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Idling cars, buses damage environment, violate law

August 9, 2010

This article was reported by the staff of the Princeton Summer Journal and written by Elizabeth Gonzalez, Maria V. Paredes, Franklin Lee and Alfonso Toro Jr.

NEW YORK—New York City public buses and livery cabs frequently violate a city traffic law that prohibits idling for more than three minutes, causing adverse health effects and untold damage to the environment, an investigation by the Princeton Summer Journal has revealed.
        During one afternoon last week, Summer Journal reporters observed several city buses in downtown Brooklyn idling for as long as 10 minutes, presumably with their air conditioners running, while bus drivers napped or talked on their cell phones inside. In other instances, livery cabs idled outside high-rise office buildings in Manhattan while awaiting passengers.
        The city’s anti-idling law, first passed in 1971, prohibits non-emergency vehicles from parking for longer than three minutes with their engines running. The law was designed to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles operating on city streets, and thereby improve air quality.
        Idling cars and trucks in New York City emit approximately 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to a study by the Environmental Defense Fund. High carbon levels and other forms of toxins emitted by cars raise risks for respiratory disease and heart attack, the study showed.
        “In the U.S., 50,000 to 100,000 people die prematurely from air pollution each year. Vehicles cause about 25 percent of these deaths,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, referring to all cars, not just idling cars.

Idling buses
        During several hours in the afternoon and early evening on Wednesday, Summer Journal reporters observed dozens of Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses parked along and around Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Many of those buses idled for more than one minute before either parking or driving off, and at least five buses idled for well in excess of the three-minute legal limit—often while parked within a few feet of a sign warning, “No Engine Idling. Max Fine $2000.”
       When approached by reporters, several drivers of the idling MTA buses refused to comment about their apparent violations. In one instance, a driver ignored reporters standing outside his bus for more than 10 minutes while he continued to talk on his cell phone and sit in one of the bus’s passenger seats. Later, he appeared to close his eyes and take a nap. 
Meanwhile, his bus’s engine continued to run.
       Another MTA bus driver, who initially refused to comment and who refused to give his name, exited his bus after continuing to idle for a few minutes and approached reporters. “Do you know how hot it is outside?” he asked, his bus still running behind him.
       When asked whether he was aware of the anti-idling law, the driver responded, “There are a lot of laws.” He continued, “I’m a human being just like you.”
       MTA officials contacted by the Summer Journal said that hot summer temperatures are no excuse for idling in violation of city law. To the contrary, MTA officials explained that MTA’s rules regarding idling are actually stricter than the city law’s three-minute limit.
       Anna Pecker, a general manager with MTA New York City Transit, said that MTA has “zero tolerance for idling.” However, MTA bus drivers who are caught idling are given at least two warnings before facing more serious consequences, including termination, Pecker explained.
       In addition to those penalties, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection can issue citations to bus drivers who violate the law. Pecker said that in those cases, the bus drivers are responsible for paying the fines themselves.
       In response to emailed questions regarding DEP’s strategies for enforcing the city’s anti-idling law given the violations observed by reporters in downtown Brooklyn, DEP spokesman Angel Roman sent an email containing links to a city report and a press release. A subsequent request for comment went unanswered.
       Officials in the New York City Police Department’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, likewise did not return numerous requests for comment for this article. However, an officer in the community affairs unit for NYPD’s 84th Precinct in downtown Brooklyn said that he was surprised to hear of the violations.
       “There has to be city bus rules, but I am almost sure that [the buses] must have been shut off,” said the officer, who refused to give his name. “I’m just going to say that it was 90 degrees yesterday.”
       Pecker said that MTA bus drivers are reminded regularly that they are not to leave their engines running when their buses are not in service.
       “It is their obligation to make sure [their bus] is turned off,” Pecker said, indicating that she would be investigating whether bus drivers in downtown Brooklyn are continuing to idle. “They all know [the policy].”

City response

     New York City’s policies aimed at combating vehicle idling have received renewed attention recently. Though the city’s anti-idling laws date back to the 1970s, the issue has been a focus of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. Last year, Bloomberg signed into law a bill that further limited idling time for non-emergency vehicles near school zones and expanded the city’s ability to enforce idling violations.
    One of the most important reasons to cut vehicle emissions is that vehicle exhaust can lead to serious health consequences, according to Rebecca Kalin, founding director of the non-profit organization Asthma Free School Zone.
    “Schools are worth worrying about because children have special vulnerability to pollution [from car exhaust]. Their vulnerability stems from immature immune systems and faster metabolisms,” she said. “Until the NYPD begins ticketing drivers for engine idling, informed citizens will need to take the lead in stopping idling.”
    Of course, health issues are not the only byproduct of car emissions.
    “When carbon gets transferred into the atmosphere it heats up more than normal and consequences occur,” said Eric Larson, a carbon research engineer at Princeton University. Larson explained that higher temperatures have far-reaching effects, ranging from harming crops to intensifying hurricanes.
     In spite of Bloomberg’s professed focus on improving air quality, MTA buses were not the only idling city vehicles spotted. Summer Journal reporters also observed a police officer eating inside a radio patrol car with the engine running parked near the Waldorf Astoria on Lexington Avenue, near 50th Street. When the officer was approached, he refused to comment and rolled up his window.
     Another officer nearby, who declined to give his name, said that police officers must remain in their cars so they can respond quickly to emergency calls.
     NYPD media officials did not respond to inquiries about whether this officer would fall under the anti-idling law’s exemption for “emergency motor vehicles.”

Livery cabs

      In addition to MTA buses violating the anti-idling law, Summer Journal reporters also observed numerous livery cabs (commonly called “black cars” because they are frequently black luxury sedans) with their engines running while parked outside of office buildings in Midtown and lower Manhattan.
      Drivers for those cars typically explained that they were awaiting passengers and were idling so that they could keep their air conditioning running and their cars cool.
      One driver stood for several minutes near his black Lincoln Town Car while the engine ran outside the Condé Nast building in Midtown at 4 Times Square. After being approached by reporters, he said that he was waiting to pick up an editor at Glamour Magazine, and that he was idling even though he knew he was breaking the law because he wanted to keep his car cool.
      “They call us high-class division. . . . It’s like for the famous,” the driver said. “I put the AC on because it’s hot. When [the editor] comes in, she and others wouldn’t like it to be hot. I don’t want to spend money, but I have no choice. Otherwise I would like to save gas.”
       The driver said he pays for fuel out of his own pocket.
       The public relations department for Glamour Magazine did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
       A livery cab driver on Wall Street who sat in his car while idling for several minutes before being approached by reporters said that he had been unaware of the anti-idling law. 
      “The law is great,” he said.
      When asked why he continued to idle, the driver said, “You’re right,” and turned off his car.