When we sold our minivan, one of the things that made it easier not to replace it was the discovery of all kinds of new ways to get around the city without our own car. Realizing there were all these options that offered a safety net helped us finally make a decision. The resources below are so ridiculously exhaustive that we would be hard-pressed to use them all regularly, so we don’t. When we need to get somewhere, we primarily ride our bikes, walk, or take transit, in that order. Every once in a while, for a longer trip, we rent a car from City CarShare or Matt rents one from an agency for a business trip. Everything else listed below fills in the occasional gaps. For example: my employer, as part of its commitment to reducing car commuting, will reimburse the cost of a ride home from work in the event that a non-driver has a sick kid or bicycle breakdown. I am willing to use some of the more expensive services I’ve listed in emergency situations because time is an issue, and because I know that I’ll be reimbursed. Other companies in San Francisco have similar programs, but they’re poorly advertised, so check with HR before you decide to smack me for being so lucky.
Overall, our bikes are the best transportation choice on most occasions: they are personal vehicles that we can use at our discretion, they’re largely immune to traffic, and we can always find parking. This is why it’s often faster to ride a bike than to drive in San Francisco. But there are occasions that these other options really shine, and they might work even better for other families, and they’re so interesting I thought they were worth documenting in this outrageously long post.
Some useful tools for the car-free family:
- Cash: Transportation is one of the final holdouts of a cash economy, along with Chinese restaurants, cooperative bakeries, and gambling. I carry around more cash than in the past.
- Credit card: That said, the majority of ride-sharing services don’t work unless you have a credit card on file.
- Transit cards: The miserable days when we had to make sure we had two singles in order to ride Muni disappeared when we purchased Clipper cards.
- Smartphone: I did not get a smartphone until last week, because I live in my own personal Dark Ages. But there is no question that it makes the car-free life easier. Now I can look up bike routes, the next bus, or schedule a car ride instantly. The BayTripper and PocketMuni apps are particularly helpful, as is Bikesy (the bike route mapper for Baytripper).
- RideSafer travel vests or other portable car seats: We got RideSafer travel vests as car seat replacements for our trip to Europe last year because they were light enough to meet luggage weight restrictions on European
airlines. But they are incredibly handy for travel with kids; two fold up small enough to fit in a backpack with room to spare for snacks. Although the kids find them uncomfortable on long trips, they are perfect for short rides. They are pricey but we travel enough out of state that it was worth it to us (also, look for sales; we paid much less than the current price). The vests only work for older kids (arguably 2.5 years and up). However, when we traveled with our son as a baby, we took an infant car seat without the base with us—these styles of car seat all have instructions for installation by seatbelt. And after hearing the stories of such car seats releasing from their bases in collisions, I now suspect that he was safer that way. On occasions when we take longer drives with our kids (e.g. to the Monterey Bay Aquarium) we use regular folding car seats, which now spend most of their time in storage.
- Folding cart/stroller: It’s nice to have a way to haul kids and/or groceries around. When our kids don’t want to ride a bike to the farmers’ market, we take the stroller and pile up purchases underneath, or we take a folding shopping cart (ours actually works as a cargo-only bike trailer as well).
- Named non-owner auto insurance policy: If you don’t own a car, but drive, you can still buy auto insurance. We’re on the fence about whether to get a policy like this. It’s not necessary for a lot of car sharing services, which have great insurance (better than you could buy as an individual). But if you’re in a situation where you rent a lot, and have to use national rental agencies, it could be a good deal.
Just the basics (for the more interesting options, skip down to #8)
- What they are: Look down.
- When to use them: Local shopping and neighborhood restaurants, visiting local friends and attractions
- How they work: If you’re able-bodied you know this already.
- Pros: Good exercise; helps us learn about the neighborhood; we live in San Francisco so everything we need to live is within walking distance
- Cons: Limited range (especially if kids are involved); limited ability to carry stuff; slow
- What it costs: Free!
- Good to know: We can walk further than we think we can, even when carrying a grumpy six-year-old uphill.
- Personal experience: We like walking; early dates with my husband were long walks.
