Suburban Bureau

No Idle Matter

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a highway to sprawl development on the southeast mountain, we can't afford an anti-idling bylaw?

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published March 01, 2006

Ottawa, New Market, Markham, Kingston, Pickering, Burlington, London, Oakville, Vaughan, Toronto, Brampton, Niagara Falls and other cities have passed anti-idling bylaws, some over five years ago. Hamilton City Council has decided instead to execute an education program.

Prior to this decision, Council wrestled with a bylaw similar to the laws many cities have passed. The proposed law would have made it illegal to idle a vehicle for more than three minutes. This also applied to School Buses.

Legal Services advised that HSR and municipal vehicles be exempt - sort of a Do as I say, not as I do scenario, while Planning and Economic Development proposed that HSR and municipal vehicles not be exempt. Was there an internal conflict of interest?

The report also warned, "enforcement may not be overly effective given that the vehicle may be no longer idling or gone when the bylaw officer arrives at the scene of the complaint."

This is a bit like our dog-leash bylaw enforcement problem, but we have a leash requirement bylaw in place anyway. Pollution from idling cars is an avoidable danger similar to dog bites in public parks.

In Burlington, the city has only been issuing "information" tickets rather than fines. In the first seven months of the bylaw, 59 information tickets were issued and no fines.

The bylaw is clearly more of a statement than a preventative measure. I think some traffic lights in Burlington come close to three minutes in length.

It also doesn't make sense for a bylaw officer to drive around spewing harmful exhausts looking for idling cars spewing harmful exhausts, so bylaw officers need to be on foot patrol at known trouble spots – schools and supermarkets/plazas.

Toronto has six bylaw officers assigned to ticketing idling cars and in the last six years have issued over 250 fines for $130 each.

Mississauga opted to execute an education campaign in 2001. Here are some results from a phone interview conducted by Mississauga city staff.

Misssissauga Anti-Idling Education Program
Pre-Education Campaign Post-Education Campaign
90 percent believed that idling caused unnecessary air pollution. 95 percent believed that idling caused unnecessary air pollution.
90 percent agreed that "turning my vehicle off when parked is the right thing to do." 93 percent agree that "turning my vehicle off when parked is the right thing to do."

Before the education campaign, 90 percent of respondents already believed that idling caused unnecessary air pollution and 90 percent agreed that turning off their vehicle rather than idling was the right thing to do.

Clearly people are already aware of the ill effects and know the "right" thing to do, but an extensive campaign was executed anyway, which increased awareness by a whopping five percent and three percent respectively. Keep in mind the results were done internally by the City of Mississauga itself.

There is a belief in advertising that says focus on 80 percent of the audience for your message and forget about the other 20 percent. Why? Because nothing you do or say will convince that 20 percent anyway. This is where punitive enforcement becomes necessary.

Education will not change the habits of the remaining ten percent, nor does it necessarily mean people will always do the "right thing". Red lights mean stop and everyone knows this, but people still run red lights.

It is now 2006 and Hamilton only recently decided to decide to do something. When Hamilton's education program hits the pavement, it will be five years after Mississauga's campaign.

Hamilton could look to Mississauga for their results but instead staff was directed in April 2005 to "review the City of Burlington Anti-idling bylaw and report back to the Committee".

Study the Burlington bylaw? Not only is it embarrassing to be lagging Burlington in progressive issues, but also we are going to take notes from one of the most car dependent 'cities' in Canada.

Toronto has six bylaw officers dedicated to idling. Hamilton, by comparison, should have two, but the Building and Licensing Division recommended that the city hire one officer for enforcement. Then it was nixed by the budget process of 2006 and a $60,000 education campaign will take its place.

Mayor Larry DiIanni told me in an email, "Council decided to put emphasis on education to reduce idling rather than to pass a bylaw without having funds to also do enforcement. If the education doesn't work, then the bylaw will follow."

As of press time, I still haven't heard a response from from my Councillor, Terry Whitehead, to an email I sent him on February 17.

Also worth noting is that by passing a bylaw, the city assumes the legal responsibility to enforce it. The courts have held that with the decision to impose standards comes the duty to ensure compliance, that is, to inspect and enforce. Potentially, the City could be found to have acted negligently if it fails to enforce its bylaws. (Planning and Economic Committee Report 06-001).

The report reads:

Resources for Enforcement are Stretched Beyond Their Capacity—Buildings and Licensing need additional resources to perform the bylaw enforcement function at the City. A budget enhancement in the range of $130,000 ($72,000 in one-time costs and approximately $55,000 in annual operating costs) to hire, equip and train one (1) new full-time employee (FTE) will assist in alleviating current problems with existing bylaws and allow the Idling Control Bylaw to be absorbed.

Does it just come down to the money? A billion dollar corporation can't find the money to hire one bylaw officer (the minimum legally required) for enforcement? In some cases Ontario municipalities have been found legally negligent for failure to enforce a bylaw.

That's pathetic. We will waste $60,000 on an education campaign to tell people what they already know, to save $70,000, the difference between a campaign and hiring a bylaw officer. Presumably, Council saw saving the "annual operating costs" (the salary package) as a yearly savings as well.

Well, there is another truism in advertising: People are creatures of habits – some bad habits. In other words, the anti-idling education can't or shouldn't be a one-time program.

We can't just produce several thousand pamphlets and expect them to work. It has to be a treated as a Public Service Announcement (PSA). PSAs have to be routinely executed to remind people of their bad habits – smoking, drinking and driving, eating right, exercising etc are all examples of PSA – or else it is shown that the bad habits will increase after the PSAs stop.

But regarding my earlier point that people already know the negative effects of idling anyway, the campaign is a waste all around. It will only be a one-time education program, it will only speak to ten percent of the population (using Mississauga's numbers) who won't change their behaviour unless penalized, and it will tell everyone else what they already know.

I'm curious as to how Council will measure the effectiveness of the campaign. Do we have baseline numbers in place to which we will gauge the results? Have we phoned some people and asked them how much they had idled their vehicle in the last week?

The problem is and will remain car dependency and a city built around cars. When will we realize that cars are more of a problem than we know? The truth is, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a highway to sprawl development on the southeast mountain, we now can't afford an anti-idling bylaw. That makes me sad.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".

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By JKollek (registered) | Posted March 02, 2006 at 10:27:57

Thank you for writing about this frustrating situation. At the recent Upwind/Downwind conference held here in Hamilton scientists discussed how street intersections with stop lights are the most toxic places in cities, with the highest levels of SO2 and NO2. If a walking/public transit scenario is not possible, then maybe we should be looking at mandatory "switch off" devices built into cars that kick in if the vehicle is stationary for more than a specific time period. Meantime, when I do have to drive, I just switch off my engine at stop lights.

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By Trey (registered) | Posted March 02, 2006 at 02:26:13

good point. I would consider eliminating remote car-starters too.

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By Shawn Selway (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2006 at 11:08:52

You write that,"The courts have held that with the decision to impose standards comes the duty to ensure compliance." Are you sure about that? Building maintainance standards don't seem to be enforced.e.g. the Tivoli, the Lister...Or are they looser than I think?

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