As part of California’s great unwashed masses (out here that’s pronounced “CAR-less”), I rely wholly on public transportation. My monthly transit pass is my ticket to every system within the 7x7 and I’m happy to make use of it. But this is only part of the picture of how I get around town. For those trips that require too many bus transfers, too much foresight, and having had a few too many martinis, I hop a cab. And Zipcar fills in the rest.
But going from cab to cab, or cab to bus, or Zipcar to BART or any combination of these means that I rarely stop, let alone smell the roses. And that’s a shame. I decided to expand my notion of San Francisco transit to include things like Segways, kayaks, and hell, even the zip line. And instead of fussing over the quickest way to get from Golden Gate Park to Union Square, I took the form of transit that would give me the best experience. I suppose my aim was to see the city in a different way, to travel like that wide-eyed optimist and perpetual butt of jokes – a tourist.
In (Go) Cars
Broadly speaking, San Francisco’s modes of transportations can be divided into two groups: For Tourists and For Locals. The transportation offerings For Tourists is organized around set routes that highlight the city’s many attractions, like those flocks of Segways that can be seen whirring around the Marina. But it was autonomy, adventure, and novelty I craved. Enter the GoCar.
Tiny, two-seater go-karts that amount to little more than souped-up mopeds with chassis, GoCars are those irksome little buggies that pour out of the garage at 2715 Hyde St. every day it’s not raining, piloted by those with little sense of their surroundings.
I rallied my wife (and fellow Bold Local Drew Himmelstein ), screwed myself to the sticking point, and made a reservation.
After consenting to the various release forms and watching a safety video, Drew and I set off down Hyde Street. The engine stalled at the corner – it would happen again at the next light – but eventually I got the hang of the thing. Though I couldn’t entirely escape the feeling that I was driving a bumper boat, as we got zipping along Jefferson Street, cruising just inches off the ground at a peppy 25 mph, I slowly started giving in to the feeling I’d been dreading: This thing is damned exhilarating!
Overcome with the sense memory and poor judgment of being 13 again, I immediately started harassing Drew. She was a bit nervous about the GoCar, especially after being warned that taking turns at any speed could cause the small craft to flip over. This seemed like a fine time to start hugging the curves, shouting at each one, “High speed cornering!”
My wits regained, we decided to follow the GPS-guided tour programmed into the GoCar. A pleasant female voice described what we were seeing in the Marina – joggers, near as I could tell – but I was anxious to get off the pre-programmed path. Drew insisted we play by the rules for a bit and if we hadn’t we’d have missed a treat: the fort at Fort Point.
The 1861 fort sits just beneath the southern arch of the Golden Gate Bridge. We parked and headed inside to marvel at the gold rush–era masonry of what had served as the primary defense of the Bay during World War II. Though it “never fired a shot in anger,” I quailed as I stood amidst its booming guns. The undercarriage of the Golden Gate – a yawning arch that was erected to protect the fort – was awe-inspiring, and certainly the architectural highlight of the trip.
After mounting up again we immediately went rogue, breaking off the prescribed path over the good-natured objections of the navigation system. On to the Presidio!
There, I aimed our bitty buggy up the steepest hills, onto the murkiest paths, and toward the least certain destinations. We buzzed through the Presidio’s residential crannies and byways, happened upon the lively Julius Kahn Playground, and discovered the charming Chapel of Our Lady. At Drew’s behest I even started honking our tinny horn at tour buses, which worked wonders to getting back into her good graces. Though it took getting on the beaten path to discover gems like Fort Point, getting off again net even greater rewards.
For my next foray into SF transit, I opted for the bus. There are a host of hop-on-hop-off bus tours in the city, but many make the rather expected loop from Union Square up to Fisherman’s Wharf and back again. I wanted something else – a tour that makes the most of being on the roof of a British-style omnibus. I wanted to tour Golden Gate Park.
It was threatening rain as I lined up at Union Square one overcast Saturday morning with a polyglot passel of sightseers. As our Internet Tours bus rolled up I immediately climbed to the bus’s open roof, and managed to hang tough up there even when a stinging mist and bitter wind whipped up as it clambered down Geary St.