2. Bicycles (the practical kind, not the road racing/mountain biking kind)
- What they are: Those things on two wheels most people learned to ride as kids; but if you didn’t, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will teach you how to ride in a couple of hours.
- When to use them: Virtually anytime, although in San Francisco it can be a little tricky to get outside city limits on bikes when heading east
- How they work: Hop on and ride off
- Pros: Good exercise; faster than cars in traffic; never worry about parking; some bikes can carry more than cars; kids love riding on bikes
- Cons: Can take some practice to learn to ride in the street with cars; can fuel an obsession that becomes more expensive than planned (although way cheaper than a car) and unnerves friends and colleagues; theft is a problem in San Francisco (although a recent arrest has improved matters dramatically)
- What it costs: Ranges dramatically, from $50 for a beater bike found on craigslist (quality unknown) to $3,500 for a snazzy new cargo bike, but without kids almost everyone will do fine walking out of the local bike shop on a $500 commuter, with kids ditto on a $1500 cargo bike. Any decent bike shop will let you test ride extensively before purchase. Electric assists for hills and heavy loads run $500-$5,000, but most reliable models run $1,000-$2,000. Maintenance and repair costs are bupkis, even for electric assist bikes, which recharge for pennies.
- Good to know: If you’re hauling kids you probably need more bike than you think you do. Many people buy a first bike that’s inadequate for their needs and have to replace it (guilty as charged). But even the most wildly expensive cargo bike with electric assist costs less than the estimated cost of car ownership for a year. And also less than an amateur road bike.
- Also good to know: If you fear breakdowns, you can buy nationwide bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.
- Personal experience: This is our favorite way to get around.
3. Public transit (around here, primarily the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, but also systems around the bay for trips outside the city including BART, Cal Train, and Golden Gate Transit)
- What it is: Buses, street cars, trains
- When to use it: When it’s too far to walk; when the bike breaks down; when feeling lazy or when the hill situation or route is unclear in advance; when we have lots of time
- How it works: Find a route using a trip planner (Baytripper app, 511 through Google Maps), head to the nearest stop, pay, and get on. In SF, the Pocket Muni smartphone app can identify how close the next bus (or whatever) is.
- Pros: Inexpensive; accessible; nice views; riding historic streetcars and cable cars is a thrill; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, most of whom are kind
- Cons: Horribly unreliable (Pocket Muni can help, but still); aging equipment that breaks down; dirty; the most useful routes are often incredibly crowded; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, some of whom are mean and/or insane
- What it costs: In SF, $2 for adults, 75 cents for kids but cable car rides are $5; to go outside the city, costs vary but are still cheap. Fares are cash and exact change only unless you buy a Clipper card.
- Good to know: Public transportation is like getting work done at a dental school: the price is right, there are no perks, the service is as promised but it takes a long time.
- Personal experience: Very useful, but flawed (however I feel the same way about cars)
- What they are: Cars driving around that will take you wherever you want to go on a fare schedule negotiated with the city in advance
- When to use them: Only when we’re desperate
- How they work: Call in advance for a pickup and hope someone actually comes, hail one on the street and hope it actually stops
- Pros: Only car service legally allowed to pick up street hails; gets you anywhere you want to go at a predictable price
- Cons: San Francisco’s taxi fleet is notorious for poor availability, the willingness of dispatchers to lie about sending a taxi for a pickup, the unwillingness of drivers to pick up people that don’t look rich and well-groomed, etc. The cars themselves are often filthy and I say this as a Muni rider. Drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or speed limits. All taxis in San Francisco are supposed to take credit card payments but trying to pay that way can anger drivers enough that they threaten passengers and/or throw their belongings on the ground. This has happened to me.
- What it costs: $3.50 at pickup then 55 cents per fifth of a mile or minute of wait time, plus tip
- Good to know: You can do better, see below.
- Personal experience: Primarily hellish, although there have been exceptions
- What it is: A membership service for borrowing cars. These are parked around the city in reserved parking places.
- When to use it: When we have a reason to drive somewhere.
