If you’ve spent any amount of time in the Bay Area you’ll know that there’s a lot of great stuff to do. You’ll also know that much of it is spread out over dozens of miles woven together by multiple forms of transportation.
At first glance, your transportation troubles may seem overwhelming, but the good news is that once you understand your options you can make the entire Bay Area yours to explore.
You can use this handy guide to make sense of it all.
There are plenty of transportation options available, but today we’ll look at the three you can use to get just about anywhere in the Bay Area:
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
Busses (AC Transit and VTA)
Knowing these three forms well should help you get to anywhere in the Bay Area.
Before we begin it’s worth mentioning how you pay for transportation in the Bay Area. Cash is still acceptable for purchasing tickets at all agencies but the best way to pay (if you don’t have a student pass) is with a Clipper card. Clipper cards are wallet-sized plastic cards that you can pre-load with money that can be used in place of purchasing a ticket with most transportation agencies in the Bay Area. They’re super convenient, durable, and you only need one for everything. You can purchase them online or at your nearest Walgreens (and many other retailers).
For many students at Cal, BART is the gateway to San Francisco (and most of the Bay Area). It’s a cheap, fast, and accessible option for getting you into and out of the City from 6AM to Midnight (or 8AM to midnight on Sundays). But as you can see from this station map, BART can get you to much more than San Francisco. It’s also great for getting you to Oakland and to transfer points if you want to get to spots in the South Bay. You can also take it directly to the Oakland airport and SFO.
The Basics: Using BART is easy. First, find the closest station stop to you. Google Maps can help you with this by typing in the station name + BART in the search options (Downtown Berkeley station is the closest to campus). Once at the station, you’ll need to purchase a ticket if you don’t already have a Clipper card. Buying a ticket is simple. Find a ticket machine (they kind of look like old ATMs) and put in a credit/debit card or cash in the amount you need. It’ll print your ticket and you’ll be good to go. You can find out how much you’ll need for your trip by using BART’s trip planner or looking at the fare sheet posted on the ticket machine. Remember: if you plan on coming back you’ll need to have the ‘roundtrip’ amount on your ticket. You can always add more to the ticket later.
How to Pay: Using your ticket and paying to use BART requires you to insert your ticket at the entrance gates to the train platform. Your ticket is charged when you use your ticket to get through the exit gates at your destination. So if you miss your stop you can get on a train going back to the next station and still only have to pay for the distance to the stop you wanted. If your ticket doesn’t have enough money on it when you try and leave a station it won’t work. If this happens don’t worry. Simply go to an ‘add fare’ machine located near the gates and add the amount you need.
Times and Schedules: Trains usually come every 15 minutes (you can see exactly when here), but be careful which one you get on. Located on the platform are rows of monitors that say which train is coming and in how many minutes it will take to arrive. The trains are named after their final stops. So a train labeled ‘Richmond’ will be headed toward the Richmond stop on the BART map and all stops along the way.
On weekends and in the evening the type of trains may change. You may notice there are no Richmond trains leaving San Francisco or no San Francisco trains passing through Berkeley. All this means is that you’ll need to transfer trains to get to the one you want. You can find transfer points on the BART map labeled with three white dots.
If you don’t see your train coming all you need to do is get on the next train headed in the direction of your desired stop and get off at the nearest transfer point. For example, if you can’t get a Richmond train out of San Francisco, you can take a Pittsburg/Bay Point train (both are headed North on the map) and get off at 19th Street station in Oakland to catch the Richmond train. The BART trip planning tool can also tell you what train to board and when to transfer.
Getting to the South Bay with BART: The one downside to BART is that it doesn’t get you all the way to San Jose or spots on the peninsula like Palo Alto. The two best options for doing this are either taking BART to the Fremont station and getting on a VTA bus nearby or heading to the Millbrae station (if you want to visit spots on the peninsula) and getting on Caltrain. You’ll need money for the VTA bus or a ticket for the CalTrain unless you have a clipper card. You can find the bus schedule for the VTA here and the train timetables for Caltrain here.
