See How Verdansa and George Pakenham have made strides in bringing awareness to idling and enforcing idling laws to help reduce carbon emissions.

Streets Blog NYC - Dec 3, 2021

By Gersh Kuntzman

The penalty for filling New Yorkers’ lungs with pollution is too low.

A Manhattan community board is demanding that the Department of Environmental Protection raise the fee on commercial trucks and bus companies for idling from the current paltry $350 to $800 — and triple the penalty to a company for a third offense from $600 to $1,800.

Community Board 4, which comprises traffic-choked Hells Kitchen, asserted that the “worst offenders” —ConEd, Verizon, Spectrum, FedEx, Amazon, Go New York Tours, Fuji bus and Greyhound — simply consider the current fines a “cost of doing business” that DEP should raise.

“At a minimum DEP should make sure these operators pay more attention to our health,” the board’s Chairman Lowell Kern and co-chair Christine Berthet wrote to the agency in a just-released Nov. 9 letter that followed a unanimous board vote. “Reducing idling is a simple way to do so.”

The agency said only that it had received the letter, which is under review.

The letter cited seminal research by activist Jeff Novich who, earlier this year, crunched the numbers on idling from a Freedom of Information Law request he made for idling tickets, which for an unknown reason, are not part of the city’s open data system and must be FOIL’ed.

Novich’s data dump determined the list of “worst offenders,” but he also discovered that the city’s current system — which relies on citizen reporters to file complaints with the promise that they will receive 25 percent of the ticket revenue — has not taken off in the way that city officials likely hoped. Eighty-five percent of all idling submission are filed by just 20 people — and four people submitted roughly 50 percent of all idling complaints, Novich determined. (The DEP told Streetsblog that it received roughly 9,000 submissions in 2020.) Not coincidentally, the area comprising Community Board 4 had about 20 percent of the total idling complaints that year.

Novich said he appreciated the CB4 demand, but thinks the board is starting way too low.

“The fines should be 10 to 50 times their current amounts in order to properly re-align company interests with neighborhood health goals,” he told Streetsblog. Extremely steep fines would send a message that these companies must properly.”

The reason Novich wants to go big stems from how little idling fines hurt big companies’ bottom lines. At the slightly higher rates proposed by Community Board 4, Con Edison, which is a $12-billion company, would have to pay about $500,000 more in idling fines per year, Novich discovered. Verizon, a $33-billion company, would pay about $375,000 more per year.

“I just don’t see these amounts being a big enough deterrent (relative to their revenues) for large companies to retrain drivers or get electric trucks or switch to cargo bikes for deliveries,” he said.

Novich also said that the city should do much more of its own enforcement of commercial idling, rather than relying on the citizen reporting program, rebranded just before the pandemic began last year under the celebrity-promoted “Billy Never Idles” campaign. (Spokesrocker Billy Idol made one public appearance to support the effort.)

“Citizen complaints, while empowering, are truly a Band Aid,” said Novich. “A small but might team of volunteers go out on lunch breaks to try to enforce laws against a relentless sea of vehicles [is] great and definitely a piece of the solution. But it’s a losing battle without a dedicated team of salaried enforcement agents who take their jobs seriously in relentless application of idling laws.”

One of the legendary citizen reporters, George Pakenham, agreed that the city does not do enough.

“[With the promise of receiving] 25 percent of the fines imposed, citizen activists are protecting the general health of all New Yorkers, while being compensated for a job the NYPD neglects to do,” said Pakenham, who created the film, “Idle Threat — Man on Emission.”

Of course, DEP is not the only agency that fines vehicle owners for idling. The Department of Transportation also has a $100 idling ticket on its books. But the NYPD’s traffic enforcement team writes very few tickets — all of 33 in July through September of this year, according to the agency.

The CB4 letter agreed that something’s gotta give (and it should be the trucking firms) — and the board cited the recently passed state Constitutional amendment giving New Yorkers the right to “clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment.”

That new provision in the state’s Bill of Rights, the board wrote, “points to the need to expeditiously implement measures” such as higher ticket fees.

Spectrum did not respond to an email requesting comment. Verizon said it would not comment. And Con Ed issued the following statement:

“We pride ourselves on our environmental stewardship and strive to comply with all regulations. We have stepped up our efforts this year to ensure that we do not let vehicles idle, except for limited instances when we must in order to run essential equipment. We are determined to improve in this area and will continue to make it a priority, regardless of the level of fines.”