- How it works: Apply for membership and pay the fee; if you don’t drive like a maniac and have a valid credit card, you’re in. Once enrolled, members can reserve any car in the system online or by phone (there is a smartphone app for droid phones, but not yet for iOS). They send you a key fob in the mail; when your reservation begins, swipe it on the reader in the front window to unlock the car. At the end of the reservation, swipe the fob on the reader to check the car back in.
- Pros: For occasional drivers who live or work near pods, it’s much cheaper than owning a car and more convenient. For complicated trips (hauling six kids, going to Ikea) there are pickup trucks and minivans to rent. For people who like cars, there are interesting vehicles to drive: Mini Coopers, Smart cars, electric cars.
- Cons: Need to schedule trips in advance and be aware when the reservation is ending or there will be late fees. Cars must be dropped off at the pod of origin, so all trips must be round trips, and members are responsible for parking in the interim. Not all members are responsible about bringing vehicles back on time or refilling the gas tank, which can be a hassle (although people who don’t live near a university like we do report fewer problems of this nature). Car sharing can be expensive for frequent users. May not be worth joining if pods are far away (unless you have a Brompton!)
- What it costs: We pay an annual membership fee plus a set rate when using a car ($1-$9/hour) plus a mileage fee (35 cents/mile). Each membership comes with a certain number of “day trips” allowing a 24-hour rental ($48-$70/day plus 10 cents/mile) and more day trips can be purchased for $12 each. Membership includes insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, tolls, and gas (or charging if an electric vehicle). Fees are charged at the end of the month to a credit card on file.
- Good to know: Car share services have reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other cities. Zipcar is more expensive and has poorer insurance than local nonprofit options.
- Personal experience: Good; historically we’ve rented through City CarShare once every couple of months, although this has now increased to 1-2 times/month.
6. Rental car agencies
- What they are: An ad hoc service for borrowing cars
- When to use them: Longer-term rentals or business/out-of-state travel
- How they work: Call or book online to reserve a car, hope we get something like what we requested
- Pros: Lots of different cars available; no extra charges for long trips
- Cons: Most agencies require customers to come to them but don’t provide rides, which can be inconvenient (exceptions: City Rent-A-Car in SF, Enterprise nationwide). Insurance and gas are the responsibility of the renter. Cars tend to be in poor condition (relative to car-share vehicles) and it is obvious that some people smoke in them. Rental agencies tend to dump gas guzzlers onto renters who book economy cars, which is a drag as the renter pays for gas.
- What they cost: Varies, in SF usually ~$40/day on weekends or ~$400/week plus gas, insurance for an economy car; credit card payment required
- Good to know: Local agencies like City Rent-A-Car typically have better prices, cars, and service than national chains; airport pickups involve substantial additional fees
- Personal experience: Tolerable, used for business trips but only because Matt’s company makes the reservations
7. Limousines/livery cars
- What they are: Private car service for passenger trips
- When to use them: When scheduling a one-way trip in advance, e.g. to the airport, in which case they are almost as cheap as cabs or airport shuttles for a family of four but vastly more reliable (at least in San Francisco)
- How it works: Call a dispatcher or book online, usually several hours in advance
- Pros: Cars usually come when scheduled or earlier; cars are clean; drivers obey traffic laws
- Cons: Some services are more reliable than others; expensive; with kids a portable car seat may be needed although some provide child seats on request
- What it costs: $55-$65 for an airport ride regardless of the number of passengers; other pricing is hourly or zone-based and typically comparable to or slightly more expensive than a cab (we only use these for airport trips so I’m ignorant); credit card payment required, tips often included
- Good to know: Dealing with individual companies is a thing of the past thanks to Uber; see below.
- Personal experience: We decided it was worth the money to take limos to the airport after a couple of incidents where cabs and airport shuttles didn’t bother to show up.
Peer-to-peer and beyond (this is where things get interesting!)
