Parking in San Francisco: How to Find a Spot and Not Get Towed

Pacific Tradewinds

Parking in San Francisco: How to Find a Spot and Not Get Towed

parking in san francisco

Parking in San Francisco is a headache for everyone.

Traffic stats estimate there are 750,000 vehicles registered in our wonderful city, but only 550,000 legal parking spaces — the numbers just don’t fit.

Then there are all those rules and regulations to follow... and what's up with street cleaning times?

It can be confusing but getting your head around it is essential. If you park in the wrong spot you could end up getting towed or paying a hefty fine.

Over the years, we’ve learned a few parking tips and tricks at Pacific Tradewinds Hostel and we are happy to share them with you.

So let’s learn how to park as a savvy tourist in San Francisco… and not get towed!        

Parking rules in San Francisco

Parking in San Francisco is a bit of a minefield. You might think you’ve followed the rules completely only to find there’s one you didn’t even know about.

Let’s take a look at a few parking rules and regulations you need to know if you're driving in San Francisco:

Know your curb colors

When you ride around San Francisco you will notice the curbs are painted different colors. This isn't to look pretty but to guide you on where you can park.

Red zones are strictly no parking or stopping at any time. If you do park there your vehicle could be towed. Typically you will see red zones at the edges of driveways, intersection corners, bus stops, fire hydrants and curb ramps.

White zones are for passenger loading and unloading. You are allowed five minutes during certain hours of the day to pick up and drop off people. You will find these near busy buildings such as hospitals and medical offices, senior centers, large restaurants, hotels, theaters and schools.

Green zones are for short-term parking. You are allowed to stop for a small duration of time (usually 10-20 minutes) during certain times of the days. These can be found near smaller utilities such as dry cleaners, delis, florists and ATM machines.

Yellow zones are for commercial loading and unloading. You can only stop here if you have a commercial license plate. If you don’t have one and you park there anyway, you could be towed.

Blue zones are parking for people with disabilities. You will see these in areas of high public use such as near parks and playgrounds. You need to display a valid disabled parking permit to stop there.

Know your parking meter colors

Speaking of colors, you might think if there's a parking meter, you can park there.  Well this also depends on the color of the meter.  

Red-capped meters are for commerical truck parking when loading and unloading

Yellow-capped meters are for commercial vehicles loading and unloading.  

Grey-capped meters are the meters you are looking for, tourist. :-p

Park within 18 inches of the curb

When you’re parallel parking you need to make sure your wheels are within 18 inches of the curb. Before you walk away from your car, double-check you are within the allotted distance.

Face the flow of the traffic

You are also required to park with the flow of traffic. That means pointing your car in the same direction as all the other cars.

Curb your tires on hills

If you only know only one thing about San Francisco streets, it’s probably that they get pretty steep. The world-famous Filbert Street hits 31.5% gradient between Leavenworth and Hyde!

For that reason, San Francisco is strict on how you park on a hill.

The rule is: when you stop on a slope of 3% or more you must turn your wheels so, if your brakes fail, the vehicle will move into the curb and stop the car from running away.

If you’ve left your inclinometer at home and need to know if a road is steeper than 3% gradient check out this Department of Public Works map. Alternatively, just make it a habit to always turn your wheels so the car will go into the curb.

Check your bumpers

You are not allowed to block driveways or crosswalks at all. It’s therefore vital that, when you park, you make sure your bumpers are not cutting them off.

Search for signs

Finally, when you park anywhere, check 100 feet in both directions to see if there are any parking signs there. They will tell you what the rules of that area are. Hint: look behind the trees!


Residential parking areas

When you are driving around San Francisco you will notice much of the city is covered by residential parking zones.

Typically you are allowed to stop in a residential parking area for one or two hours — the rules will be indicated on a nearby sign.

After your allotted time, the law requires you to move at least one block (or a one-tenth of a mile) away.

Some people think they can trick the system by leaving a spot, driving around the block and parking in the same place — but don’t try it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has sent out a warning saying anyone caught doing this will be ticketed.

Residential parking permits

Those with residential parking permits, however, can stay longer. Each address in San Francisco is allowed to buy four permits (with the exception of the AA and EE zones, which can have two).

Residents can apply for permits through the SFMTA, paying a certain amount each year for the privilege. But how does that help you as a backpacker?

Well, if you know someone who is a San Francisco resident, they can apply for a short-term residential parking permit for you. Residents can buy 2-, 4-, 6-, or 8-week permits or pre-paid one-day permits by filling in this form and sending it to the SFMTA.

Currently, a one-day permit starts at $6, while a 2-week permit costs $48.

Electric mopeds

It is also worth noting that electric mopeds are exempt from RPP time limits ‘if parked perpendicular to the curb and at a curb segment no longer than 8 feet in length, or in a marked motorcycle parking stall’. However, they are still subject to the RRP time limits if they are parked ‘on a curb segment larger than 8 feet in length’.

Secret spots that don’t need a residential parking permit

While it's fair to say most of the city is covered by residential parking areas, there are some places — which we call secret spots — that aren’t covered.

