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Thursday, August 9, 2007

SF's Hybrid Fleet: Is the Extra Outlay Worth It?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2007 at 6:00 AM

The Snitch's Joe Eskenazi wanted to fact check the numbers behind the City's hybrid. Looks like the extra cost can be negated by gas savings ... if the cars can make it to 80,000 miles. Hmm. -d2

Hills, Rip-Off Gas Prices, Brakes, and Grants Make Green Fleet Feasible


The sleek hybrid buses humming — literally — through the City are getting their fair share of press, but they're hardly San Francisco's first foray into hybrid vehicles. The City leaped onto the hybrid bandwagon with its first official-use Toyota Prius in 2000.

As it stands, the City's official fleet of 1,200 "light duty vehicles" (mostly police cars) includes 178 hybrid vehicles — one of the highest percentages in the nation. You may have seen a Prius or hybrid Toyota Camry, Honda Civic or Ford Escape zipping about town emblazoned with the City's gold seal on its doors. Perhaps that made you feel good — but is feeling good good enough?

Hybrid vehicles cost more — plenty more — than their conventional counterparts and, despite the City's designation of them as "green vehicles," it's a stretch to say that burning gas in a Prius is beneficial for the environment. So are they a real, tangible benefit to the City? The answer: Probably.

Vandana Bali manages clean vehicles and alternative fuels in the City's department of the environment. She says a Prius costs $4,000 to $5,000 more than the Ford Escorts or Toyota Camrys in the City fleet, but says it's worth it.

Citing a study undertaken on behalf of the City's Green Cab company, she notes that after 80,000 miles of driving, a Camry would incur $9,000 in gas costs. A Prius requires $4,200 worth of fuel for the same distance. Now, a taxi might chug 80,000 miles in a year, but a City vehicle travels an average of 8,000 miles per year. Since The City's hybrids are slated to last six to ten years, it means they can recoup their purchase price in gas savings if they go the long haul.

Bali says two other factors also play a role:

The Prius' regenerative braking system has kept City cars out of the shop, saving maintenance costs; and the State also used to provide $2,000 grants so the City could purchase hybrid cars instead of regular ones (the formula has this year been reformulated to a complex algorithm involving miles driven in a similar City vehicle instead of the flat $2G of the past.) Needless to say, it comes out to less. The economic bottom line isn't the City's sole concern.

Citing research at, Bali notes that hybrids emit half the Carbon Dioxide of efficient conventional vehicles. Stopping, starting and idling (especially in a hilly city like San Francisco) is when cars are at their least efficient, so hybrids are especially well-suited to serve as City cars and buses. On the other hand, though, as pointed out by auto tester Jamie Lincoln Kitman — in a brief and excellent article you can read here for free — hybrids are often less effective than regular automobiles on long highway trips.

Finally, even though a Prius emits half the CO2 of a Camry, we're still talking about four tons a year. The greenest vehicle a City employee can drive is a pair of wingtips. And, in the future, more figure to be doing just that.

Bali spoke of programs encouraging City employees to walk, carpool, take mass transit or telecommute. In the near future, limits may be placed on the mileage racked up by City cars. One last note: Bali points out that City cars account for one percent of emissions measured in San Francisco and Muni vehicles contribute another one percent. Cars like yours and mine? A fat 49 percent. That's why my next vehicle of choice is going to be the 2008 Hush Puppy.

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David Downs


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