Bloomberg CityLab - August 10, 2021

Air-pollution laws, enforcement sprees and educational campaigns haven’t worked. What will it take to make drivers shut off their engines when they’re parked?

At the end of February 2020, just days before New York City reported its first coronavirus case, a crowd gathered in front of City Hall for a press conference that stirred to the sounds of “White Wedding” by Billy Idol.

Idol himself stood alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio, who proclaimed that “White Wedding” would be the walk-on music for all future City Hall policy announcements. The then-64-year-old rocker was there to help launch a new public awareness campaign, “Billy Never Idles,” aimed at reminding New Yorkers to turn off their engines when not in use. “Shut it off!” Idol bellowed, in his signature style.

The episode provided some memorably insane visuals, and soon after, billboards of Idol and the slogan emerged around the city. But then the pandemic crashed into New York City, and the War on Idling was quickly overshadowed. Anyone who walks down the streets of the city today knows who won.

Look around anywhere in the sweltering summer of 2021 and you’ll probably see someone sitting in their car, parked, with fumes rising from the exhaust. Idling is not just a New York problem: It’s a global phenomenon. Wherever there are cars, there are drivers cocooned in running vehicles, often immersed in their smartphones, seemingly oblivious to the internal combustion engine rumbling pointlessly a few feet away.

Call it a crisis of habit or negligence. Drivers who pull over in a “No Standing” zone — like in front of a fire hydrant or bus stop — are common culprits. Cab drivers, cops, and moms and dads waiting in school pick-up lines are notorious idlers, as are delivery trucks making stops, the number of which continues to soar with pandemic-era e-commerce. Some idling is based on the now-outdated understanding that you need to “warm up” a cold engine, especially in the winter, for several minutes. Long-haul truckers that lack auxiliary power units often must run their diesels all night to heat or cool their cabs as they sleep, a practice that can burn almost 2 gallons of fuel an hour. State and local laws that ban idling after several minutes are widespread, but they’re almost universally flouted, as headlines repeatedly show.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heavy- and light-duty vehicles waste 6 billion gallons of fuel each year through idling. Half of those offenders are private vehicles, which together add about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. If idling stopped tomorrow, it’d be the equivalent of taking 5 million vehicles off the road. A 2009 paper said that idling alone made up 1.6% of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The abundant negative externalities of the practice have taken on new urgency amid the many climate-related crises of the last year. Beyond its carbon toll, idling contributes to air pollution, an increasingly prominent environmental justice issue as more researchers look into the links between Covid-19 and local air quality. And it’s a powerful driver of the urban heat island effect — next time you want to be miserable, walk past a line of idling cars on a hot day and marvel at the volume of heat drivers pump out as they run what are essentially 300-horsepower gas-powered personal air conditioners.

On top of everything else, it’s bad for your engine.

When New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells wrote, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, that we are “a civilization enclosing itself in a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage,” it’s hard not to think of idling as an all-too-literal manifestation of his metaphor — a constant reminder of humanity’s refusal to make even the tiniest of behavioral adjustments (just reach down and turn a key!) to save itself. As far as climate change mitigation goes, getting people to stop idling is just about the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.

But most anti-idling initiatives boil down to education campaigns, pledges, and a few signs. And in general, they’ve failed miserably. So how can cities curb this cursed practice once and for all?

If you dig into this topic, you will quickly come across George Pakenham. The Wall Street banker is a “man on emission,” as the 2012 autobiographical documentary Idle Threat, called him. Since 2005, Pakenham has been politely asking thousands of drivers of idling commercial vehicles around Manhattan to shut off their engine, handing them a simple business card with the legal fines attached. He kept an Excel spreadsheet of every encounter, with what he says was an 80% success rate. (I’ve had similar luck when I attempt to follow his example.)

About two months into his anti-idling odyssey, Pakenham rapped on the window of an idling limousine. “The driver told me, ‘Leave me alone, I’m a cop, I’m on watch, go away,’” Pakenham says. As he walked away, the driver yelled out. “You know, there’s a law against what I’m doing. I don’t know what the law is, but I know there’s a law against it. And if you’re so damn interested in it, why don’t you pursue it?”

