Ann Arbor Restarts Talk on Vehicle Idling

Council discusses merits of ordinances as educational tools

At a work session held on Jan. 17, 2012, the Ann Arbor city council picked up on a conversation it started back in 2004, when it asked the city’s staff and environmental commission to craft an ordinance regulating the unnecessary idling of vehicles. Last summer, the environmental commission forwarded a draft idling ordinance and a white paper to the council, which was attached to the council’s Aug. 15, 2011 meeting agenda.

exhaust-from-idling-brick anti-idling ordinance

"Please do not leave engines idling. Exhaust damages historic properties." A private property owner has placed this sign in a downtown Ann Arbor alley to discourage delivery drivers from leaving their trucks running. It's advisory only. If an ordinance were enacted by Ann Arbor's city council, the city would post signs alerting drivers to the local law. (Photos by the writer.)

The council got a more detailed briefing on Tuesday, when the city’s environmental coordinator, Matt Naud, and two members of the city’s environmental commission addressed the council. The draft ordinance covers all engines, from heavy-duty trucks to passenger vehicles to generators. It would limit idling to 5 minutes in any given one-hour period. The draft ordinance includes a number of exceptions – for public safety vehicles and for cold weather, for example.

The goal of the ordinance is not to improve overall air quality in Ann Arbor, but rather to improve conditions in very specific localized contexts – school drop-off zones, for example. And the idea is not to create legislation that would then be aggressively enforced. Naud drew an analogy to the city’s ordinance regulating phosphorus-based fertilizers – no citations have ever been issued for ordinance violations, yet the city has achieved a measurable reduction in phosphorus loading in the Huron River since enactment of that ordinance.

Reaction from councilmembers was mixed. Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) seemed more interested in exploring the possibility of changing drivers’ behavior through educational outreach than through enacting an ordinance.

Responding to the presentation and summarizing council commentary, mayor John Hieftje ventured that the council was interested in hearing about an educational program. He described that approach as a wiser course than talking about enforcement. Margie Teall (Ward 4), who until recently served as one of two city council representatives to the environmental commission, was more supportive of at least enacting an ordinance, in order to give the educational effort some “backbone.”

Any councilmember could choose to place the ordinance on a future meeting agenda. The council would then need to vote to give it initial approval, and a public hearing would be held, before a final council vote enacting a new ordinance.

Background on Development of Idling Ordinance

City environmental coordinator Matt Naud led off the presentation by saying that “many moons ago” the city’s environmental commission had made a recommendation to the city council that an ordinance should be developed to address unnecessary idling. The council had given city staff the direction to “go forth and do so.” Naud allowed that it had taken a little while, but the idling ordinance had been developed and was being provided back to the council for its consideration.

Mayor John Hieftje asked for clarification about the scope of the council directive – was it for all vehicles or just heavy trucks? [As expressed in the 2004 resolution, the directive with respect to the ordinance was restricted to heavy-duty trucks. The resolution also directs the identification of ways to reduce idling by other vehicles.] Sabra Briere (Ward 1) remarked that it had been in the works for nearly a decade – the environmental commission’s work pre-dated the 2004 city council resolution.

Naud described how in Ann Arbor, the focus on unnecessary idling had started with a number of complaints that had come to him and other staff – such complaints are received on a regular basis. Residents at the Armory – a condo building located kitty corner from city hall at Fifth Avenue and Ann Street – complained when buses delivering children to the nearby Hands-On Museum would park immediately adjacent to the Armory. In the summertime, the windows would be open in those apartments.

Naud ventured that other examples are well known in the community – from delivery trucks to parents dropping off kids at elementary schools – of vehicles idling when they don’t need to. To address that issue, Naud said, a draft ordinance has been developed.

The draft idling ordinance is included in a 2008 white paper that was developed by the environmental commission. [.pdf of 2008 idling white paper]

Draft Idling Ordinance

Naud summarized the draft ordinance by saying that it recommends covering all internal combustion engines – heavy-duty vehicles (large trucks), light-duty vehicles, passenger vehicles, and also small engines (for example, lawn mowers, or generators at construction sites). Generators at construction sites had also generated a lot of complaints, Naud said, when workers go off to lunch, and leave a construction site with a generator running.