The effort by Community Board 4 is just the latest attempt by the forward-thinking Manhattan panel to rein in the deleterious affect of driving on our city and its people. Last year and in 2017, the board asked the city to make it easier to make intersections and bike lanes safer, in 2018, it supported key protected bike lanes on crosstown and on 10th Avenue; and earlier this year, the board definitely proved that pedestrians are systemically discriminated against in this city.

Newsweek - October 13, 2021

The other morning I woke up to five large utility trucks outside my house. They were there to fix a power line, downed by ripping winds made heavier by sudden bursts of rain. Four of these trucks, ranging pretty far away from the cloven oak, sat unoccupied, purring out their tiny, asthma-inducing particulates across my lawn, across the ball field, and onto my daughters' elementary school playground. Surely all over, wherever trees hang over power lines, this scene was being repeated.

I realize I'm not alone in my eco-anxiety, distressed about this season's cataclysmic events and our distance from bothering to do much about it. It has made the synthetic soundscape even louder—muscle trucks echoing up the Parkway, AC running all the time, planes carrying Hawaiian shirts, leaf blowers, dump trucks. But I am not content to give up my children's air for a parade of Amazon boxes.

After about an hour of this idling, I approached the crew's foreman with a line I've given more frequently of late: "Sorry to trouble you, but I don't know if you're aware of our town's anti-idling law." There is no federal law against idling, and laws among local communities vary, adding to legitimate confusion among drivers. Where I live, with some exceptions, idling is only "allowed" for one minute. At this point, though, zero fines have been collected.

The foreman looked down from high in the cab of his truck, and told me, kindly enough, this did not apply to his emergency vehicles. "But what about the ones 50 and 100 yards away?" My voice was faint against the rumble, and the more he stared incredulously, the smaller I felt.

In the midst of it all now, it's easy and understandable to lose perspective on the pernicious reality of air quality. And in the hierarchy of coal-fired power plants, petrochemical manufacturers and waste incinerators, idling seems like a small offense, an act so seemingly innocuous it is called "idling."

But as with so much, the harm is not in the singular act, but in the accumulation. Every day in the U.S., we burn nearly 4 million gallons of fuel to go nowhere. Engine exhaust irritates and inflames the respiratory tract and is particularly harmful to children, who breathe faster and inhale more air per pound of body weight. We lament that, globally, nearly 5 million people have died from COVID-19, though more than 10 million people die each year from air pollution.

By design, most environmentally degrading behaviors occur where you wouldn't really look—far away in the tar sands of northern Alberta, or seven miles beneath the ocean floor, acting like termites, which may be gnawing at your very foundation right now. Idling is more like the stinkbug, sitting out there in broad view. I don't know for a fact that the guy with the Denali keeps his whole house at 64 F all summer long, but I can see him in the emergency lane at the grocery store Foodtown, sharing his gas, as he waits for the popsicles—it's hot out, after all!

They are watching their child play soccer while it's a little bit nippy, they're in line for Starbucks takeout, they're 40 minutes early to pick up their kid. I'm amazed at how many aren't even in their cars at all.

Back at Foodtown, I've come to see this as an opportunity. When else can you find your intended audience, unable to delete themselves, just sitting there? By now, I've approached about 50 cars, and my raw technique improved markedly once I observed George Pakenham, the anti-idling guru. Of the 3,000-plus New York City motorists he's visited, he's convinced 80 percent to shut off their engines; he also finds that three-quarters of them don't even know there's a law against it.

I've had similar results, and I actually find people's ignorance to be encouraging. Truly, I don't know that some people make the connection between pollution and warming air. This can result in conversations that end better than they begin: "I'm running my AC because it's hot out, OK?" can give way to some notion that their AC is one reason, albeit small, as to why it's hot out. Just as I am almost certain that idling is an unconscious habit for them, I imagine no live person has asked them about this. So maybe they think about it. Every now and then, someone thanks me for the reminder.

Approaching strangers with the intent of modifying their behavior is not for everyone, I realize. This is why I've found it rewarding to share the campaign with my local Conservation Commission. Perhaps your town has one, or the groundswell to form one? They have put me in touch with the school's PTSA and with young activists from the local schools, who have the most at stake.

We're working with elementary school kids to design artwork for their pickup zones, we're hosting discussions through the library, we're connecting with neighboring towns and exchanging upbeat emails with expressions like: "How great that you flyered your street with your son!" It's been like waking a sleeping giant—suddenly, there's a reason for my neighbors to talk.

The goalposts of federal action on climate change are distant and shifting and it's becoming less and less easy to wait. We will only address this by making connections—between what we use and what we breathe, and with each other. Chances are people don't want to throw in the towel just so we can get stuff with more torque. Find them.

Tim Donahue teaches high school English and writes about climate change, education and endurance sports.