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Despite Muni and CARB’s bold plans to electrify all buses, California must do even more to protect the air we breathe

Muni’s decision to electrify its buses by 2035 got a boost at the state level in December when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted unanimously to electrify all buses in California by 2040. California is the first state in the country with a mandate to get diesel buses off the road.

The new measure should reduce carbon emissions in California by 1 million metric tons by 2040. California has 150 zero-emission buses already, so the work of replacing 14,000 diesel buses with electric vehicles begins.

“Anytime the city can work in conjunction with the region or state is a plus,” said Paul Rose, spokesman for the SFMTA. “We have worked hard for years to make Muni’s fleet one of the greenest in the world.”  The San Francisco transportation sector – all vehicles– generates about 46% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Muni is responsible for 26% percent of those trips, but accounts for less than 2% of overall emissions.

“The most impactful thing we can do to ease congestion is to encourage people to use public transit," said Rose. To increase reliability and boost ridership the SFMTA is working on several ambitious plans: reducing breakdowns across the system by replacing the bus and train fleet, hiring more operators, installing more transit-only lanes, completing the Central Subway Tunnel, and adding transit signals that would hold green lights longer for city buses.

Getting the entire Bay Area to use more public transportation, much less the entire state, scales up the challenge dramatically. According to Matthew Lewis, a Berkeley-based climate and energy policy consultant, California’s embedded “car culture” may be the biggest roadblock.

“The incredible news is that it’s possible to electrify buses at this scale,” Lewis said. “This wasn't possible with the technology we had just ten years ago. But for electric buses to reduce pollution, you need people to get out of their cars and ride them—and that requires more infill housing, and other changes to the rules governing housing, transportation and parking.”

Although the reasons for car culture are complex, Lewis points to a critical flaw in federal fuel economy regulations that allows SUVs and pickup trucks to pollute far more than smaller passenger vehicles—a flaw carmakers have aggressively exploited. The result: California may lead the nation in electric cars, but far more SUVs are sold today in California than electric cars. 

Getting the public to choose a MUNI pass over an SUV points to a more urgent context, namely California’s ambitious plan to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Senate Bill 375, the legislation passed nearly unanimously in 2010 to help reach this goal, just received a scathing progress report from CARB which determined that not nearly enough has been done by cities and communities who pledged to this goal nine years ago.

“The general consensus is that SB 375 was important legislation in that it required cities to come up with plans that would reduce car pollution,” Lewis said. “But there was no enforcement mechanism. Every city came up with the plan required by law, but very few actually acted on those plans.”

“The driver for health is air quality,” said Nicole Dolney, Manager of Off-Road Diesel Analysis at CARB.  “But also giving someone access to a job or a hospital. Some people are stuck with a two-hour commute with traffic, or live in a community without sidewalks or where it’s not even safe to walk.”

Putting the choice of public transit over driving in the context of where people live and where they work is key to understanding transportation policy. Instead of sprawling work and home farther and farther apart, these essential locales must become closer and closer to have any chance of improving air quality.

“Right now in California, and across the United States, the biggest challenge in climate change is sprawl-style housing development,” Lewis says. “By forcing people to drive everywhere they go, sprawl ‘locks-in’ pollution and excessive gasoline use."

Lewis points to Senate Bill 50, the the bill introduced by State Senator Scott Wiener in December, as a comprehensive attempt to answer the sprawl issue. The bill would allow the building of more dense residential buildings, in some cases up to 4-5 stories, in lower-density zoned areas near public transportation. Wiener’s bill aims to incentivizer building up instead ofbuilding out, to reduce commute distances.

CARB’s 96-page report on SB 375 also warns that the situation is getting worse. Two factors stand out: the dramatic number of single-occupancy drivers who commute long distances daily in California, and the counter effect of the SB 1 gas tax law passed in 2017.

According to the report, “Around 75 percent of commuters drove alone to work, an amount that is staying the same or growing in most regions.” The plan concludes that California cannot meet its climate goals without curbing growth in single-occupancy vehicle activity.

Since SB 1 allocated the gas tax for road maintenance and repairs, the report further concludes that “because ZEVs and fuel-efficient vehicles require less gasoline fuel, per-capita revenues will decline over time, threatening the State with future shortfalls for road and bridge maintenance and other important transportation investments.”

Aside from eroding some of California’s car culture, David Clegern, Information Officer of CARB, pointed to fiscal reforms that could streamline such ambitious, urgent projects.

“For example, money for electrification is available from cap and trade and high-speed rail, but getting the money all in the same funnel is a challenge,” Clegern said. “This is new and hasn’t been tried before. There are different sets of hoops to get to the money.”

“What’s interesting about that is that people agree on the issue with the gas tax,” Clegern said. “Everyone agrees that will have to change somehow.”

The report is also blunt in the gaping social justice component in implementing clean air laws. “The way we grow also imposes and often reinforces long-standing racial and economic injustices by placing a disproportionate burden on low-income residents, who end up paying the highest proportion of their wages for housing and commuting,” the report states.

“California has a thriving economy,” Dolney said. “We need to make it accessible to everyone.”

“We know how to reduce driving by the 25% CARB says is necessary," Lewis said. “My sense is we will get there. If we give people places to live where they can access their daily needs without a car, and then electrify as many cars, buses, and trains as possible, we will succeed.”

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