Eighty-six Orion hybrid buses like this one have no auto-shutoff and can idle indefinitely — but Muni has no plans to upgrade them. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Reporting from Mission Local last year spurred Muni to upgrade hundreds of new buses which were operating without a rudimentary pollution-control device, allowing them to idle for hours on end.

Scores of older buses, however, are not being upgraded.

And Muni states it has no plans to do so. Seventy aging Neoplan diesel buses the agency hopes to retire in 2019 are currently set to idle for 10 minutes before automatically shutting down, double the current state limit. Muni has declined to rejigger these buses to adhere to the current legal maximum of five minutes, noting it has no obligation to do so by law.

That’s also the excuse provided by Muni for declining to upgrade 86 Orion diesel-electric hybrids, also slated for retirement in 2019. These buses have no shut-off component at all, and can idle indefinitely.

The law, Muni spokesman Paul Rose writes, “does not require you to have a shut-off valve; the law requires that vehicles not idle longer than five minutes.”

Yet upgrading these 156 buses — which currently represent not quite a fifth of Muni’s rubber-wheel fleet — would not be difficult, per Muni sources. “You either do it by WiFi, or plug it into the computer and simply upgrade it,” says one. “These things have been built into onboard computers for over three decades.”

And, for decades, Muni devised ways to evade auto-shutdown technology, before opting to not include it on the buses at all. Vehicles being left to idle for hours at bus yards during the wee hours was a generational problem at the agency.

Muni’s current rationale for not upgrading its aging buses, in fact, mirrors its initial reaction last year, when Mission Local revealed that its very newest buses did not come equipped with an emissions control program that has been standard in transit vehicles for nearly four decades.

Hundreds of New Flyer hybrid buses like this one have been upgraded to shut off after idling for five minutes. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

The $750,000-a-pop New Flyer diesel-electric Xcelsior buses — the agency’s most expensive and ostensibly greenest hybrids yet — were operating without an auto-shutdown program for idling buses, which meant they could idle for hours.

Following our stories, Muni transit director John Haley purportedly told Supervisor Aaron Peskin in a closed-door October meeting that fixing the buses could cost $1,200 per vehicle, which would come out to a bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars, minimum. Internal sources, however, told us this was a “bullshit number.” And, in the end, New Flyer expediently upgraded Muni’s buses, for free, using remote, wireless technology.

Rose tells Mission Local that some 900 current and on-order New Flyer buses have been upgraded, gratis, so that they will automatically shut off after five minutes of idling.

It remains to be seen whether Muni can devise the a similar cost-negligible and expedient fix for its old buses as the one it protested, deemed unnecessary — and then undertook — for its new ones.

“It’s just like updating your phone,” fumed an agency source.

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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