Only a hardy few remained up top: a businessman from Cologne, two newlyweds from Manchester, a pair of giggly Swiss women, and a Londoner who headed downstairs claiming that if he wanted “to get pissed on by rain” he’d have stayed home. Our tour was driven and narrated by Richard, a guide who I anticipated would be a font of historical information, but instead turned out to be more akin to a rambling barfly with a loose grasp of the facts – as happy to share his thoughts on the efficacy of the DMV as the particular charms of Alamo Square.
To call it a Golden Gate Park tour is something of a misnomer as we only spent about 10 minutes there and ventured only as deep as the Academy of Sciences (which Richard identified as the Academy of Art University). The friendly Mancunians praised the bus tour as “cheap and cheerful” before getting off at Haight Street where Richard extolled the merits of a sock store.
As we headed back toward Union Square, Richard held forth on the ethical, legal, and social differences between “panhandling” and “aggressive panhandling” before concluding that “some people just don’t know how to act.” Be that as it may, what I took from the hop-on-hop-off tour (the inclement weather prevented my hopping off, sadly) was surprisingly what I was supposed to: the view.
But unlike my cohorts who tended to take in the sights through their cameras, I got mine through a local’s eyes treated to a new vantage point. From one story up I had an enviable view of stately Victorians, the detailed pediments of buildings I’d never noticed, the mural above Amoeba Records, and the tops of trees lining Fulton Street. Little did I realize that there’d be so much of San Francisco to discover, even just on the blocks between Alamo Square and City Hall. All it took was a different point of view.
Having taken the first two legs of my alternative transit tour by land, the time had come to do one by sea, and I had my sights set on what many San Franciscans think is merely a coffee shop on Valencia Street: Mission Creek. Though you can walk along either side of it, to explore the creek the way I wanted to, I’d have to take to the water. Thankfully, City Kayak on Pier 40 and my plucky, if still-slightly-annoyed wife, were there to go along for the ride.
Drew and I took out a two-person kayak on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and immediately headed toward the mellow waters of McCovey Cove en route to Mission Creek. We were greeted, however, by a blaring alarm and an inscrutable announcement on the loudspeaker of the Lefty O’Doul drawbridge at 3rd and Berry. Perplexed, and fearing a bigger vessel than ours would come barreling down the channel, Drew and I retreated to the side of the cove before realizing that the bridge was going up. We watched as the massive black thing hove itself into the air, and spying no other boats, we paddled our way through.
No such luck at 4th Street, where we had to duck under the Peter Maloney Bridge before finally getting into the meat of Mission Creek. There, the water took on a decidedly fetid quality, and bits of trash bobbed lazily as we headed into the houseboat zone. As it happens we’d been to a party on one of the city’s 20 houseboats the weekend before, and we serendipitously spotted our new pals on the balcony of their floating digs.
We docked and joined them on their boat for a quick drink and a bit of maritime chatter. Twenty minutes later Drew and I were back on the water. As late as the 1870s the creek was navigable well into the marshland where the Mission now sits, but today you can paddle only as far as 7th Street beneath the towering 680. As Drew and I paddled back out toward the Bay, we got a close look at a small parcel of restored wetlands and a battery of gnarly ’90s condos.
As we pulled back into Pier 40, my chinos thoroughly soaked, I slowly started to reassume the habits of a local. It had been wonderful controlling our small vessel wherever we wanted to go, traveling at any speed we could muster. But now I wanted a shower and some food. In short, to go home. Smelling of salt and sweat, we happily headed towards Muni.
Do It Yourself
If you can gird yourself against the ire of pretty much everyone, take out a GoCar from GoCar Tours at 4715 Hyde St. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the guided tour, but do make a point of stopping at Fort Point. There are a bunch of hop-on-hop-off buses, but I took the Golden Gate Tour from Internet Tours. Spots to rent kayaks are also fairly common. I chose City Kayaks on Pier 40 for its proximity to McCovey Cove and Mission Creek, though it also offers packages and tours all along the bay front.