On a Pedestal: Muni's Obsession with Dodgy, Expensive Hybrid Technology Ignores San Francisco's Deepest Transit Need: Transit

When your humble narrator was small, Byron, the adult child of the woman next door, drove the most beautiful car in the world: An ivy green, mid-1960s Ford Mustang, with metal flake paint glittering in the sunlight like a T-shirt iron-on.

Well, he didn't “drive” it all that much, to be accurate. He sure did fix it a lot, though.

They say Byron was quite the looker too, like a young Mick Jagger. But that's tough to recall. All you ever saw of him was a pair of boots protruding from beneath that beautiful car, an ever-present Bud tallboy on its beautiful hood.

God, that car was beautiful. Its inability to fulfill the major requirement of any form of transportation was immaterial. Actually, its sedentary status made it easier to admire.

The sleek new hybrid buses now gracing San Francisco's streets are beautiful too. Muni may never have ordered a more aesthetically pleasing vehicle; they're shiny and streamlined and appear poised to transform into robots. Yet, if history is a precedent, these vehicles will also provide onlookers with plenty of opportunities to ogle their good looks as they squat, immobile.

Last week's SF Weekly cover story detailed a bizarre handshake agreement that resulted in 50 of these $700,000-a-pop buses being manufactured and transported from Minnesota to clandestine East Bay repositories weeks before the Board of Supervisors approved the $38.3 million contract to manufacture and transport them. This hurriedly consummated arrangement scotched an internal Muni competition between rival hybrid propulsion systems, meaning all the new buses were de facto equipped with hybrid components manufactured by the British defense giant BAE.

In fact, virtually every hybrid bus San Francisco has ever owned is equipped with BAE components — which has resulted in much non-transit.

The city's extant hybrid fleet has failed with a regularity that would dispirit even owners of AMC Pacers; Muni transit director John Haley candidly admits the BAE-equipped buses have been “an embarrassment … they were our newest buses and our worst performers.”

And now we've gone out of our way to amass even more. When life deals Muni lemons — it goes behind everybody's back to invest in a lemon tree.

The city and its transit agency, however, have portrayed the new buses as a step toward hauling ever more passengers through San Francisco while burnishing the city's green laurels. Time will tell. And Muni's new hybrids will be beautiful regardless of how much or little they run, and how many or how few passengers they carry. Efficiency and environmental benefit, however, are not merely measured in the eye of the beholder.

Being truly green requires more than glittery flake paint.

For a 2012 story on Muni's shambolic maintenance practices, your humble narrator sifted through foot-high stacks of hundreds of the driver defect cards filled out by bus operators to document the maladies afflicting their vehicles. Along with eternally illuminated anti-lock braking system warning lights and busted windshield wipers, one rather pointed lament was noted by driver after driver: “BUS STINKS!”

Last week's story required immersion into vats of statistics regarding our hybrids' propensity to drop like fainting goats. And, after navigating through data set after data set, it's difficult not to reach the same conclusion as those drivers: Bus stinks!

Muni's hybrids conk out at a rate far exceeding diesel buses roughly twice as old and half as expensive (every 4,300 miles vs. every 5,229 miles). They are still frequently held out of service altogether, occupying maintenance personnel and, obviously, not serving riders. Your humble narrator tabulated the odometer readings for every last hybrid bus. New buses, we are told, tend to be driven as often as possible and far more than undesirable older buses. And yet, in their first four years in San Francisco, the hybrids were actually driven less per year on average than older diesel buses were — over a full 10-year period (32,243 miles per year over four years vs. 32,954 miles per year over 10 years).

So Muni has once again leaped through hoops to replenish its fleet by paying top dollar for hybrid buses powered with components from BAE, the same company that provided the aforementioned noxious statistics and even more noxious transit experiences.


Evangelists for “green” transit in San Francisco, like the transit agency itself, have been provided shoddy material to work with. Muni's electric buses, which run on municipal Hetch Hetchy hydropower, break down more than twice as often as even the breakdown-prone hybrids. These vehicles were slapped together by a troubled but politically connected Czech firm that imploded shortly after its substandard vehicles began imploding on city streets; in a 2004 settlement, Muni actually absorbed the company's warranty obligations.

Time is money: Muni's riders lose out on the former while Muni loses out on the latter.

Muni's ill-conceived Breda light-rail vehicles, meanwhile, have been the un-gift that just keeps taking. They're cumbersome, oversized, and feature a formidable array of sensitive parts and systems that can burn out at a moment's notice. It's impressive just how many different ways these trains can fail.

This is the hand Muni has dealt itself as it slouches toward the future. Its long-range plans call for a greater percentage of San Francisco's ever-growing population to take transit daily. Muni has also committed itself to growing more environmentally friendly during this period of expansion.

It's a marvelous notion. But the agency's plans, like its vehicles, seem doomed to break down. At a time when Muni hopes to draw increasing numbers of riders, it has made a serious investment in pricey “green” vehicles unable to provide the reliable service required to garner ever more passengers — many of whom are affluent enough to have options when it comes to getting from here to there. San Franciscans' warm, fuzzy feelings about boarding an environmentally friendly bus or train only last as long as it keeps running properly.

A breakdown-prone vehicle will encourage riders who can to opt out of public transit, no matter how impressively green or costly or beautiful it is.

It's taboo to suggest it in this town, but Muni might be better off investing in the latest off-the-shelf diesel technology rather than exuberantly sinking millions into the dodgy hybrids that'll look so pretty jacked up on a hydraulic lift. Reliable service and the ability to make repairs quickly and economically are “green” factors, too. Because the most environmentally friendly bus is a full bus.

The cleanest transit is the transit you take.

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