8. Bike trailer loans: If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, you can reserve and borrow Burley Travoy or Bikes at Work trailers for heavy cargo loads. Included for no additional cost with membership! (no personal experience)
9. Bike rentals: City CarShare is rolling out an e-bike plus cargo trailer rental option late in 2012, rates to be determined. Most of the other bike rental options in San Francisco are geared to tourists, but might be useful for family visiting from out of town; check Yelp for deals. San Francisco universities have relationships with a local bike shop that allows students and other visitors to rent a Trek 7.3FX commuter bike for a day ($25), multiple days ($12.50/day), or a semester ($175), contact firstname.lastname@example.org. (no personal experience)
10. Employer and transit shuttles: Some employers and neighborhoods offer free shuttle service to various locations throughout the city. Amtrak also takes people across the bay for no charge. If you’re near the route, these are the best deals in the city. Technically I work for the state so although my employer’s shuttles are primarily for staff and patients, anyone can ride them—see also PresidiGo, SF City and County, Nordstrom. Driver quality is better than cabs but worse than limos. In San Francisco, check university websites or Yelp for details on shuttle rules and routes, or ask around. Personal experience: Excellent
11. Casual carpool/slugging
- What it is: Some cities, like San Francisco and DC, have established ad hoc car pool locations for regular commuters. In the Bay Area, drivers pick up passengers in order to use the car pool lanes on the bridges into the city.
- When to use it: When you want to get into the city more quickly and cheaply than you could alone and the routes and times make sense
- How it works: Head to a pickup location as a driver/passenger, then pick-up the next two people in line/hop in the next car that pulls up. Drop off/get out at the drop-off site.
- Pros: Cheap; fast
- Cons: The etiquette around payment of carpool tolls has not yet been established for passengers (some drivers ask for a contribution). Some people freak out about the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, although this is mitigated by the fact that drivers typically pick up two passengers (women passengers often refuse to join a two-seater vehicle in the casual carpool line; I know I did when I was using casual carpool). The routes and times don’t work for everyone.
- What it costs: As a passenger, up to $1, but often free. Drivers pay normal commuting costs but a lower toll.
- Good to know: It’s nice that such cooperative arrangements can spring up organically, isn’t it? Sure, it’s not everyone riding their bike or transit to work, but casual carpool gets lots of cars off the road and reduces traffic.
- Personal experience: I rode casual carpool for several months when we lived in Berkeley and it was pleasant enough.
- What it is: A formalized casual carpool; drivers taking long trips or regular commutes post rides to potential passengers
- When to use it: Long road trips in lieu of Greyhound; also, large employers use the service to arrange regular carpools
- How it works: Check out the website for posted rides and dates; sign up if there’s one that works and arrange pick-up/drop-off with the driver
- Pros: Cheaper than driving alone; less grungy than the bus; can get picked up somewhere near where you live
- Cons: Somewhat complicated to arrange; some people freak out about getting into a stranger’s car; ride timing dependent on the driver
- What it costs: Varies; check website but SF to LA seems to run ~$50 per passenger (by comparison Greyhound is $45-$65 for the same trip, plus the cost to get to the station)
- Good to know: There’s definitely a college student vibe to this service. Lots of discussion of music; unlike casual carpool, don’t assume you’ll be listening to NPR on this ride.
- Personal experience: Nada, although my employer runs all its carpools through Zimride, which suggests it is decent.
- What it is: Peer-to-peer donation-based ridesharing
- When to use it: When we want a lift across town for less than the cost of a cab that’s quicker than public transit, or when we don’t want to stand on the bus
- How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is and suggest a donation based on past community standards. If you accept, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. The donation is charged to your card on file.
- Pros: Cheaper than a cab, faster than public transit
- Cons: Mainly the usual freak-outs about getting into a stranger’s car, although drivers are screened, interviewed, and rated after every ride by the service and by their passengers (personally I’ve had much worse experiences in taxi cabs than I’ve ever had while ride sharing). Negotiating the suggested donation can be tricky if driver and passenger don’t agree. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat as suggested above.
- What it costs: Varies, check the apps but seems to run approximately $1/minute; e.g. the community average for a trip from the Inner Sunset farmers’ market to the Financial District was $22, compared to an estimated taxi fare of $32 before tip
- Good to know: Sidecar seems to have better coverage in San Francisco. Lyft is associated with the successful Zimride, but seems organized to primarily appeal to college students.
