Let's face it — San Francisco parking can be anxiety-producing, resulting more often in a headache than a convenient spot. Each year the city of San Francisco hands out over a million parking tickets worth tens of millions of dollars in fines. How can you avoid becoming one of the millions? How can you fend off headaches? There's a lot to learn about the ins-and-outs of parking, but if you follow some basic rules you should be off on the right foot. Or, perhaps, the right lane.
Even though parking is often a pain, there are more and more resources that make finding a spot easier and avoiding a ticket simpler. People have even written books about San Francisco parking for visitors and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has recently launched a free app to make your search for parking hassle-free. We're here to demystify San Francisco parking.
Don't drive a car in San Francisco and you won't need to park. (You knew we were going to say that, didn't you?) As we've said elsewhere, it's a small city with a very good public transportation system, making it easy to get around without driving a car. You're on vacation; how much time do you want to spend looking for parking places? Before you decide on having a car here, read our guide to San Francisco public transportation.
We hate driving around looking for a free parking space on the street. We hate it almost as much as standing in long lines at attractions. So, when we absolutely have to drive, we make a plan that's going to take us to the nearest parking garage with available spaces.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) knows it's hard to find parking in the city, so they offer a number of tools to help us find parking. Through the free SFpark app for iPhone and Android, you can view real-time parking pricing information around the city's various parking garages and locations.
The SFpark app figures out the current price for parking in different areas and at different times of day to ensure you find an available spot. This app works for the areas of the Financial District, the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf, Civic Center, Marina Union Street shops, and the Mission district. This makes it much easier to find a parking space when you need one.
Not everyone carries a pocket-load or purse-full of quarters when they travel around the city. To park for two hours, you'll need 24 quarters or 60 dimes. That many quarters weigh 136 grams, or about 5 ounces, so you'd better have your belt cinched up pretty tight.
What if you need to use one of the city's many meters and don't have enough loose change? That's where the San Francisco prepaid parking meter card comes in handy. On this card you can load up money to use at whatever meter you desire. No need to weigh down your wallet or your pants. These pre-paid parking meter cards are available in $20 and $50 denominations. You can buy the cards at stores throughout San Francisco or online.
There are some rules to follow that can ensure you don't get a nasty parking ticket. For starters, there's a 72-hour limit to being in any parking spot. That's right! Even if you're legally parked, you will be issued a warning and be cited or even towed if you don't have a specific permit to park in that area. Even if you have a disabled placard or a residential parking permit, you must move your car before you hit the 72-hour maximum. The reason for this is to eliminate cars being stored or abandoned on public streets.
Another rule relates to the distance between the side of your car and the curb. The wheels must be within eighteen inches from the curb to ensure you're not sticking out into the street too far.
A semi-obvious yet sometimes disobeyed parking law is that you must face the flow of traffic. Your vehicle must face the direction of traffic even if it's otherwise parked legally.
If you're parked on one of San Francisco's many hills, you must turn your wheels into the curb, so that, if your brakes fail, your car will roll into the curb and not out into traffic and down the hill and into the bay…
Finally, make sure to always check that your front and rear bumpers are not extending into a driveway, crosswalk, or colored-curb zone.
Of the city's multimillion dollars in annual parking tickets, over a third are due to cars being in the wrong place during street cleaning. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting ticketed at those times.
First off, always check for posted parking and street cleaning times. Even if a sign isn't near your parking spot, you should look 100 feet in both directions for any sign. It may be a pain (as driving in SF tends to be), but sweeping helps keep the streets clean and so the city discourages vehicle owners from blocking the street cleaning truck's path.
Another common infraction that leads to tickets is parking in permit areas. In permit areas, you have to move your vehicle after the posted time limit if you don't have a permit. Typically this posted time limit is one or two hours. We know what you're thinking, but no: you can't just circle around the block and park in the same place or you'll be ticketed. You must move at least one block or one-tenth of a mile away (about 200 meters).
In San Francisco, you've also got to watch out for tow-away zones. During commute hours, some parking zones become tow-away zones. The best way to avoid this is to check the meter face and posted signs for tow-away restrictions. (Of course another good way to avoid it is by not driving a car around in the first place.)
Likewise, parking in a crosswalk is both dangerous and illegal. You may never block curb ramps located inside or adjacent to crosswalks. You must also leave at least three feet (1 m) of space between a curb ramp and your vehicle.
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As you can see, parking in San Francisco can be difficult. What with all the laws, signs, and special regulations, it's enough to make you want to forget driving altogether. There are, however, some neat hacks to help you find parking hidden in plain spot. Some parking aficionados (yes that's a thing) say you should be able to find a parking spot in less than five minutes no matter what neighborhood you're in.
The aficionados' main trick seems to be to look for empty spots that people have avoided for an obvious reason, but that are technically fair game at the moment you're looking for parking. One example of this is parking in a loading zone — after the time of enforcement is over of course. Oftentimes, it's only off-limits for a certain part of the day. (Like, "Loading Zone 8 AM to 5 PM".) Yellow zones, white zones, and tow-away zones could all fit this technique of seeming verboten but actually being a great parking spot if you find it at the right time of day.
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