Unnatural Gas

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

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."

The new diesel buses that Muni wished to purchase two years ago are a far cry from the smoky-tailpipe bus of yesteryear. In terms of greenhouse gases, they're cleaner than natural gas, says Andrew Sullivan, executive director of Rescue Muni, the group that three years ago won a ballot campaign to force the transit system to adopt practices aimed at providing better services. "We think the Board of Supervisors made a huge mistake," Sullivan said. "Essentially, they're telling riders that reliability doesn't matter. They wanted alternative fuels, damn the consequences."

And thanks to new filters that all but halt particle emissions, the new variety of diesel bus produces only a negligible amount of smoke, said Murphy, who has studied the issue as part of his work heading Muni's citizen oversight committee. "A good decision would be to buy clean diesels, which are as clean or cleaner than alternative-fuel vehicles, and they are more reliable. There are tons and tons of data to support this," Murphy said.

So the campaign to halt the diesel bus purchase has done nothing to clean up San Francisco air. If anything, by delaying the acquisition of new coaches, the campaign has kept old, dirty buses on the road and made matters worse.

But should Muni move to natural gas buses, one group would clearly benefit. If natural gas buses take off here and, later, throughout California, natural gas supplier PG&E -- which, as it happens, has for two years been working closely with alternative fuel-focused environmental groups lobbying the board not to buy the diesel buses -- could wind up reaping a windfall.

That the bus is for chumps has truly tragic undertones, because if it were possible to conveniently get around the city, county, and state by public transit, wonderful things would happen. Cities could build hundreds of thousands more apartments, because neighborhood opposition would be reduced: People don't mind new neighbors, but they hate the increased traffic they bring. With more infill housing, suburban sprawl -- and its untoward environmental and other effects -- could be slowed, or even stopped. In dense cities like San Francisco, pedestrian deaths would plummet, and more people would feel comfortable commuting by bicycle, reducing car traffic even more. Life-in-hell residential race tracks like Bush, Fell, Upper Market, et al. would become pleasantly urbane streets. Fewer cars would mean less smog, regionwide.

A host of environmental groups -- including Urban Ecology, Transportation for a Livable City, The Housing Action Coalition, City CarShare, The Greenbelt Alliance, The Sierra Club, and pretty much every other environmental group that seriously studies the relationship between urban design and the environment -- supports this vision of a mass transit-heavy future.

The scenario would seem uniquely feasible in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area advanced the idea of urban/suburban commuter rail with the construction of BART in the 1970s. In San Francisco, transit has been a foremost consideration in planning decisions, as a matter of law, since the 1970s.

But despite the promise of the green, transit-friendly rhetoric of the 1970s, there has been little effective follow-through. As a total percentage of commuters, transit ridership has declined significantly during the past three decades.

If current trends continue, by 2025 Bay Area automobile congestion will increase 152 percent, while the number of miles driven on freeways will increase nearly 400 percent, according to MTC figures.

David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, which has successfully sued Muni, the MTC,and other agencies for failing to improve regional air quality, lays the blame on area transit agencies so enamored of politically popular projects they're willing to forgo fast, reliable bus service.

"When you spend so much money on projects that do little for the overall region, there's no money left over to provide service for people who are transit-dependent," Schonbrunn said.

Sadly, last week's Board of Supervisors vote to force Muni to buy natural gas buses fits perfectly into the Bay Area tradition where highly politicized agencies spend money on costly, high-profile, feel-good projects at the expense of initiatives that would actually make public transit convenient.

Bureaucrats who've worked with the "independent oversight committee" of alt-fuel buffs that last week succeeded in its two-year quest to keep Muni from buying new diesel buses say the ad hoc group is the slickest and best-organized they've ever seen. For every Muni claim about the need for the diesel buses, the committee produces a counterclaim. Where other committees might pass out photocopies, this one produces materials more along the lines of product brochures, the bureaucrats say.

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