That is how Pakenham, who labels himself a “vigilante” for better air, discovered what is the case for many cities: There has been an idling law on the books since the 1970s, but it is barely enforced. “Mostly symbolic,” as one local newspaper in Utah described it, could be a term widely used.

Since idling is technically a moving violation, it’s often not under the jurisdiction of traffic enforcement agents (TEAs). But since it’s also an environmental issue, it is overseen by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which doesn’t have many officers walking the streets. Thus, idling is left in an enforcement purgatory; in many cities, barely any tickets for idling are written each year.

With a boost from the Environmental Defense Fund, Pakenham’s push spurred media coverage and helped lead then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to impose stricter limits on idling, particularly near schools, where children are more vulnerable to air pollution. (Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg CityLab.) Still, the laws “lacked teeth,” says Pakenham. New Yorkers (including the mayor) continued to idle.

But in 2018, the city’s anti-idling movement notched a major victory: New York started what’s known as the Citizens Air Complaint Program, the first of its kind in the nation. Essentially, citizens are invited to submit evidence of a truck or bus idling to DEP in exchange for a quarter slice of the fine, should one be issued. (Passenger vehicles are notably given a pass.)

Before the law, only 24 idling-related summonses were given in 2017; in 2018, after the law was enacted, that number jumped to 1,038. Nearly 20,000 complaints have now been filed from about 2,500 people, 90% of which have resulted in summonses. Pakenham himself has made more than $10,000 in the hustle, he said. He’s now part of a group of nearly 40 people who call themselves Idle Warriors; they submit the bulk of the videos. “They’re very ardent, they’re very professional, and they’re very earnest in making this thing work,” he says.

One member told me that an awareness campaign like “Billy Never Idles” isn’t sufficient. “Education has been tried for a long time, but until there’s a penalty associated, it’s either a) I don’t care; or b) I’m just waiting for someone,” the member told me. (They requested anonymity, because they have received occasional threats from angry drivers.) “It’s a tragedy of the commons, really.”

These kinds of citizen watchdogs are needed, advocates say, because they outlast the enforcement spikes that some cities do. When I asked Pakenham if he thought that this was the best system — having residents report infractions, instead of the government — he bristled. “It’s absurd that it’s on citizens!” he said. The cash prize made it digestible, he added, but more institutional support was needed. The city was considering a smartphone app that would streamline submissions, he said, but talks have stalled since Covid. (Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have since launched similar programs using various apps, but without the financial incentives.)

Calls to allow TEAs to enforce idling have been opposed by the New York Police Department, which cites logistical reasons; with the law as is, an officer would have to wait around three minutes before writing a ticket. Worries of confrontation have also been flagged, as police officials say traffic enforcement agents are more likely to be victims of assault than uniformed officers. A similar argument doomed a citizen complaint program for illegal parking in January. But this question comes at a time when advocates and policymakers are revisiting the role of police in traffic enforcement writ large, thanks to racial discrimination issues and other problems. Is it worth giving law enforcement more responsibilities? Or should a new approach be taken altogether?

To try to answer this, I reached out to Jeff Novich, who analyzed all 20,000 citizen complaints about idling in New York City this last June in a Medium post. Novich created the Reported app, which allows any user in New York to report a car that is blocking crosswalks, parked illegally, or driving recklessly. (It doesn’t come with a cash prize.) “Citizens should always feel empowered to file complaints on drivers and be able to act on them without getting police involved,” he argued. “But that’s a fallback.”

Like many transit advocates, Novich is skeptical that the police, even if further involved, would help solve the problem. “As a tax-paying resident, I should feel confident that enforcement is being done effectively,” he said. “And I don’t feel that way at all.” The rampant use of illegal placards and official vehicles that are parked illegally (not just in New York) lends to his cause.

Instead, Novich said that cities should explore automated enforcement. While no camera currently exists for idling, Novich said he can imagine one that identifies and timestamps how long a vehicle is in a zone, similar to the parking enforcement system in Amsterdam. Thermographic cameras, for heat, are another option.

“At the very least, we have tech that could get us more accurate survey data to know what’s going on,” Novich said.