The ordinance limits idling to 5 minutes in any 60-minute period, Naud said. Other communities that regulate idling have used 1 minute, 3, 5 or 10 minutes. That’s a policy choice the council can make, Naud said. A number of exemptions are provided – for public safety vehicles and cold temperatures, for example. [.pdf of draft idling ordinance]

Councilmembers were concerned about the enforcement of the ordinance. Given that one of the localized areas where unnecessary idling has been identified as a problem is school drop-off and pick-up zones, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) wanted to know if the city’s community standards officers could go onto school property to enforce the ordinance. From the city’s staff attorney on hand came the answer – as a general rule, yes.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) was concerned about the list of exceptions, and the list of city staff who are authorized to enforce the ordinance: “That scares the hell out of me!” Naud noted that in the list, the only applicable city staff are indicated where Chapter 71 is underlined. It’s not as long a list as it appears.

Other Idling Legislation

Naud noted that many communities have developed ordinances that address vehicle idling – as a tool to deal with unnecessary idling in their community. The list of communities from the 2008 white paper hasn’t been updated, he said, but he had an updated version, which he could pass around. [.pdf of American Transportation Research Institute list]

The Michigan legislature also has a bill in process that addresses idling, but it’s unclear where that’s going to go, Naud said. [.pdf of HIB 4899] [.pdf of SIB 0819]

Two members of the environmental commission – John Koupal and John German – then addressed the city council. Naud described them as having real expertise in air quality and air monitoring.

When Is Idling Necessary? Advances in Technology

John German described his background in the automotive field – with Chrysler, the Environmental Protection Agency and Honda. He ventured that he might be better known in Europe and China than he is here. For the last three years, he said, he’s worked for the International Council for Clean Transportation – he’s the council’s technology expert and works with government regulators worldwide.

Idling has come up recently as an issue, he said. It has not been an issue before because of the huge benefits that society gets from mobility. Because of those benefits, people have been willing to put up with impacts on safety, congestion, air pollution. There’s a tension between the benefits and the negative impacts, he said, and you always want to minimize the negative impacts. Idling, however, has nothing to do with mobility, he said. The situation being addressed in the ordinance is one where the vehicle is not moving. He stressed that the area of focus does not include when a car is in traffic, stopped with the engine running.

A lot of things have changed, German said. It used to be that vehicles were not all that easy to restart. Gasoline engines would start with a richer fuel mixture, and sometimes it would entail a fair amount of cranking where raw fuel goes to the engine. So it was previously the case that a certain amount of idling was better than shutting the engine off and restarting it. That same principle previously applied to the initial starting of an engine. In the “old days” if you started a cold engine and immediately drove off, you did damage to the engine.

When it comes to diesel engines, German continued, Detroit Diesel made a two-stroke engine for a while that was almost impossible to restart. So when you see diesel truck operators who never shut their engines off – even if it means idling for an hour or two – it’s really a legacy mindset from that one engine. Engines today are very different, he said. Computer controls and the sensors on them allow engines to restart almost instantly, burning no additional fuel. If you shut the engine off for 10-15 seconds you will actually save fuel, he said. The amount you consume during 10-15 seconds of idling is more fuel than it takes to restart the engine.

With respect to the perceived need to let an engine have an “initial idle” when it’s first started, German said that motor oils are better now, even than just 10 years ago. And engine tolerances and assembly are better. On a cold day and cold engine, you can start it up and drive off, with no impact on the durability of the engine. So there are a lot of legacy reasons for why people think they need to idle, but none of them are really valid anymore, he said.

The emission impacts of idling, German explained, include benzene for gasoline engines. If you have a cold engine, on initial start, you can get a fair amount of particulate emissions from a gasoline engine. You also have a certain amount of CO emissions. In general, in a gasoline engine that is properly operating, there’s not a lot of emissions at idle. But there are situations where it can be a problem, such as people waiting to drop off children at schools. Plus, he said, you save money by shutting the engine off.

