HBO Vice - March 28, 2019
by Lee Doyle and Alex Lubben

One guy has already made $9,000.

Thanks to a new law, any New Yorker with a cell phone and some time to kill can earn thousands of dollars reporting on idling commercial vehicles.

The law, enacted in January of 2018, lets anyone submit a complaint form to the city’s department of environmental protection if they document a bus, truck, or van with its engine on for at least three minutes. If the complaint goes through, whoever reported the idler gets a 25 percent cut of the fine, which can run anywhere from $300 to $2,000, for repeat offenders.

George Pakenham, a banker and clean air activist, knows that anti-idling laws have been on the books since the 1970s but were rarely enforced. He’s spent the last 10 years strolling through the city, asking drivers to turn off their engines. Now, with last year’s amendment to the law that lets anyone help to enforce it, he’s taken to the streets — and he’s making bank.

“I’ve submitted 120 times, and I got paid nine thousand dollars,” Pakenham said. “Cash in the bank.” According to a 2009 Environmental Defense Fund study, idling vehicles in New York City release 130,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

Pakenham has been a one-man, anti-emissions cop since 2006 when he first asked a limousine driver to turn off their idling engine. He’s even made a documentary, “Idle Threat: A Man on Emission” which chronicled his efforts.

What began as one man’s quixotic mission to curb idling has gained steam: He’s got a dozen “street agents” who work with him on it now, and he hopes that with increased exposure — and the prospect of some decent cash rewards — that he’ll have hundreds of people working with him on it.

Of course, the extra cash is a nice perk for Pakenham, but it’s not the reason he got into the anti-idling business in the first place.

“I was influenced by the aftermath of the Iraqi war,” Pakenham told VICE News. “It was quite clear that our motivation wasn't for weapons of mass destruction it was really for oil. And just at the same time, my brother came down with stage four lung cancer, and he was not a smoker. So I was looking for some sort of relief from that pain.”

Aside from lung cancer, air pollution from vehicle exhaust can also cause asthma, especially in children, and heart attacks and strokes in adults, according to one of Pakenham's fellow "street agents," German paediatrician Patrick Schnell.

If it were up to Pakenham and Schnell, thousands of New Yorkers would be patrolling the streets, issuing tickets. But as Schnell puts it: “It’s not about writing tickets, issuing tickets, having court dates. No, it's about people stopping idling.”

This segment originally aired March 14, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.