18 Bay Area Public Transit Hacks
San Franciscans love to complain about the sorry state of our public transportation -- and for good reason. Who doesn’t have a BART or Muni horror story? And while these 18 tricks to dominating Caltrain, BART, Muni, and the confusing Clipper Card system won't fix all your public transportation woes, they'll at least make getting around suck a little bit less.
Avoid the "Tour of the System" charge
Let’s say you tag in at a BART station but then change your mind and tag out at the same station, even a moment later. You’ll still get docked a $5.55 charge for checking out BART’s immaculate facilities. Be sure to ask the BART agent to run your card for a zero fare.
Know where the outlets are
Every BART car has an outlet at the third or fourth seat in the middle of the car. Get down on your hands and knees if you dare.
Know which stops to avoid (if you can)
The San Francisco Chronicleanalyzed the “quality of life” and crime statistics of BART’s 44 stops, finding that Glen Park is the safest and nicest while Bay Fair, Hayward, Fruitvale, Concord, and North Concord/Martinez stations saw the most violent crime per capita in 2014. And surprise, surprise -- Powell Street station has the most urine.
Know where to camp out with your laptop
While outlets on new trains are plentiful (they accompany most seats with tables), you have to know where to look on the older cars. And that where-to-look is on the upper level of every car, generally under the sixth seat.
Save your eyes
To avoid the blinding light during rush hours, sit on the West side in the morning and the East side in the evening.
Know which cars are designated for bikes
Numbers two and five. If you don’t have a bike, save yourself from the above hell.
Party with fellow commuters and BYOB
You already know you can and should drink on Caltrain until 9pm (as well as where all of the best bars are by each stop). But did you know there’s a designated party car??
Sidestep a Muni ticket
Unlike the SFPD, Muni cops aren’t allowed to follow you, detain you, or compel you to give them your ID. No ID; no ticket. One big caveat is that if there is a police office on site at a random fare check, they can make you show ID.
Get your dollar bills in the fare slot on the first try
First, you don't have to put each bill in separately. They can all go in at the same time! Second, if your bill is really worn, fold it in half the long way to make it easier for the fare box to catch it.
Your pet can ride Muni even if he's not a service animal
Yup, Fido can ride the bus with you, but not during peak hours (Monday-Friday, 5-9am and 3-7pm). He's also got to be leashed and muzzled and he needs to pay a fare equal to your own.
You can bring your bike on the bus
But only if it's a folding bike. Regular bikes go on the front rack, which can hold three bikes at a time. If the rack is full, you've got to wait for the next bus. And you're not allowed to lock your bike to the rack, so keep an eye on it because bikes get stolen off of buses all of the time. Be sure to let the driver know when you're getting off that you need to grab your bike.
You can get off of the bus between stops
After 6:30pm, you can ask the driver to let you off between scheduled stops. Tell him/her where'd you'd like to exit and remind him/her again when you pull the cord.
Clipper Card Tips
Know how much money to put on your card
With Muni fares at $2.25 for a ride, it’s most efficient to put $36 on your card for exactly 16 rides instead of the suggested 20 bucks, which will only be eight rides and leave you with money left over.
Add value to your Clipper Card at Walgreens or a Clipper Card Kiosk
If you load money using Clipper Card's website, it takes five days to process your payment. Yet, when you use the old-fashioned kiosks or have a human interaction at Walgreens where you can buy a Clipper Card, the payment is processed instantly. This makes zero sense. But then again, would you expect anything else from San Francisco public transportation?
Use your Clipper Card like a credit card
Most people don’t know you can spend up to $10 more than the cash value on your Clipper Card. Next time you add value to your card, you'll have to pay down that debt, but some have realized you can game the system by ditching a card with a negative balance and springing for a new one -- only $3.
Avoid Clipper Card’s auto-load functionality
You need only read the horror stories on Yelp to realize all the ways the Clipper Card website can screw you. If you want to cancel the auto-load monthly pass, you must do so more than five days before the beginning of the month to avoid being charged. There’s a lot of room for costly error, but good luck getting through to customer service. Best bet: avoid the drama altogether and add purse value or monthly pass to your card at one of the kiosks in a station and wait for the city’s technology to catch up to present day.
Take advantage of your employer's commuter benefits
Most employers offer commuter incentives by either picking up the cost of a monthly pass, or offering the option to pay for public transportation with pre-tax money. Check your employee benefits or learn more here.
Get a tax break for commuting
You can deduct up to $130 per month on your taxes for commuting to work with public transportation. So hey, there's something good about taking the bus or train in SF after all! Just barely!
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Amy Copperman is a writer in San Francisco. She thinks the best part of BART is the family of accordion players who often performs on the Pittsburgh Bay Point Line.