Naud added to German’s remarks by saying that he’d always thought light-duty vehicles were as clean as they’d ever been. But the worst emissions for a regular passenger car come when it’s under 50 F and it’s idling after the initial start. It adds up to an enormous amount of emissions, Naud said. German noted that what’s really important with today’s vehicles is to get the mechanisms for complete, clean combustion of the fuel engaged quickly. And on a cold day, you do that much faster if you drive off, instead of letting the engine idle.

Health Impacts: Representing Breathers

John Koupal introduced himself as a member of the city’s environmental commission. He told the council that German was his boss for a while at the EPA. He’s also worked for Nissan – so he’s worked on the government and the industry side of things.

Koupal told the council he was not representing the EPA, but rather the “breathers of our community and also the parents of breathers.” His work has been on vehicle regulations, vehicle technology and vehicle control. He’s been looking at emission impacts and health impacts from vehicle emissions. Fundamentally, he said, it’s a health issue. There are a lot of benefits to reducing unnecessary idling. There’s a distinction between saying, “Don’t idle at a traffic light!” – which he said would be ridiculous – and “Don’t idle when you’re dropping your kids off at school or picking them up.”

You’re not only wasting fuel and increasing damage to the engine over time, but you’re putting harmful pollutants into the environment that are damaging to everyone’s lungs, but particularly to young lungs, Koupal said. There are a number of things that come out of tailpipes when vehicles are idling.

It’s easy to look at trucks and see the soot coming out and say, “That’s really bad, I don’t want to breathe that,” Koupal said. But passenger vehicles are also a major part of the problem through their contribution to air toxins. He described a study done by USA Today in December 2008, where they looked at air quality monitoring at 95 different schools. They found elevated levels of benzene, he said, which primarily comes from gasoline car exhaust.

Benzene is a carcinogen, Koupal said, regulated by the EPA. Benzene is being found near schools because you see a lot of cars stacked up dropping off and picking up kids. In addition to benzene, he said, carbon monoxide is generated by vehicles. By one estimate, he said, one minute of exposure to engine exhaust is the same carbon monoxide exposure as smoking three packs of cigarettes. When you don’t see soot coming out of the tailpipe, it’s easy to think, “Oh, cars are much cleaner, it can’t be that unhealthy!” But the stuff that’s being put into our lungs and our kids’ lungs is really a health issue, he said. And that’s what the ordinance is meant to address. He encouraged the councilmembers to read the section of the white paper describing the health impacts.

Impact of Passenger Vehicles

Koupal said that Naud had asked him to look at the impact of passenger vehicles. Some idling ordinances in other communities look at trucks only, he said. The whole analysis is in the white paper that was provided to councilmembers.

The estimate from the Washtenaw County Transportation Study (WATS) is that on an average day in Ann Arbor, there are 440,000 passenger vehicle trips. Koupal said they estimated about 2,000 bus trips and 22,000 heavy truck trips (based on heavy trucks accounting for 5% of all vehicle miles traveled).

Proportion of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions from Light Duty Vehicles, Heavy Duty Vehicles, and Busses assuming 10% of vehicles idling for 10 minutes per trip

Proportion of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions from light-duty vehicles, heavy-duty vehicles, and buses – assuming 10% of vehicles idling for 10 minutes per trip. (Image links to .pdf of 2008 white paper.)

We don’t know how much they idle unnecessarily, Koupal said. But he called it a conservative estimate to assume that 10% of trips would include 10 minutes of unnecessary idling. In terms of the amount per day, it’s a not large contribution.

But it’s not a matter of overall ambient air quality, he said. The ordinance is meant to address the localized health impact – direct exposure at schools or for pedestrians downtown.

It’s also a matter of the relative contribution – close to half of overall pollution is attributable to passenger vehicles. Restricting focus to volatile organic compounds (e.g. benzene), passenger cars account for 2/3 of overall emissions. For carbon monoxide, cars account for around 90% of that gas. So it’s important to address passenger cars as well as trucks and buses, he said.

