Editor’s Note: Hidden City Daily frequent contributor Mike Szilagyi is also the editor of the website Philadelphia Trolley Tracks, which he founded in 1996, and a streetcar advocate.
Recently, SEPTA’s PR department has been engaged in a full court press, trying to convince us that hybrid diesel transit buses, which are powered by a combination of diesel fuel and a charging battery, are “green.” Cute graphics applied to hybrid diesel buses inform us of “cleaner emissions for a happier earth.” The investment in the hybrid buses and the marketing campaign to go with them has born fruit–SEPTA this year was awarded a Gold Recognition, by the American Public Transit Association, one of two major APTA awards the agency received this year.
But the PR–and the award–mask a serious policy shift inside the agency away from relatively clean electric-powered streetcars and electric trolley buses and toward a dirty all diesel bus fleet (no matter what the ads say). This shift belies the direction that dozens of other transit agencies in the US and around the world are taking away from diesel and hybrid diesel toward cleaner and more progressive electric-powered vehicles.
The retirement last month of SEPTA assistant general manager Luther Diggs, a powerful administrator who has been behind the shift away from trolleys, was punctuated by the final removal of the electric wires that for decades-long electric powered Erie Avenue route 56, which went “temporary bus” in 1992. But Diggs’s retirement gives many Philadelphia transit advocates hope that instead of greenwashing hybrid diesel buses, SEPTA might change course and embrace its rather considerable history of employing the much quieter and emission-free electric trolleybuses–a true path to sustainability.
Electric trolleybuses–often in Philadelphia called trackless trolleys–are a great source of civic pride in several notable cities. Running on rubber tires like a bus, but drawing electricity from dual overhead copper wires, these clean, quiet vehicles burn no diesel fuel whatsoever. (They are, however, powered by the combination of fossil fuels and renewables that power the grid. Some transit agencies overcome this lack of clarity by specifically purchasing renewable energy. SEPTA does not.)
Vancouver, San Francisco, and Seattle are among the cities that run fleets of hundreds on their city streets. Until 2003, SEPTA operated a small fleet of electric trolleybuses on five transit routes: three in Northeast Philadelphia (59, 66, and 75), and two in South Philadelphia (29 and 79). All five routes were replaced with diesel buses at that time, with the claim that the substitution was only temporary, until new electric trolleybuses could be procured.
As they have done so many times in the past, pro-diesel bus forces within SEPTA took that opportunity to cut the electric network yet again. SEPTA turned down available federal funding that could have purchased enough new trackless trolleys to equip the two South Philadelphia lines. Only 38 trackless trolleys were purchased–just enough for Northeast Philadelphia lines 59, 66, and 75. The option for 23 more electrics to restore service on the two South Philadelphia lines was ignored. Federal subsidies, which reimburse transit authorities per mile of electric transit provided, were left on the table.
When a coalition of seven South Philadelphia community groups let SEPTA know that they wanted the electric trolleybus service restored through their neighborhoods, they were flatly told no. SEPTA declared that it would cost $50 million to restore electric service. With most of the overhead wires still in place, and electricity available from the nearby Broad Street subway, that figure seems grossly inflated. Those in a position to know said so, but as is so often the case, were simply stonewalled by SEPTA.
Moreover, the agency’s usual objection to streetcars–that they get blocked by illegally parked cars–doesn’t apply to trackless trolleys, whose long roof-mounted current-collection poles swivel on their bases and are long enough to allow for steering around obstacles such as double-parked cars.
The true reasons seem to have more to do with SEPTA’s narrow institutional mind-set than with honest economics. Regarding SEPTA’s insistence on running diesel buses on what are supposed to be electric transit lines, long time City of Philadelphia Commissioner of Public Transportation Ed Tennyson has this to say: “It is absolutely true that buses are easier to manage than trackless trolleys. But taxpayers pay SEPTA management to do a good job, not to make life easy for themselves.”
Hybrid buses aren’t green
It is true that if one compares hybrid diesels to “straight diesel” buses, there is an improvement in emissions. The problem is that in recent years, SEPTA has chosen to replace four 100% clean, quiet, non-polluting electric streetcar and electric trolleybus lines with hybrid diesel buses. This is by no means an improvement. This is in fact a significant step backward.
Four years ago, the Toronto Transit Commission, a large system in many ways comparable to SEPTA, ended its infatuation with hybrid diesel buses. TTC found that the massive battery packs on the hybrid diesel buses were far from reliable, and more importantly, that the bus manufacturer’s fuel economy claims fell far short of what the hybrids actually delivered. A TTC spokesman admitted that hybrid bus “fuel economy savings have only been 10 percent, compared to a 20 to 30 percent cut promised by the manufacturer.” Using that math, ten of the much-touted hybrid diesel buses burn as much diesel fuel as nine straight diesels. This slight gain should hardly justify the smiley-face clouds and happy slogans SEPTA has been painting on its buses.
Futhermore, what SEPTA won’t tell you is that earlier this year, SEPTA managers decided to quietly disconnect the electric batteries on its first batch of hybrid diesel buses. One wonders if some of the buses with the green-leaf advertising wraps are running as straight diesels.
Electric trolleybuses versus diesel buses
There has been a long-running debate within management at SEPTA about the merits of operating electric streetcars and electric trolleybuses on city streets. The anti-electric, pro-diesel bus faction within the organization has over the years gained the upper hand. The pro-diesel Diggs often made it quite clear that the debate wasn’t even worth having.
The result is that Philadelphia’s electric streetcar and electric trolleybus lines were dismantled and replaced with diesel buses through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and even now in the 2000s, in a remarkable display of backwards 1950s thinking. This, while no less than forty cities and towns across the country plan and build new electric streetcar lines. Pro-trolley voices within SEPTA, worn down by being ostracized, ridiculed, and excluded from decision-making, have largely fallen silent, finally conforming to the overwhelming bureaucratic culture whose attitude seems to be, “This is Philly. Buses are good enough.”
The problem with the two recent APTA awards, particularly the Sustainability award, is that the pro-diesel bus faction at SEPTA will doubtless feel vindicated. They’ve gained “Gold” Sustainability status, by buying hybrid diesel buses and not bothering with electric trolleybus restoration. Unfortunately, the award may make the pro-electric argument with SEPTA even harder to win.
The office I work in every day has a second-floor conference room with windows that open onto the 1500 block of South Street. On all but the handful of very hottest days of the year, fans and open windows keep this space comfortable. Opening windows is healthier, thriftier, and certainly more sustainable than closing the windows and turning on air conditioning. The occasional downside of conducting meetings in this otherwise bright airy space is street noise. SEPTA’s Route 40 bus serves this block of South Street. Greenwashing advertisements notwithstanding, when a SEPTA “sustainable” hybrid diesel bus pulls up to the intersection outside, with its piping-hot exhaust stack aimed right at our windows, all conversation stops. It is simply impossible to hear while that “lean green hybrid machine” is idling there. The light changes, the hybrid diesel bus roars away, and we can begin the meeting again.
Imagine the difference if an electric trolleybus was serving Route 40: near-silent operation instead of a hammering diesel engine. One less dose of heat and one less dose of carcinogenic diesel particulates in our lungs.