of lost since im no longer a regular driver, and i dont really like that part of going back to very occasionally driving myself in a car.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:36 AM on October 14, 2020

Best answer: I learned to drive in the Bay Area and have years of San Francisco driving experience, so I'll also confirm that SF is challenging for drivers due to a mix of topographical and human behavior factors. If I never have to deal with the 4th & King area and the SF exits on I-80 at rush hour ever again that is fine with me because they are so aggravating. With a few exceptions everywhere else in the Bay Area is easier to deal with, so if you can drive confidently in SF you can also feel confident driving in the rest of the region. Here are suggestions for exercising different skill areas both in and outside of the city:

Basic vehicle controls and operations
Start here if you feel unfamiliar with any of the motion, signaling, visibility, and comfort controls of your car. You want to avoid looking or fumbling around for anything while driving. You also need to be sure the mirrors and seat position maximize visibility for you, and since you share a car with your partner you'll need to reset these every time you drive. Your mention of near-collisions in SOMA made me wonder if you have a visibility issue in the car. Pay special attention to the side mirrors—these should be set to minimize blind spots to the southwest and southeast of the car, not to show the sides of the car itself.

Big open parking lots were made for this. Try Stonestown Galleria after business hours or the Daly City big box store parking lots on weekday afternoons. Also a classic place to start learning with a manual transmission car.

Navigating non-flat and non-straight roads
Or maybe call this one "understanding how the laws of physics affect your car". This is where you learn how ascents/descents, curves in the road, sharp and/or sudden turns, etc. affect the feel of driving. Work on maintaining smooth control throughout the journey, avoiding things like slamming on the brakes or feeling thrown around on curves, until you feel "close to the machine" with your car.

Have some fun with this, lots of beautiful parts of the Bay Area for practicing! CA-1S to CA-92E to I-280N is a gentle introduction. For a little more challenge and some gorgeous scenery try CA-35S from the city continuing as it turns into Skyline Blvd, CA-84E between CA-1 and I-280, and taking the Golden Gate Bridge north into Marin and continuing west through the Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais area until you get to the coast.

Secondary skills exercised on these drives are mixed use in tight spaces (mostly cyclists, very occasionally pedestrians) and dealing with people who want to go a lot faster or slower than you.

For San Francisco you will need a mix of perpendicular, angle, and parallel parking in open lot, garage, and curbside settings. This is where a firm grasp of the size and turning radius of your car become important. For basic perpendicular and angle parking, the open lots from part 1 are obviously a good choice. Practice both head-in and tail-in entry to perpendicular spaces. For parallel parking practice try the Embarcadero at off-peak times, Division St. on the weekends, western residential areas, and Twin Peaks/Diamond Heights. Twin Peaks is also good for practice with hill parking. Garages are important for areas where street parking is rare or annoying but may have tight spaces, poor visibility, or inattentive fellow drivers. A good sampling is the public garages at Mission/Bartlett, 5th/Mission, Sutter/Stockton, and various private garages downtown.

Dealing with Human Density and Unpredictability
I mean, it's San Francisco after all. This covers keeping your cool with a dense mix of pedestrians, cyclists and E-scooters, and drivers, many of whom may move suddenly and unpredictably and will be angry, distracted, or mentally unwell. Important skills here are navigating complex or contentious intersections, awareness of ambient pedestrians/cyclists, and reacting to people who do things like pull into the road suddenly or back out of parking spaces without looking.

For building initial confidence with this I recommend you start with spending some weekend time driving in downtown areas on the Peninsula in cities like Burlingame, San Mateo, and Redwood City. These commercial areas will have plenty of activity and some unpredictability but are less intense than most parts of SF. Medium difficulty areas are maybe Japantown and the Richmond on weekends, Fillmore, FiDi, and Union Square on weekdays off-peak, and entry/exit to freeways at any off-peak time. Advanced practice work here is found in SOMA and the FiDi at rush hour, freeways and bridges at rush hour, Chinatown on weekend days, and Union Square on weekends and during the holidays.
posted by 4rtemis at 1:21 PM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of good advice in this thread!

It’s natural when driving in a hectic urban environment to feel stressed and as a result to rush and to drive in a “reactive” way — making you less safe. You might try pretending to be a driver who feels relaxed and easeful as a way of cultivating steadier, more pleasant, and more predictable driving.

I like to try to channel the kind of vibes seen in this video. I wouldn’t follow all the advice in the video (!) but I appreciate the way that the driver flows through the busy water.

More generally, I think videos may be an interesting way to get mental practice without the pressure of actually being out on the road. Here’s another one.

Good luck! Driving in SF always stresses me out. Worse than NYC!
posted by actionstations at 8:02 PM on October 14, 2020

There's lots of good advice above. As someone who had a job driving a stick-shift truck full of tools and gardening crap to numerous clients all over the City, I highly recommend getting up very early (after sunup though) to drive places when there are fewer people on the roads, especially for the trickier intersections when you feel ready to tackle that. I also agree that 20 minutes at a time will not be particularly helpful, just get you wound up and annoyed.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:10 PM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

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