During council deliberations, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) questioned the assumption that 10% of trips including 10 minutes of unnecessary idling – which had been characterized as “conservative.” He said he wouldn’t imagine 10% of his trips include 10 minutes of unnecessary idling time.

Naud responded by saying it was an attempt get a rough idea. Naud felt there’s a lot of idling in winter in driveways, for example. Koupal noted that even if you cut the assumption in half, passenger cars still make a significant relative contribution to air toxins compared to heavy-duty trucks. The question that the 10%, 10-minute assumption tries to address is whether to regulate only heavy-duty engines, he said.

Localized Impact – Outreach to AAPS

At one point, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) summarized the goal of enacting an ordinance as not being about improving overall air quality – it’s more tactical. The idea is to focus on areas where large numbers of vehicles gather. Koupal responded by saying that he did not want to dismiss overall quality, but allowed that improving overall air quality is not the driver for the ordinance – most emissions come in non-idling contexts, he said.


The goal of the proposed idling ordinance is not to improve overall air quality. This map shows that July 1, 2011 was not a good day for air quality in the Ann Arbor area. (Image links to, which provides an archive of air historical air quality maps, and includes animations depicting the changes in air quality through the day.)

An often-mentioned localized context targeted by the ordinance was school drop-off and pick-up zones. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked Naud how much outreach had been done to the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Naud reported that initially there’d been a lot of talks, but recently not a lot of conversation. The person he’d spoken with previously had been the district’s executive director of physical properties, Randy Trent. Naud characterized AAPS as supportive – the district had its own policy but found it difficult to enforce. The district had done some of its own research and didn’t think a 3-5 minute timeframe would be a problem. But Naud allowed that no official conversation had taken place in a few years.

Queried by email about the current status of the district’s attitude toward the issue, AAPS director of communications Liz Margolis wrote to The Chronicle that the district had not continued conversations internally since the initial dialogue took place. She indicated that it would likely be referred to the district’s transportation safety committee, chaired by Brad Mellor.

anti-idling ordinance ann arbor

This is a view from south to north of an alley connecting the Klines lot with West Liberty Street. It's part of the Main Street historic district. A sign affixed to the east wall of the alley, about eight feet off the ground, is easily visible from the cab of a large delivery truck. The text of the sign asks drivers not to leave their engines idling – the exhaust damages historic properties. (Image links to larger resolution file.)

At the Jan. 17 working session, Briere pressed for more examples of the localized contexts the ordinance was meant to target – beyond people idling in driveways and school zones. Picking up on the mention during Koupal’s remarks of pedestrians in the downtown area, she asked if that is really an issue?

Naud responded by saying that it can be an issue downtown in loading and unloading zones. If an ordinance were to be enacted, Naud said, the city would need to buy signs. He has a rough estimate of how many zones there are. He noted that he knew of one case where someone had posted their own sign.

By way of additional background, the sign in question is located in an alley that connects West Liberty Street to the Klines Lot, on the downtown’s west side.

Does the sign work? Newcombe Clark, an Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member, lives in an apartment overlooking the alley. He responded to an email query by saying the “sign works with more veteran drivers. Newer drivers or drivers not on their normal route tend to ignore it.”

Responding to a question from Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), Naud said that it would be very expensive to undertake studies of air quality in the micro-environments where the city is trying to improve conditions.

Education versus Enforcement, Enactment

Responding to questions from councilmembers, Naud said he assumed public education would be a part of the enactment of the ordinance. He alluded to the city’s ordinance regulating phosphorus fertilizer.

By way of background, a key section of the city’s ordinance reads:

6:404. – Regulation of the use and application of manufactured fertilizer containing phosphorus.
(1) Manufactured fertilizer that contains any amount of phosphorus or a compound containing phosphorus, such as phosphate, shall not be applied to general turf within the City, except under 1 or both of the following conditions:
a. Application of manufactured fertilizer to an area where general turf is being established from seed or sod, during the first growing season of the seed or sod.
b. Application of manufactured fertilizer that is exempt under section 6:405 of this chapter.

