In 2019, New York City basically declared war on vehicles left idling — giving citizens the ability to report any automobile they saw running so the city can come and fine them for unnecessary air pollution. As an incentive for snitches, the city said it would be willing to share a quarter of the revenue it accrued via the bust.
With fines starting at $350, this has reportedly allowed citizens to effectively turn the hobby of squealing to the cops a full-time profession. A few are even getting pretty wealthy off the Citizens Air Complaint Program by providing authorities with sufficient documentation to make sure the financial penalties stick. But there are some glaring problems with the overarching scheme.
For starters, practically everyone living in the city who drives occasionally double parks and it’s arguably essential for delivery vehicles, repair trucks, garbage pickup, and cabs waiting on for their next fare to exit the building. Cops are also notorious for idling their vehicles for long periods of time, with departments often choosing cars that can endure it. You’ll even see out-of-service busses rumbling motionless near the curb on particularly hot or cold days.
It’s annoying, especially if you happen to get temporarily boxed in by someone who happens to be illegally double parked. But incentivizing adults to tattle on each other for cash prizes doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a healthy society would do and I’m not positive densely packed urban environments can continue existing without UPS and Amazon vehicles occasionally clogging up their paved arteries. Yours truly had mixed feelings on some of the traffic restrictions introduced under NYC’s former mayor under the auspices of reducing air quality, often relaying concerns here. But the Citizens Air Complaint Program flew completely under my radar until Bill de Blasio started aggressively promoting it during his last year in office.
At the time, I was preoccupied with some of the other road-related changes introduced during his tenure — some of which weren’t all that bad. The city had banned curbside loading/unloading in numerous high-traffic areas and expanded the scope and timing of no-standing zones. It also tasked the NYPD to place a greater emphasis on traffic enforcement which has always seemed borderline non-existent unless the vehicle was illegally parked or engaged in a particularly egregious moving violation. But the city also stripped away numerous roads to make way for additional bike paths and started putting cameras everywhere. New tolls were introduced at bridge crossings and tunnels. There was a campaign against certain types of motorcycles. During the pandemic, parking lanes were removed because restaurants had all been forced to create open-air dining areas to be in compliance with local COVID mandates (seating patrons literal inches away from idling vehicles). Before long, owning a car went from being challenging to downright troublesome.
Every month it seemed like de Blasio was introducing some new restriction on motor vehicles, making it cost more to drive while reducing the available parking or number of lanes for a specific neighborhood. However, the Citizens Air Complaint Program is unique in that it’s wholly dependent upon the citizenry policing itself and some of them are making a killing.
According to a report from CNBC, plenty of locals have taken up the call to report idling trucks as a lucrative side gig. An 81-year-old New Yorker named Paul Slapikas told the outlet he amassed $64,000 just by keeping his phone handy while going about his daily routine.
“There are idling trucks everywhere,” he told the outlet. “Currently, I’m waiting for 42 bounty requests, amounting to $7,300 to be paid.”
Slapikas and other “clean-air vigilantes” who were recording trucks for profit confessed that motorists usually don’t take kindly to being recorded. Most also said that drivers would occasionally become violent when they realized they were being reported — brandishing knives, blunt objects, and even taking the odd swing. However, most also agreed that they left the house expecting there to be a confrontation if they reported enough vehicles that day.
To participate in the program, citizen reporters need to shoot a video showing a commercial vehicle idling for more than three minutes. They then log on to the city’s Idling Complaint System to file and track their complaint.
According to the DEP, the fine for a first-time offender is $350, and more for repeat offenders. A 25-percent cut — or $87.50 — is paid to the person who shot the video and filed the complaint.
Vehicles need to be recorded idling for only a minute if parked in a school zone. Everywhere else, the limit is three minutes. Submit the relevant footage through an online database and the city will cut you a check for almost $90 bucks. Find yourself a repeat offender and the payouts only increase.
More recently, local outlet WNBC reported a New Yorker Donald Blair amassed $125,000 from fines.
“If you want to change someone’s behavior, the best way to do it is hit them in the pocket,” he said.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the city has garnered roughly $2.5 million from punishing idling automobiles so far — most of which was accumulated in 2021. But the sum would have been higher if everyone was willing to pay the fines. Apparently, there are about $8 million in unpaid idling vehicle fines at the moment. Amazon was said to be the biggest offender, with over $250,000 owed to the city. UPS and FedEx were said to be next, short $70,000 and $60,000, respectively. But the majority of the absent fine revenue is assumed to stem from regular drivers or independently owned work trucks (e.g. plumbers, movers, electricians).
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called the outstanding balance “outrageous” and has recommended enhanced enforcement, including impounding vehicles until they pony up the cash. Samara Swanston, an NYC Council legislative attorney who wrote the anti-idling law, says it’s because New Yorkers are getting rewarded for their efforts.
Swanson said she lost her husband and daughter to fatal asthma attacks and has apparently attributed their demise (at least in part) to vehicle emissions. “I think they’d be happy we were doing the right thing for New York City,” she said. “We can do better, New York City.”
While I cannot speak to that, urban environments often suffer from poor air quality and idling vehicles do indeed play a role. But turning citizens against each other seems ill-advised and the number of traffic restrictions imposed over the last decade ultimately seems to have done more to improve revenue for NYC than the collective health.
It may also be worth noting that Manhattan lost more people than any other county in the United States last year, with many former residents citing rising costs and diminished quality of life. The greater NYC metropolitan area likewise led in national population losses, according to 2021 census data, and represents the greatest annual decline in population in the city’s recorded history. Having been among the ranks of the grand exodus, I can directly cite some of the novel driving restrictions as playing a relevant factor. Though I suppose the silver lining is that air quality should improve immensely after so many drivers opted to expel their exhaust fumes elsewhere.
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