The Times of London | April 30 2019
Back when New York City was a metropolis rife with muggings and murders, a group of citizens dressed in crimson began patrolling the streets and subways calling themselves the Guardian Angels. Now a new set of vigilantes has risen up to do battle with another threat to the life of the city, posed by cars parked with their engines running.
New Yorkers may not know the name of David Dong or Zachary Tinkelman, but between them over the past year, the two men have reported more than 90 illegally idling vehicles to the authorities. Under a programme launched last year to reduce air pollution they were entitled to claim a share of the fine collected by the city. Mr Dong, a lawyer, made $4,912.80 while Mr Tinkelman, who is said to be a theatre worker, was awarded $4,600.
Thirteen ordinary New Yorkers stepped up to bring idling motorists to book over the past year, resulting in 188 summonses, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Mr Dong and Mr Tinkelman were the Batman and Robin of the idling justice league, accounting for nearly half the summonses. Just behind them was George Pakenham, a Wall Street banker who is largely responsible for the programme. Engine idling in New York causes as much pollution as nine million lorries driving the length of the city, from the Bronx to Staten Island, according to the city government.
Mr Pakenham first became interested in 2006. “It was in the aftermath of the Iraq war, which it had become clear was for oil,” he said. “I would see my fellow New Yorker at the kerbside, in a truck with its engine on.”
In addition, his brother, a non-smoker, had been diagnosed with lung cancer, which made him particularly interested in the possible effects of air pollution. Returning one night to his flat on the Upper West Side he accosted the driver of a limousine idling outside his building and asked the driver to turn off the engine. “He said, ‘Oh, sure.’ I thought, ‘Wow!’”
Mr Pakenham duly began accosting other idling drivers. Once, rapping at the window of a limousine, the driver shooed him away, saying he was an undercover cop. “Then he goes, ‘Get back here!’ He goes, ‘I admire you knocking against my window. There is a law against what I was doing. If you are interested, do the research.’ ”
Mr Pakenham was, and did: the law, from 1971, prohibited idling for more than three minutes. He began keeping a spreadsheet of driver responses to his knocks: often people said, “I’m not paying for the gas,” but he heard all sorts of other justifications. A film about his efforts: Idle Threat: Man on Emission, helped to boost his profile and made the city government take note. In 2014 an official offered him some advice over lunch. “She said, ‘Great movie but the New York Police Department will never enforce this law. They just don’t give a damn.
“She said to me, ‘You need to pursue this with a citizen’s air quality complaint form, where the citizen gets half the fine.’”
A bill pushed by his local representative became law last year. Under the legislation, whistleblowers could submit time-stamped photographs or video footage, by way of evidence, and receive 25 percent of the fine.