Unnatural Gas

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

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."

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.

Muni has engineers working on what sorts of new buses might improve service while keeping the air clean, but they've proven no match, in PR and presentation expertise, for the oversight committee. For this expert advantage the committee can thank 20-year PG&E veteran Bill Zeller, and fellow PG&E employee James Larson.

"Our advocacy -- we have been providing technical support; I wouldn't call it advocacy -- but providing tech support to the other members of the committee," said Zeller when I caught up with him Monday. "We are experts on alt fuels."

Natural gas, of course, is the "G" in the name of Zeller's employer, which would potentially sell gas to Muni.

Zeller told me he has been working with the committee since it formed two years ago, providing research and expert hearing testimony. "Basically we've been reviewing Muni's pronouncements," Zeller said. "A lot of times they've brought up issues that have been raised before, and we know where there is information that refutes the claims they have made and supports the move to alternative fuels."

Zeller said he didn't know how many hours he and Larson have spent advising the committee during the past two years, though he would say he spent around five hours last week. "I don't know. I don't track that. To be honest, I haven't tracked that," said Zeller, but he did know that he wanted to be sure I used the proper terminology in describing his and Larson's work before the Board of Supervisors. "I want to be clear. We're not lobbying. We're providing technical support to this committee. We're not lobbyists."

As it happened, Zeller was speaking with me over his car phone. I asked him if he ever rode the bus. "I have a company vehicle because I cover a very large territory from California to the Oregon border," he said.

But does he ever take public transit?

"Once in a while, when I'm in the city, yeah," he said, adding that most of the time, "it's just not practical."

Certainly, Zeller's no chump.

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