- Personal experience: I looked up a ride with Sidecar recently when my sister’s rental car was hit and I thought I needed a quick way home; although I didn’t book, they said they had a car three minutes away and would get me home for $8. Further updates as events warrant. I suspect I’ll use this service eventually.
14. Homobiles: Moes gettin hoes where they needz to goez! [ho status optional]
- What it is: A donation-based ride-sharing service for the LGBTIQQ community and friends in San Francisco. Homobiles was started after its founder heard too many stories of cab drivers in San Francisco refusing to stop in the Castro, or stopping and then soliciting passengers for sexual favors, or kicking same sex couples out for kissing in the car, or commenting negatively on bondage gear, or sharing unsavory opinions about the gay community, and so forth.
- When to use it: When you want a cab but don’t want a cab driver
- How it works: Text (or call) a request for a pick with your location, number of passengers, and any special requests to Homobiles at 415/574-5023. They’ll text back with your pickup time if they have a driver available (sometimes they don’t, but at least they’ll tell you) and off you go.
- Pros: This is a donation-based service that wants people to feel safe, so they’ll give you a ride even if you can’t pay. No one will hassle you for looking queer, obviously. Some of their cars have bike racks.
- Cons: Cash only. Sometimes there’s no driver available. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat. The name might freak out relatives from less urban locales.
- What it costs: $1/minute anywhere in the city. $30 flat fee to San Francisco Airport (this may be our future airport shuttle!) Tips not included.
- Good to know: Drivers will sell you a Homobiles t-shirt or hanky as a fundraiser (like every other ride sharing service, they’re being sued by SF taxi companies, but they’re they only one without venture capital backing).
- Personal experience: Haven’t used it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but accolades.
- What it is: A smartphone app-based booking service for limos
- When to use it: When you don’t have the cash handy for Homobiles or they don’t have a driver available, or you really want to ride in a shiny black car with water bottles
- How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is, what kinds of vehicles are available (for more than 4 people, request an SUV) and the fare. If you book, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. A tip is included and the bill is charged to your card, with an emailed receipt; this is a cash-free transaction.
- Pros: Same as limousines/livery cars but with rock-solid reliability and enforcement of good driving behavior (passengers are asked to rank the driver after the ride). Uber prides itself on having cars available at all times, no matter what, even on New Year’s Eve or during Pride.
- Cons: Expensive; taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat
- What it costs:$8 base fare, plus $4.90/mile while moving and $1.25/minute in traffic; $15 minimum fare and $10 cancellation fee
- Good to know: Uber has coupon codes for new members that give $10-$20 off your first ride.
- Personal experience: None yet, seems pricey (but great reviews on Yelp). I tried to order ice cream for my kids on Uber’s ice cream truck day but they were too busy, which frankly runs contrary to their whole “we will get you a car no matter what” image. I’ll cut them some slack as it was the first time they tried that, but still, hmm.
- What it is: Peer-to-peer carsharing
- When to use it: Primarily when you want to rent a car for longer periods than are cost-effective using a car sharing service
- How it works: This is a more informal version of traditional car share. People who have cars available that they don’t use regularly make them available to people who want to rent one. Rates are set by the car owner and listed on the website. When you join (you’ll need a Facebook account) you can pick from a list of available vehicles and request a reservation. Getaround lets you pick up certain cars using your smartphone and an ID reader, but both services default to meeting the car owner and handing over the key. Drive during the reservation window and then return the car as the owner requested. The service provides insurance but the renter is typically responsible for gas.
- Pros: Typically cheaper than all-day rental using a car-sharing service; much better insurance for the car-free than traditional rental car agencies; often closer to home than other options; owners are usually more relaxed about late drop-offs than car share services are
- Cons: Handing off keys can be a hassle for non-smartphone enabled cars; rates are somewhat unpredictable; limited availability in some neighborhoods
- What it costs: Typically $6-$12/hour in San Francisco, with daily rates of $35-$60 (although Getaround’s rental Tesla is much more). Weekly rates are also available. Where we live it’s cheaper than traditional car-sharing for day trips and more expensive for hourly trips.