For a more detailed discussion of phosphorus loading on the Huron River, see “Environmental Indicators: Phosphorus.”

Naud explained that the city was not interested in creating ordinances that are difficult to enforce. However, an ordinance provides a tool, when education and signs don’t work. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that in connection with the city’s experience with the pedestrian crosswalk ordinance, outreach had been stressed before enforcement. But in connection with that ordinance, the council hadn’t really talked about the impact on the city’s budget – how the city would implement the ordinance, and educate people on the meaning of the ordinance.

In that context, Briere wondered what the impact would be on staff and budget line items. If the city enacts this ordinance and chooses to engage in an educational program, it might mean the city can’t do something else. So she wanted more information on the budget impact.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) also wanted to know what the budget impact would be. Lumm expressed the view that education is fine, but enforcement is an entirely different matter. She wondered if an ordinance is an appropriate way to educate people. She asked how many fines had been issued for violations of the city’s phosphorus fertilizer ordinance – not a one, replied Naud.

Lumm ventured that the phosphorus example provided evidence that education is more helpful than penalizing people. Naud countered by saying literally millions of dollars had been spent on education about phosphorus fertilizers. Only when an ordinance was enacted, he said, were measurable reductions achieved in phosphorus loading on the Huron River. The ordinance got people paying attention and that changed the market. Ann Arbor is the only city in the country that has seen measurable reductions in phosphorus, Naud said.

For her part, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who has served on the city council for a decade, said she’d been listening to this discussion as long as she’s served on the council. To her, it’s an educational issue – drivers need to understand the improvements in engine technology that German had described.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) summed it up by saying that part of the educational effort is teaching people that the engine they have in their car now is not the one they grew up with. Higgins ventured that part of the educational impact would be to have “all those little people in your home [children]” chastise you. She said that if there were a child who’d learned in school that you should shut your car off, those children would be sitting in the back seat telling their parents: You should shut the car off!

Toward the end of the session on the idling ordinance, mayor John Hieftje told Naud that the council appeared interested in education. He described education as a wiser course than talking about enforcement. Hieftje wondered if there might be grant programs that could fund educational efforts. Hiefjte said he felt that the council had advanced the conversation already.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) got the last word. She said the city is fortunate to have two experts, like German and Koupal. She pointed to the list of other communities that have ordinances, saying that education is a great thing to get people to reduce idling – school kids and drivers education could help. But she added that an ordinance is a great tool to give a backbone to the concept itself.

Sometimes you need a threat in the back of your mind, Teall said. To pass an ordinance would say that the city thinks it’s important. She drew a comparison to the city’s graffiti ordinance, which was not enforced immediately on enactment. The idea is to work towards compliance, not enforcement. But when the educational efforts are disregarded, there needs to be a way to bring people into line, she concluded.

Next Steps

Based on the council’s deliberations, some kind of funding proposal for the educational component of any ordinance would likely be needed to get the council’s support for enacting an ordinance. Any councilmember could choose to place the ordinance on a future council agenda.

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  1. January 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm | permalink

    I noticed the use of the term “breather”. Is this word being used in a special sense; e.g., people with breathing problems? Or does it just mean “everyone”?

  2. January 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    Re: [1] Or does ["breather"] just mean “everyone”?

    I think the intended meaning is “everyone.”

  3. By Eric Boyd
    January 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm | permalink

    I suspect zombies are excluded.

  4. By Steve Bean
    January 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm | permalink

    “Lumm expressed the view that education is fine, but enforcement is an entirely different matter.”

    “[Higgins] said that if there were a child who’d learned in school that you should shut your car off, those children would be sitting in the back seat telling their parents: You should shut the car off!”

    That’s an enormous “if”, Marcia. Aside from school dropoffs, I’d venture that the percentage of overall passenger vehicle trips that include a child of school age is in the single digits. Also, what’s the deal with the propensity of adults to shift responsibility for their behavior to children?

    “[Heiftje] described education as a wiser course than talking about enforcement.”

    Maybe Lumm, Higgins, and Heiftje should run for school board if they’re more interested in education than the necessary and appropriate role of government to regulate behaviors that impact the commons. And way to try to limit the scope prior to a public hearing, folks!

