Idling: costly for the environment and the economy

Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Chicago: The American Planning Association, 2009), 6.

Monopoly was wrong: there is no free parking. Since the launch of that quintessentially American board game in 1934, the number of cars in the U.S. has quadrupled from 50 to 200 million. Yet our centuries-old downtown streets have not gotten longer, or wider. The result: a dearth of curbside parking, as anyone who tries to stow his or her car in New York City or Boston knows.

Limited parking is not necessarily a bad thing: the harder it is to park, the more people will decide to ditch their cars and hop on the subway. That's good for the environment, pedestrians, and social equity.

But scarce parking in America's urban areas does have one major downside: idling. The practice of operating one's engine "at low speed, disengaged from [its] load," is something millions of drivers do every day while waiting for a parking spot, double-parking to run an errand, or—inthe case of truckers—taking their federally-required periodic breaks from driving.

The practice generates carbon emissions that negatively impact our environment. In the United States, long-haul truck and locomotive-engine idling produces annual emissions of some 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of nitrous dioxides, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While some idling may be unavoidable, much is voluntary—and ill-advised on various fronts. "Every year, we waste 5 to 8 percent of our gasoline idling, largely due to a misconception that idling causes less wear and tear, and even less fuel consumption, than shutting off and restarting a car's engine," reads the National Resources Defense Council's primer on transportation-related emissions.

To illustrate the negative impact of idling more locally, the Environmental Defense Fund asserts that to absorb the global-warming pollution of New York City curbside idlers alone, an area the size of Manhattan would need to be planted with trees every single year.

Idling also leads to increased gas consumption. By idling in personal automobiles, Americans waste between five and eight percent of gasoline each year, reports the NRDC. At three dollars a gallon, such profligacy adds up: in New York City, idling costs drivers $52 per car (or $33.6 million in total city-wide expenditures) annually. For commercial truck drivers and/or fleet owners, costs are higher. Surveys show that in the U.S. trucks idle from six to eight hours a day for as many as 250 to 300 days each year. At current fuel prices, this habit can result in drivers spending $6,000 extra in fuel costs, per truck, yearly.

While in the past government anti-idling initiatives have garnered little notice, increased effort to curb the practice will likely generate significant results. According to the NRDC, cutting down on idling by 50 percent would have an immense impact, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. That's roughly equivalent to the total yearly carbon emissions of the South American country of Paraguay.

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