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As other cities lead electric charge, San Francisco expands diesel fleet

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SFMTA directors have argued that electric vehicle technology is not ready, instead authorizing the purchase of hundreds of new trolleys and planning to expand The City’s diesel hybrid fleet. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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With our Bay breezes and environmental ethos, San Francisco typically boasts better air quality than other cities, but that doesn’t mean San Franciscans are breathing easy. In a letter to the state last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency stated 70 percent of San Franciscans are exposed to significant diesel exhaust levels, a primary cause of lung disease and asthma.

While city officials struggle to control congestion from Uber and Lyft rides, they’ve fallen asleep at the wheel in tackling a source of these fumes: Muni buses.

But some relief may be down the road. Spokesperson Erica Kato told me the SFMTA is applying for a grant to test electric vehicles. Yes, San Francisco may finally join the many other cities that have gone electric in time for the system’s 100th birthday. Unfortunately, The City is expanding its diesel fleet while planning these tests. This is unwelcome news to city leaders who want San Francisco to lead the electric charge.

At this point, San Francisco won’t be the first or even the 50th with electric buses. Numerous California transit agencies, including Stockton and Foothill Transit, which covers 22 Los Angeles cities, have made the switch. In July, Metro, Los Angeles’s primary transportation operator, approved a contract for new electric buses. Seattle, which has similar transit demands as San Francisco, also began running battery buses last year and announced it will purchase more in January.

Matt Horton of Proterra, the Burlingame company providing buses to Seattle, told me close to 70 transit agencies have started programs.

“It’s actually a little overwhelming how many cities are racing to get their electric bus system started,” Horton said. “It’s not possible anymore to be an early adopter of this technology because there are so many agencies who have already taken the step and operated the program for many years.”

Not San Francisco, though. SFMTA directors have repeatedly argued the technology is not ready. Instead, they authorized the purchase of hundreds of new trolleys and plan to expand San Francisco’s diesel hybrid fleet.

Horton called this news “heartbreaking.” According to Seattle’s councilmembers, even the cleanest diesel hybrid buses expend emissions linked to climate change, asthma and lung disease. San Francisco’s new diesel buses aren’t even equipped with decades-old, standard emissions controls.

The SFMTA’s decision to test electric vehicles may mean The City is finally moving away from pollution and poles. Horton said Proterra has already successfully demonstrated their vehicles on San Francisco’s streets and hills. Plus, electric vehicles are cheaper, given the financial incentives California offers purchasers of new, clean buses.

Of course, if our transit agency continues to drag its wheels, others are ready to give it a push.

BART Director Nick Josefowitz, who entered the race to succeed District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell last week, is making runaway climate change a hallmark of this campaign. Unsurprisingly, the former clean energy CEO and environment commissioner sees cleaning up The City’s vehicle fleet as a good starting place.

“San Francisco should be the first zero carbon city in the country,” Josefowitz told me. “As supervisor, we will initiate the transition to a cost-effective, all-electric Muni bus fleet, and put ourselves on track to regaining our city’s global environmental leadership role.”

Josefowitz isn’t the only one who wants to put The City back on track.

Supervisor Jane Kim told me she also supports getting an electric bus system rolling.

“Reducing diesel emissions helps reduce asthma, other respiratory conditions and even cancer,” Kim said. “San Francisco should be leading the way on a transition to an electric bus fleet, not dragging our feet.”

Kim and Josefowitz are right to pressure the SFMTA to act. As we saw over the sweltering Labor Day weekend, climate change will only make our air dirtier. The City can build on Supervisor Katy Tang’s legislation passed earlier this year to replace some of San Francisco’s municipal sedans with electric vehicles. We may not be the first to have electric buses, but it’s never too late for a breath of fresh air.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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