    Granted, education is also a necessary and useful approach. However, as Naud’s and Teall’s examples demonstrate, education alone–especially in a world of information bombardment–tends to fall short.

    The question arises, are the reluctant council members sincerely open to an enforceable ordinance or are they hoping either that a funded education program would put an end to consideration of it, or that a failure to get funding could be used as a rationale for dropping it altogether?

    In Donella Meadows’ book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, which I mentioned in another thread, she describes a third approach to addressing the so-called tragedy of the commons: privatization of the commons (p. 119.) In this case, that would entail directing the tailpipe exhaust into the cab of the vehicle. Gotta say that there’s a certain sense of poetic justice to that image.

    I’ll have more to say on the likely effectiveness of the proposed ordinance later.

  5. By Kristi
    January 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    My third child going through the AAPS attends Huron. After nearly a decade of my kids playing sports I have now parked among idling cars countless times (for up to 15 mins) as I’ve waited to pick up my kids from their sports practices. It would be very easy for the schools to put up a sign, have coaches provide reminders, and simply have one parent each season receive a citation for there to be clean air for our kids to inhale as they walk to our cars. It wouldn’t take aggressive enforcement – a citation for one person would influence many parents on a sports team. In fact, I’d be willing to be the one to set an ‘example’!

  6. By G. Berry
    January 20, 2012 at 6:27 am | permalink

    The real issue here is whether the government has the right to prohibit a private citizen from using his/her private property for something as basic as staying warm. Some on city council would limit the use of a car for staying warm to five minutes in every hour. This raises some questions.
    First, if the city can restrict the use of private motor vehicles for staying warm, doesn’t it also have the right to do the same in private residences?
    Second, how would the pro ordinance council members respond if a homeless shelter used its furnace only five minutes in every hour and let the building to drop to outside temperatures during the remaining time?
    Finally, if staying warm is now a luxury, why doesn’t council insist that the HVAC system for council chambers should be shut down 55 minutes of every hour. This could have the collateral benefit of reducing the length of council meetings and keeping them focused on the real problems the city faces.

  7. January 20, 2012 at 9:07 am | permalink

    There was a mention at the AATA meeting last night of a state law (still in early days) regarding idling. I wonder how that would affect this local ordinance.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    January 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    It isn’t really private property if you’re sitting in the Huron High parking lot. Plus, even actions on private property can have an impact on people on the other side of the property line. This fetishization of private property as some sort of sacred desideratum of freedom really needs to be reined in a bit.

  9. By liberalNIMBY
    January 20, 2012 at 10:03 pm | permalink

    How perfectly do our councilmembers’ reactions—and attendance—exemplify the difference between “public servant” and “politician.” Yes, one of your Lexus-driving, soccer-mom donors is going to get a ticket. Yes, you’re going to get hysterical phone calls. Yes, the dot-com headlines are going to be all over you, gleefully chumming for comments by nanny-state-fearing township dodos. Get over it—there’s a goddamn asthma crisis, and there are far too many strollers being wheeled past rows of belching SUVs every day. You and your kids can keep your jackets on until the car warms up.

  10. By Barbara Carr
    January 24, 2012 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    At last we are at least discussing this public health issue! I believe we do need legislation and signage to establish the importance reducing exhaust emissions. Many people know about the problem (they are already “educated”), but they don’t DO anything about it. Parking lots should also be included in any local legislation. The penalties and enforcement don’t need to be extreme, but the message must be delivered. Because I have asthma I am particularly aware of exhaust fumes. Often I must restrain myself from angry actions when I walk past a parked car in which someone is eating his lunch, or talking on the phone with the windows closed, the engine going, and the weather is moderate to warm. This happens all the time. I have thought about printing a flyer and placing it on windshields, but am afraid to take the chance of angering some erratic person. So, please let’s set a sensible public policy that will both educate and encourage compliance.

  11. January 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm | permalink

    I had missed the NewsHawks’ coverage of this important issue from late fall 2011 – here it is. [link]