Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Ten Tips on How To Be A Driver in San Francisco

I grew up in a small town somewhere in the sprawling mess of spaghetti freeways that form Southern California. To be a person in Los Angeles is to have a car. And sometimes, having a car means becoming a driver.

A driver is not just the operator of a car. A driver is someone who knows the pulse of the roads. Someone who can navigate rush hour. Someone who can tell if the car in front is really going to turn, or just forgot their blinker was on. Someone who knows the silhouette of a speed trap from a mile away.

It doesn’t matter what you drive – my first car was a VW Bug that was born before me – it matters how you drive and how driving fits into your life.

Skip forward 20 years or so and now I’m a San Franciscan. I’ve been a Muni commuter, a walker, a biker, and a carpooler, but after all these years, I’m still a driver. You can take the boy out of Southern California, but you can’t take the LA out of the boy.

Make no mistake, cars are filthy, Earth-killing, city-ruining monsters. Cars can turn the sweetest mom into a rage-filled, bird-flipping, Tourette’s syndrome demonstration. They’re bad for cities, bad for people, and bad for the planet. I know all this. But being a driver is just about my last vice. I gave up smoking (something that always went well with driving). I got married. I settled down. Leave me this one bad habit.

San Francisco is not a car culture like LA. There are almost no freeways within the city limits, and most businesses don’t even have parking lots. And to most public transit commuters or bike lane denizens, if you’re in a car, you’re pretty much the enemy.

But I don’t think it has to be that way. You can be a driver in San Francisco without being a dick. Here are my personal rules for how to be a driver in San Francisco. I share them with you in the hopes that, if you, like me, truly love driving and love San Francisco, we can make them both a little better.

  1. Chill.
    I know the car ahead of you is being an idiot, or the bus stopped in your way, or there’s some guy trying to sell you pot at a red light. Take a deep breath. Look around. It’s a beautiful city with beautiful people in it. We often smile at each other. It’s nice. Before you know it, the annoyance will be gone.
  2. Do not honk your horn unless you’re about to die.
    This is a small city. Most streets are lined with bedrooms. Honk your horn pretty much anywhere and you’re annoying a dozen people, at least. Don’t do it unless it’s seriously a life or death situation. (Hint: stoners in the crosswalk is not a life or death situation.)
  3. Muni always has the right of way. Always.
    The city has a lot of public transportation. This is a good thing. But it means your path will be crisscrossed by dozens of buses, trains, and streetcars. They always have the right of way. Even if you have a green light, they have the right of way. You know why? They’re carrying your fellow citizens. There’s more of them than there are of you, and they’re in a hurry. Let ’em go. Also, trains and busses tend to slam into cars here. Don’t provoke them. They’re bigger than you are.
  4. That red spot? That driveway? Don’t park there.
    I read somewhere that there are twice as many cars in San Francisco as there are parking spaces. I don’t know if it’s true, but if you’ve ever had to look for parking around 6pm near Haight Street, it seems like it. So it may be tempting to park somewhere you clearly shouldn’t. Don’t. The sidewalk in front of my old apartment had a space clearly painted red. And almost every day I saw some idiot park there. And almost every day I heard the telltale crunch sound that the ass-end of a Muni train makes when it swings with wild force to make the turn, doing major damage to a car parked where it shouldn’t be. Imagine that every red zone and driveway in the city is there because a giant piece of metal is going to fly by that spot at 40 mph and smash into whatever’s there. Think about that as you’re considering the spot.
  5. That bus stop? The middle of the street? Don’t park there, either.
    Look, I know it can be hard to find a space. And back home in LA, a store would have a proper lot. But you’re in San Francisco now. The rules are different. If you park in a bus stop, even for a moment, what will happen is, a bus full of angry people, being driven by the angriest person, will invariably pull up. And you know who’s got the loudest, most annoying horns? Busses. They’ll blow it and you’ll have to do the walk of shame in front of all those angry people to rescue your car. And you will have to rescue it, because if you don’t it will be towed away and you’ll get a ticket and have to pay through the nose to get it back. And that’s assuming the bus doesn’t simply smash into your car, which, apparently, is legal here. All this goes double for double-parkers. Park in the street, and it’s totally legal here for anyone waking by to bash your windshield in with a bat. Really, it is. We’re very progressive and don’t have a lot of outlets for our stockpiles of rage. Do not tempt us.
  6. Cabbies drive like lunatics.
    Cabs everywhere drive like idiots, but San Francisco has a special breed of cabby. Many cabs here seem like they’re being driven by people who woke up this morning thinking, “today would be a great day to die,” smoked a pile of crystal meth, and then shot out of the garage without even waiting for the door to open. No time! Here’s the thing: Cabbies are the Alpha-Males of the automotive world. You could get into a vroom-vroom contest with them, but, look, you’re going to lose because they have no fear of death. Personally, I have the same attitude about cabbies as cops: better in front than in the rearview. Get out of their way, and let them fly to their next magical destinantion.
  7. Don’t be that guy.
    That guy I saw stop in the middle of Valencia Street, open his door, stand in the street, and while cleverly using his open door as some kind of impromptu privacy screen, he emptied his entire bladder as the traffic behind him honked and passers-by gawked? Don’t be that guy. That guy who ignores the stop sign at the top of our street and has nearly run over almost all of the dogs as they’re running toward the park? Don’t be that guy. That guy who, for no apparent reason, sat in his car on my street at 7am one morning playing some sort of tinnitus-causing thoom thooooom music? Don’t be that guy.
  8. Bikes are our friends.
    I love how San Francisco has gotten so bike-friendly over the last few years. There are a lot more bikes on the road now than there used to be, and I think it’s rad. So be a good driver. Really look around for bikes. Note where the bike lanes are (they’re not always where you think they are). Stop when a bike is approaching. Smile and wave to let them know that you’ve seen them. You’ll often get a smile in return. That kind of brief moment of pleasantness can fill my sails all day.
  9. Market Street: Just say no.
    Don’t drive on Market Street. I know, it looks big on the map, but don’t. It’s not for you. It’s for busses and cabs and shady fronts and crazy people that pull their pants down. Do Not Drive on Market Street. Never. Never ever ever.
  10. Dude. Seriously? Chill.
    San Francisco is a beautiful place. And the social norm we treasure above all else is our culture of Mellow. Nothing harshes the mellow worse than aggressive, cranky, LA-style driving. Relax. Take a look around. You’re not in LA anymore. See? You’re mellowing out already.

San Francisco is a small place. It’s not like LA, where you can flip someone off in traffic and know that you’ll never see them again. Here you will see them again. And we San Franciscans, we remember.

So, please, for all of us who want to be Drivers and San Franciscans, drive like everyone around you knows your cellphone number. Pretend they’re all friends of your mother. You don’t want it getting around that you gave that nice old lady the finger on Highway 1 just because she slowed down to see if that deer was hurt, do you?

Happy driving.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.