The first area is in Laurel Heights and the second area is near Haight-Ashbury, the hippie center of San Francisco.  We have also seen secret spots in Dog Patch neighborhood.  These areas all have parking spots that don’t require residential parking permits.  No, we can't tell where the secret spot are exactly on this page.  They would not be secret if we did that.  We do however help our guests by marking these areas very carefully on a map.  

While it’s fantastic that these places don’t need residential permits, they are still subject to street cleaning restrictions which, will explain soon.

Stay for 72 hours maximum

You would think that if a car is in a permit-free zone you can leave it there all week. Unfortunately, that’s wrong.

Vehicles can only stay in one spot for a maximum of 72 hours. Those who break the rules could be given a warning or, worse, towed.

The idea is to stop cars being stored or abandoned on the street, but it will mean you have to move your car every three days at the very least. You should leave it at least three days more before returning to the same spot to park, according to the SFMTA.

Street cleaning in San Francisco

Street cleaning in San Francisco is taken pretty seriously. Residential areas are cleaned at least twice per month while commercial areas at least once a week. To make things easier for the cleaners, a rule has been enforced stopping drivers parking on the road during cleaning hours.

If you flout the rules, you can be fined. In fact, street cleaning fines are the most common type of ticket issued in San Francisco. In 2016, nearly 540,000 tickets were issued costing drivers nearly $37million. The second most common was parking meter tickets with almost 215,000 issued costing drivers $15million.

To avoid becoming one of the many people caught out by this rule, you should check the signs by the sides of the roads telling you when you need to move your car. Times can change significantly from block to block so don’t assume that because you’ve made a relatively short move the cleaning times will be the same. You need to check each time you park.

According to SFMTA, "once the street sweeping truck has swept the curbside, you may park your vehicle there, even if the posted sweeping hours have not expired". However, if you’re in any doubt it is best to be safe and wait until the sweeping hours have finished.

Street cleaning holidays in 2018

During the following holidays in 2018, street cleaning in San Francisco is suspended, meaning you can park without fear of a ticket:

Columbus Day – Monday, October 8

Veterans Day — Sunday, November 11

Veterans Day (Observed) — Monday, November 12

Thanksgiving Day — Thursday, November 22

Day after Thanksgiving — Friday, November 23

Christmas Day — Tuesday, December 25

However, in many commercial areas, the process is only suspended on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Again, if you’re not sure, play it safe and park somewhere else.

Apps to help you park in San Francisco

As you’ve probably come to realize, parking in San Francisco can be a massive pain. There are rules everywhere and, even with the best intentions, a minor slip up can lead to a fine or your car being towed — trust us it happens.

Thankfully, you’re not alone. Apps and websites are out there to help you on your bold quest to find a parking spot.

Here are three of our favorites:


SpotAngels is the world’s largest community-based parking app. We love it because of its simplicity — and it is free. Simply head to their website and click through to the parking map. Then search the area you are going to plus the dates and time in which you want to park.

The map will then show you all the parking restrictions in that area. It’s incredibly simple to use and will save you loads of time trying to figure out the rules of the road.

Even better, the SpotAngels app (which is available in both the Apple Store and the Play Store) provides even more features including street cleaning reminders, live open spot updates from other drivers and the latest parking updates.

Plus if you’re traveling across the States the app covers a number of other US cities.

Parking Panda

If you want to take the stress of parking out of your San Francisco trip then Parking Panda could be a great option for you.

The app allows you to search and compare lots of different parking lots and garages. You can then pre-book a parking spot before you get to the city. The app, which is free to download, claims to be able to save you up to 70% on the normal costs of parking, which is another great bonus.

The app is available on desktop and on the Apple Store and Play Store.


The Parker app is fairly simple to use and should make booking a parking spot hassle-free. Simply download the app on iPhone or Android, check out the available spaces and pay for your parking through the app. Garage parking is also available.

The app will also let you set timers and notifications, plus it will automatically save your car parking spot so you won’t lose the vehicle.


Parking etiquette

Parking is a hassle for everyone so we really don’t want to make it any more difficult than it needs to be.

While they aren’t laws as such, SFMTA has given some advice to drivers on how to maintain good parking courtesy.

They say you should:

Give space to the cars next to you. SFMTA says you should leave at least 18 inches of space between your bumper and the bumpers of the cars in front and behind you. That means your neighbors can access their trunks and pull away safely.

Report faded curb colors. If you see the curb colors have faded then SFMTA says you should let them know by calling 311.

Maximize space for others. If the street in which you are parking is not marked with lines then try to pull as close as you can to the car in front or behind, while still leaving an 18-inch gap. This will increase the number of parking spaces on that road.

Conclusion: Parking in San Francisco

Parking in San Francisco is a nightmare— you’ve seen that now. So if you have the option, leave your car at home and stick to public transport.

However, if you really do need your car then make sure you follow the rules as carefully as possible. Always check street signs and stick to them religiously. Flouting the law could cost you a hefty fine and even see your car towed away.

If you’re ever in doubt, always play it safe.

Don't understand the parking laws yet? We made a video on this too! Check it out!!



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