Investigative Report: Student Journalists Find Rampant Violations of NYC Environmental Law

By Aracely Chavez, Taylor Fetty, Breonna Reese, Sarah Santiago and Michael Williams with the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal

On Wednesday, August 10, ABC News correspondent Sunny Hostin was in the driver’s seat of her parked Mercedes SUV in lower Manhattan, unaware she was breaking the law.  Hostin, simply by sitting in her air-conditioned vehicle, was one of many of New Yorkers who every day violate a little-known, seldom-enforced rule designed to reduce auto emissions. An infraction won’t land anyone in Rikers Island prison, but advocates argue that failing to enforce the law quietly wreaks financial and environmental havoc on the city.

In New York City, it is illegal for cars, vans or buses to idle for more than three minutes—or for more than one minute near a school. Over the course of several hours last week, a team of 37 high school reporters from the Princeton Summer Journal observed 104 vehicles idling for over three minutes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Roughly 80 percent were private automobiles; the rest were commercial vehicles, limousines and taxis. After being approached and informed of the city’s three-minute anti-idling law, less than one in five drivers turned off their engines. Many weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure. “What difference does it make?” huffed an elderly woman in Brooklyn Heights who identified herself as Mrs. Pittman. “I don’t care about a law.”

Anti-idling laws have been on the books in New York City since the gas-starved 1970s. But advocates say the city has never been serious about enforcing them. “In Switzerland [we] definitely don’t run our engines while waiting at the stop light,” said former Environmental Defense Fund attorney Isabelle Silverman, who is Swiss, and a leading anti-idling advocate. But when she has confronted police officers about the issue, she says, “they looked at me like I was crazy.” According to city data provided by the office of Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, roughly 2,000 idling tickets were issued in 2014. By contrast, according to Crain’s New York Business, the city collects roughly 10 million parking tickets a year. If the city were enforcing its anti-idling law dutifully, Silverman calculates individual officers would hand out over one million dollars worth of tickets annually.

City officials haven’t taken much interest in enforcing the law. “It’s not really at the top of the [NYPD’s] list,” said Jordan Gibbons, a spokesperson for Councilman Donovan Richards, who has focused on idling. “This isn’t at the top of our priorities.”

According to a 2009 Environmental Defense Fund report, written by Silverman and two colleagues, idling vehicles in New York City spew 510 tons of carbon dioxide every day. To mitigate the pollution, the report said, the city would have to create green space equivalent to 23 Central Parks every year. It’s not just tree-huggers who are concerned. By not enforcing the law, which can result in penalties ranging from $100 to $2,000, the report estimated, the city is leaving billions in uncollected revenue on the table.

A number of motorists approached by the Summer Journal claimed to be aware of the law. But that didn’t stop them from violating it. Nam Kim, a travel agent observed idling at the corner of 44th Street and Ninth Avenue, said he knew he was breaking the law, but added, “Yeah, whatever.”

Kerone Rascoe, a driver for SuperShuttle, shrugged off the infraction. “These laws are irrational. It’s too late to care about the eco now,” he said. “God is the judge.”

Some drivers tried to justify their infractions. “It’s a Catch-22,” said Tom, an Uber driver in a black Chevrolet Suburban on Lafayette Street, who declined to provide his last name. “I can’t say I’m above the law, but at the same time I can’t have a hot, sticky, muggy car for my customers.” Uber did not respond to a request for comment.

The driver of a News 12 Brooklyn van idling near the municipal complex in Brooklyn Heights suggested that he didn’t have a choice. “We have to [keep] the generator running to go live,” he said. News 12 Brooklyn did not respond to a request for comment.

There are indeed exceptions to the three-minute idling law. Emergency vehicles are exempt, as are commercial trucks that need their engines to load and off-load goods.

The city and state have taken steps in recent years to address the problem. In 2004, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration required the installation of more anti-idling signage. In 2009, then-state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo fined grocery delivery company FreshDirect $50,000 for idling infractions. That same year, Bloomberg approved another law to improve enforcement of the anti-idling measure. (The Summer Journal previously investigated this issue in 2010, and also found considerable idling that year.) Advocates said enforcement remains abysmal, so they have begun to take matters into their own hands.

Over the course of several years, George Pakenham, a Wall Street banker and self-styled anti-idling vigilante, approached over 2,900 New York idlers to ask them to turn off their engines. He wasn’t always successful—one motorist suggested he “put your mouth around my tailpipe”—but he later directed a film about his efforts. He is currently trying to raise awareness about an existing New York City law that allows citizens to apprehend idlers and collect a portion of the fines owed to the city. But the rule only applies to trucks and buses. A City Council bill that would expand citizen enforcement to include cars has been stalled since 2015.

In the meantime, it seems it’s largely up to drivers to police their own behavior. “It is one of the few things that you as an individual can do,” Pakenham said. “Just shut your engine off.”

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