Exclusive: SF takes action on needlessly idling, polluting hybrid buses

The new instructions for drivers that will be on Muni buses.

The cost of one of Muni’s new diesel-electric hybrid buses approaches three-quarters of a million dollars. That’s roughly twice what a regular old diesel bus costs, but San Francisco is a city that’s willing to pay more. After all, can you really put a price tag on appearing to care about environmental issues?

This city is a place easily pegged as both tech-obsessed and superficial — and, sadly, we provide all too much fuel to power this notion. Diesel-electric hybrid fuel, as it were. San Francisco, it turns out, is a place that’s great at spending money on high-tech gadgetry so it can check the save-the-environment box, next to “appearing to care about environmental issues,” but is not as good at actually enabling the gadgets to save the environment. 

How else to explain spending prodigiously to obtain a fleet of cutting-edge New Flyer Xcelsior diesel-electric hybrid buses in the name of environmental cleanliness, but then seeing to it that a rudimentary pollution-control program would be disabled on the buses? Yes, insane, but that’s exactly what this city did.

In August, a Muni spokeswoman confirmed on the record to Mission Local what we’d already established through back channels: that the city’s newest, greenest, costliest hybrid buses “did not include an automatic shutdown for idling.” This was something Muni bus yard employees had been left to discover on their own; they were dismayed when they found that the new buses idled indefinitely, even for hours.

And why wouldn’t they be? It’s inconceivable that Muni’s top-of-the-line new buses are not equipped with a standard engine shutoff feature that has been de rigueur in transit vehicles since George Deukmejian was governor. But not just transit vehicles: The Toyota Prius, the unofficial automobile of San Francisco, automatically shuts off its internal combustion engine at even a stop sign, and has done so since 2001. Even powerful cars, like the Chevy Malibu, now automatically click off and back on at a moment’s notice. That’s because, despite what you may have been taught, idling is bad for an engine. It’s also wasteful: An idling vehicle is getting zero miles per gallon.

Idling for more than five minutes, especially in a temperate state like California, is not only unwise and unnecessary — it’s illegal.

So, our August story didn’t go unnoticed. And the good news is, Mission Local has learned that thanks to action within Muni and prodding from civic government, this problem may be on the way to getting solved.

The bad news, of course, is that it’s a problem that Muni has needlessly created for itself, perpetuated for decades, and will now address, post facto, at a cost of even more time and money.

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The next time someone asks you to define “entropy,” take them to a Muni bus yard in the dead of the night. Every few years a story hits the papers about buses needlessly idling for hours, and Muni gets its act together. And, after a while, things go back to the way they were and buses idle away again.

In 2013, I saw the buses idling for hours with my own eyes. In 1996, it was the subject of a front-page story in the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner and a scathing report by the Budget and Legislative Analyst. In 1988, Muni diesel bus mechanic Michael Cheney penned a letter to the agency’s chief engineer, specifically imploring Muni to “incorporate the ‘Engine Idle Shutdown’ option into our work environment.”   

This suggestion was – eventually – taken. Muni’s older and less technically proficient buses come equipped with this option on their onboard computers. Muni employees, however, soon began finding ways to manually override this failsafe device. And, in recent years, management began simply ordering vehicles with the failsafe disabled.

(A definition of “entropy,” by the way, is “a process of degradation or a trend to disorder.” Saved you the trip to the bus yard.)

Hearteningly, following our August story, Muni’s current trend to disorder was deemed unacceptable. Within the agency, steps were taken to create warning stickers that will appear, prominently, in the drivers’ area of the agency’s hundreds and hundreds of buses.

These stickers unambiguously state: “Idling the engine for more than 5 minutes while parked is prohibited,” and cite the state law: “ARB title 13, CCR, Section 13.”

We obtained an image of one of the stickers and a guide to its placement in various Muni vehicles from personnel tasked with the installation. A sticker is a sticker is a sticker, but this is significant. They will be placed where anyone sitting behind the wheel can see them — and while Muni management is often quick to scapegoat its drivers, much of the over-idling has taken place in bus yards, in the wee hours, by yardstarters tasked with firing up hundreds of vehicles in short order, so they’ll be ready when the drivers are.

So, that’s nice. But, as Cheney put it in his 1988 letter, automating the shutdown process would “release this problem area from ‘human error’ and place it under ‘computerized governing.'” Stickers don’t do that.

But the news here is heartening, too. After our prior article, Supervisor Aaron Peskin called for a public hearing on over-idling Muni buses. He has since opted to meet privately with Muni officials, which, he claims, is a move made in the name of expediency.

In a recent discussion, John Haley, Muni’s director of transit, told Peskin and his staff that, by next year, all of Muni’s buses could be reprogrammed to shut down automatically — but this would require an “upgrade” currently estimated at $1,200 per vehicle.

Now, it’s great that front-line Muni staffers, who didn’t desire to breathe polluted air more than any other San Franciscan does, got wind of this situation to the media. It’s good that Peskin has applied pressure to change an untenable status quo. It’s also good that Haley et al. are working to solve a problem. But it sure would have been better if Haley et al. hadn’t given everyone a problem to solve by explicitly ordering buses without a standard pollution control device.

This is, in fact, not some difficult upgrade but a standard feature Muni disabled.

As such, technical sources tell us, the $1,200 per bus estimation is a “bullshit number” and in-house Muni workers could be trained to reprogram the city’s vehicles for far less — and sooner than in 2018. What’s more, all of Muni’s buses should be reprogrammed, not just the ones that’ll idle indefinitely. Many of our older diesel vehicles are set to idle for 10 minutes, twice as long as the state currently allows.

Reached at his Richmond District apartment, we asked Cheney, the author of the ’88 letter, how he felt about the 30-year lag for his hopes to — apparently — come to fruition. “I had no idea it would take this long,” said the 65-year-old retiree. “But,” he added, “this is a cautionary tale. It’s hard to change the government.”

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew Mayer

    Is the idling only 5 minutes law for all vehicles in CA, or just for diesel or busses?

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