Idling bans are the devil’s playthings

Much of the concern over idling is overwrought, or ignores other considerations

Idling bans are the devil's playthings

Geoff Howe/CP

“Ban” Francisco comes by its nickname honestly. As Maclean’s Ken MacQueen explains in this story, California’s city by the bay has banned, among other things, plastic bags, bottled water, Happy Meal toys, cat declawing, city business with Arizona, the USS Iowa and dealings with anyone using tropical hardwood or virgin redwood wood products. From afar, it seems a darkly comic list of intrusive government gone wild.

And yet Canada is not immune to this tendency among municipal politicians to encroach onto areas where they are irrelevant and unwelcome. Bans on plastic bags and bottled water are commonplace here as well. And last week, Edmonton city councillors again contemplated an anti-idling bylaw. Such a plan was previously rejected by city council in 2009 but, like a bad penny, it keeps coming back.

Edmonton will not be alone if it does impose a ban on vehicle idling. Many other Canadian cities have already enacted such laws: Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Yellowknife, Jasper, Alta., Guelph, Ont., Waterloo, Ont., and Kentville, N.S., to name a few, as well as New York City, Minneapolis, and, of course, the entire state of California.

While such laws may have the stated goal of improving the environment, their ultimate impact is almost entirely symbolic. Their main purpose is to allow municipal politicians to claim green credentials without having to take any concrete action.

Consider Waterloo’s bylaw, which came into effect in 2009. Idling for more than three minutes is strictly forbidden—unless the vehicle in question is a police car, fire truck, ambulance, armoured car, mobile workshop, parade float, bus or taxi dropping off or picking up passengers, farm vehicle, or any truck working for the municipality or a public utility. Also, the ban doesn’t apply to any occupied vehicle when the temperature outside is above 27° C (including humidex) or below 5° C (including wind chill). It is a fair-weather law in every sense of the word.

Needless to say, Waterloo’s anti-idling bylaw is rarely enforced, as is the case with most other similar statutes; there are more exemptions than applications. Besides, any police officer with the time to observe a car idling unnecessarily for three minutes (after checking the weather and calculating the humidex and/or wind chill) probably has too much time on his hands. Edmonton’s proposal contemplates a similar list of exemptions.

It also seems that much of the concern over idling is overwrought, or ignores other considerations. The notion that thousands of Canadians die annually from the effects of idling—as a federal government website once hysterically claimed—cannot be supported by factual evidence. Idling may even be better for the environment than the alternative in certain situations. Research commissioned by Tim Hortons found that cars at a parking-only restaurant produce more smog pollutants and greenhouse gases than those at a similar drive-through location. That’s because every cold-started engine releases a burst of emissions that does not occur when a car idles in a drive-through lineup. And according to Natural Resources Canada, on a cold day it can take two or three minutes to warm up an engine sufficiently—and don’t forget to defrost the windows before driving off.

Of course, it still stands to reason that unnecessary idling is wasteful of gas and needlessly polluting. If a car is stopped for more than a minute in nice weather, it makes sense to turn off the engine. But how best to convince drivers of this? Bylaws are clearly not the solution. Public education campaigns are often recommended, but this, too, seems like a waste of resources. That’s because the most effective reason for Canadians to cut back on redundant idling is already being widely advertised on a daily basis and at private expense: gas costs $1.30 a litre. Canadians idle at their own expense.

Spurious bylaws not only weaken the public’s faith in laws of all kinds, they distract municipal politicians from their proper duties. City halls across the country, and all governments for that matter, ought to spend their time on matters of significant public or practical importance, and not on idle symbolism.

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