- Good to know: Getaround has better coverage and some keyless entry cars in both San Francisco and Portland, which makes renting for short periods more appealing. Relay Rides is national. Car-light folks can rent out their cars.
- Personal experience: My sister rented a car through Getaround when we took a weekend day trip and it was more exciting than we’d planned, but that wasn’t Getaround’s fault. $50 for the day, and unusually, gas was included. I would rent through Getaround again, especially for longer trips.
Other interesting options that San Francisco does not have yet, but that are available in other cities
17. Bike share
- What it is: Short term city-sponsored bicycle rentals available from pods scattered in popular travel corridors
- When to use it: When you have a short one-way trip that’s still too far to walk or would take too long
- How it works: Typically you buy a membership card, then swipe it to release a bike from one of the locked racks. Ride it to your destination and check it in at a nearby rack. Short trips are free or nearly so and longer trips are expensive. If there’s no space at a given rack, you can get free minutes to ride it to the next closest rack and check the bike in there.
- Pros: Inexpensive, easy, fun to ride
- Cons: It might be hard to carry a large load. You probably can’t ride with kids.
- What it costs: Varies; free to a few dollars.
- Good to know: California has no helmet law for adults, so don’t let not having a helmet stop you from trying a bike if that’s what it takes.
- Personal experience: None, unfortunately, but you can bet I’ll try it when San Francisco rolls out its bike share program, supposedly later in 2012. Or maybe 2013. Or maybe never. Sob.
- What it is: A short-term rental program for Smart cars run by Daimler
- When to use it: When you want to drive one-way, alone or with one passenger
- How it works: You sign up, pay the annual fee, and get a member card to check into cars (typical rules about not driving like a maniac apply here). Cars can be reserved in advance online or by phone, or just wander around until you see a Car2go car with a green light on the reader, wave your card, enter a PIN, and drive off. Park the car in any legal parking spot at your destination, but there’s no need to pay a meter; Daimler negotiates an annual parking fee for its cars with the city and pays it in advance. Members get a gas card with the car and receive credits for filling up if the tank is less than a quarter full.
- Pros: Seems very useful for last-mile travel for people who don’t want to carry a folding bike; or for emergency sick-kid pickups—e.g. I could schedule a car pickup for us at school and use the time it takes the driver to get to school to drive myself over from work with Car2go
- Cons: Limited availability; only an option in a few cities; Smart cars only hold two people and there’s no way to install a car seat
- What it costs: Rates are the cheapest combination of 35 cents/minute, $13/hour, $66/day (plus 45 cents/mile if you drive the car over 150 miles per day), plus tax.
- Good to know: Car2go membership recently became transferable throughout the cities where it’s in operation: if you’re a Car2go member in Washington DC, you can also drive Car2go vehicles in San Diego.
- Personal experience: None, because it isn’t available in San Francisco, unfortunately.
Available anywhere, but use with caution
19 and last on my list: Mooching
My personal feeling is that if I regularly feel the urge to mooch rides, then we’re not really ready to live without our own car. We had one car for over five years, and in that time I can count on my fingers the number of times we asked for a ride, hinted that we wanted one (particularly with kids in tow: who has a spare car seat anyway?), or asked to borrow a car. Given all of the options available to us now, if we start to find ourselves consistently begging rides, I suspect that would be a sign that we should buy a car again.
That said, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a ride occasionally, particularly when we’re traveling. We were very grateful when a friend offered us a lift late at night last year when we were in Paris and we faced a long train ride back carrying two sleepy kids. There are times that people make an unsolicited offer to drive me somewhere, like at work when everyone is headed to another campus for a department meeting. And in those cases I usually say yes because I enjoy their company. And on the occasions that I have a rental car, I’ll often ask people whether they want a lift where I’m going, for exactly the same reason.
Thanks for asking, and thanks for sharing the ride, friends!