The Basics: Buses are a great way to get around the Bay Area, especially if money is an issue. You’ll encounter many different bus agencies in your travels, but the two most relevant are AC Transit (the East Bay) and VTA (San Jose and the South Bay). Buses are super useful for reaching spots outside of walking distance from BART and, in the case of San Jose, are vital to reaching your destination.
How to Pay: Most bus systems in the Bay Area work the same way (and there are many of them). As a Cal student, you should have access to a bus pass for AC Transit (the bus agency for most of the East Bay and certainly Berkeley), but the pass won’t work for other groups. Nearly all of them take Clipper card (one exception seems to be Union City buses). Exact fares and variable prices can make using cash an inconvenience so I’d recommend a Clipper card.
Times and Schedules: If you’ve never used a bus before, here’s how. First, figure out where you want to go, go online and find nearby bus stops (Google can also help you find the right bus to take if you plan your trip or set the address in Google Maps). Once you know the bus stop you want to get off at, find the BART station map which will show what bus lines travel through there. From there you can find which busses pick up at your station stop and end up where you want to be. Since bus lines travel in a circular fashion you’ll take the same number bus to return to the station on your way back. Just find the nearest numbered stop on the side of the street with cars headed in the direction you want to go.
Unlike BART, busses don’t stop at all of their designated stops. They only stop to pick someone up or when a rider pulls the stop cord (located by the windows) or a stop button (located on some busses). Note that the bus won’t stop immediately. When you signal the driver to stop they’ll drop you off at the next closest stop. So know when your stop is near when you pull the cord or press the stop button. If you're headed to San Jose you’ll want either the VTA 180 or VTA 181 depending on the day of the week or if you want to visit downtown San Jose or the Great Mall. Check the schedules located at the numbered stops outside the Fremont station.
The Basics: For many, the Bay Area is synonymous with Silicon Valley, but the heart of California’s tech community and tech history isn’t directly connected to BART. If you want to visit Palo Alto, Santa Clara, or even Stanford for the big game, Caltrain is the best way to get there (you can also reach downtown San Jose with it as well). Conveniently connected to the end of the line for BART in Millbrae, you can easily transfer over and continue your trip down the Bay Area’s beautiful peninsula.
How to Pay: For Caltrain, you need to either purchase a ticket from a ticket machine on the platform or use your Clipper card. If you use your clipper card you must tag it in at the station you are currently at before boarding and then tag it again at the station you get off the train at. If you do not tag before boarding you can get kicked off the train or fined. If you do not tag after you get off you’ll be charged that maximum price for a ticket which may be more than you need to pay.
If you’re buying a ticket you need to refer to the zone map on the ticket machine to figure out what type of ticket to buy (and how much you’ll need). Caltrain prices are based on how far you travel. The Caltrain map is broken up into zones. You pay for the total number of zones you have to travel. The machine will ask you what zone you’re traveling too. Find the zone with the location you wish to get off at (listed on the machine) and enter it in. If you’re asked for your starting zone, find it on the zone map the same way you found the zone you’re getting off at. You’ll need to figure this out as well for calculating how much you’ll need on your Clipper card on your trip.
Times and Schedules: Keep your ticket with you at all times. At random times a Caltrain operator will check for your ticket, you need to have it or you may be kicked off the train or fined (the same is true for a properly tagged Clipper card). On weekends the Caltrain will stop at every station in the system. However, on weekdays you should be aware that some trains are express trains and don’t stop everywhere. You can always get off and wait for the proper train if you make a mistake (similar to BART), but it’s best to check the train schedule at the station or online to know what time the right train is showing up. The schedule will show you what time your train will arrive as well as what stops it makes. With Caltrain, it’s always best to plan ahead a little before using it.
If you’re heading to the South Bay you’ll want to board the San Jose-bound train and the San Francisco one if headed back North. Most of the time the platform you want to be on has the train direction marked nearby. Be mindful, though, sometimes train problems can cause the tracks to switch or for only one platform to be in use. This is rare but listen for announcements.
You now know all you really need to get the most out of the Bay Area. You’ll find there are a few other ways and many other agencies, and we’ll look at them in the future. For now, you’re better off than most students when they start. If you have further questions about exploring the Bay Area (or if you get lost) feel free to reach out here.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the area!