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Unnatural Gas 

"Environmentalists" make bad transit worse by insisting Muni buy alt-fuel buses

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
The bus is for chumps.

There: I've said it.

I know, I know -- Transit First, livability, access, a better environment, safer streets, improved quality of life, humane urban space, etc., etc., blah, blah. But since I tell all my friends who ride the bus that they're chumps, and since I feel like a chump nearly every time I try to get somewhere by municipal motor coach, I figured I may as well come clean with readers, as well.

The facts are thus: Getting from SF Weekly Enterprises Corp. offices next to the Giants ballpark to, say, 16th and Valencia Streets -- an 11-minute bicycle ride -- takes a bare minimum of 25 minutes by Muni bus, BART, and hoof, if you're really, really lucky. Similarly, getting to the SFWEnterCo office from my home takes 25 minutes by bike. Running to the bus stop, miraculously finding a waiting coach, transferring seamlessly, then running to the office, meanwhile, takes an almost-never-happens 43 minutes. In the real transport world, these bus trips usually take longer. And in the real transport world, the same trip by bike or car almost never does.

I've refrained this long from publicizing the bus/chump connection because I find it tantalizing to imagine what the world would be like if buses worked. Were public transit a time-saver, San Franciscans and other Bay Area residents actually would shed their cars; surveys make it clear that convenience is by far the most important consideration in transit-mode choices by San Francisco area commuters. And if car use actually declined, a whole world of environmental and other improvements in our urban life would follow.

But public transit is inconvenient for most people in the Bay Area, and there's a reason: The region's transit agencies, Muni included, have been disjointed, highly politicized, boondoggle-friendly money-squanderers for a long, long time. Thanks to their efforts, transit ridership hasn't increased appreciably for 20 years, while traffic congestion has increased 30 percent. The Bay Area has become an environmental, social, and economic disaster, a sprawling Los Angeles North of packed roads.

That the bus is for chumps has made chumps of the rest of us, too.

That's why I was particularly dismayed at the chump-like decision the Board of Supervisors made last week, ordering Muni to purchase 80 alternative fuel buses, rather than the new diesel vehicles the transit agency had planned to buy.

For two years, alt-fuel enthusiasts have teamed with Pacific Gas & Electric to advocate that Muni replenish its fleet with buses that burn compressed natural gas. The lobbying effort has forced an extended delay in the purchase of new buses, which were supposed to have replaced dirty, decrepit 1980s machines.

Muni, for its part, says modern diesel buses burn radically cleaner than smoke belchers of yore, and current filtering technologies make the new diesel vehicles cleaner still.

In two weeks, Muni Director Michael Burns will propose a vehicle purchase that people following the issue say will likely include diesel-electric hybrids, liquid natural gas-powered buses, and the addition of a few all-electric bus lines.

But the California Air Resources Board has not yet certified the relatively new technology behind diesel-hybrid buses. If the air board doesn't do so within four months, Burns may have to buy natural gas vehicles, which, a certain brand of environmentalist claims, would reduce pollution. But Muni engineers, transit activists, and many clean-air advocates -- including some major environmental organizations -- back Muni research showing that the natural gas-powered buses are underpowered, costly, breakdown-prone, and, in terms of greenhouse gasses, dirtier than diesel. Also, the gas buses may require Muni to come up with $10 million to build a natural gas fueling station; that money may have to be stripped from a budget that includes efficiency-oriented items such as bus rapid transit lanes, and bus electrification.

The natural gas bus controversy has produced a strange face-off in which people who call themselves environmentalists man both sides. Those who support the gas buses, including Urban Habitat, Bayview Hunter's Point Community Advocates, Our Children's Earth Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Fund, say that other cities are switching to natural gas vehicles for environmental reasons, and San Francisco should, too.

"Natural gas is an inherently cleaner fuel than diesel," NRDC scientist Diane Bailey was recently quoted as saying. "We believe with similar control technology, natural gas will always be cleaner," added Baily, who is a member of an "oversight committee" that has lobbied the board to make Muni buy natural gas buses.

But another group of environmentalists -- who see increased rapid transit ridership as the best route to clean air and reduced urban sprawl -- are infuriated by the campaign to halt the Muni diesel bus purchase. They support Muni Director Burns when he says getting new, clean-burning, efficient, reliable buses on the street today will go a long way toward fixing the S.F. transit system and thereby improving air quality. These groups say it's folly to keep dirty, old buses on the streets in order to conduct a debating salon on alternate-fuel technologies.

"We're supposed to be the crazy, car-hating people who don't wear socks, and here we are being frustrated with these people who aren't showing a modicum of rationality," said Daniel Murphy, chair of the citizen oversight committee to the S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency. "It's enough to drive you crazy."

Richard Mlynarik, who is among transit activists who have sued Muni and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for not doing enough to clean Bay Area air, said the board erred in following the advice of the region's most narrowly focused environmental groups. "Contrary to what some members of the Board of Supervisors have claimed, this isn't a matter of pitting 'transit activists' versus 'environmentalists.' It's more a matter of environmentalists who can do arithmetic against those who start and end with purely emotional decision-making," Mlynarik said in an e-mail message. "It's a question of whether one cares about positive social results, or just about demon-izing this week's particular bogeyman."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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