Chicago Alderman’s Anti-idling Ordinance: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

September 1, 2023

43rd Ward alderman's proposal is driven by the immature impulses of a utopian fantasist

It has been only five months since Alderman Tim “Timmy” Knudsen (43) eked out a runoff victory over Brian Comer to represent Lincoln Park in the City Council, but Knudsen has started his first full term brimming with good — albeit misguided — intentions.

In June, Knudsen introduced an anti-idling ordinance which he says is “about protecting our planet,” and reducing global warming. It will, according to Knudsen, “save lives” by increasing pedestrian, bike and traffic safety, and will “protect kids’ health” by improving air quality near schools.

Unfortunately, this ordinance, like so much of the business transacted in the City Council, is almost entirely empty virtue signaling which will do nothing to reduce auto emissions, and — due to the exceptions that gut the rule, and the impracticality of its enforcement — will never be enforced. To his credit, Alderman Knudsen at least possesses the good sense to realize that without these exceptions, the ordinance would constitute a massive inconvenience to residents and bring commerce in Chicago to a grinding halt.

It was only 2009 when Chicago adopted an anti-idling ordinance, which prohibited operators of diesel engines from idling (standing with engine running) for three minutes within any one-hour period. The ordinance contains numerous exceptions, including for refrigerated vehicles and vehicles standing in traffic. Importantly, the ordinance also exempts all idling when the outdoor temperature is above 80F or below 32F.

Knudsen’s proposal would expand the 2009 ordinance broadly to include all internal combustion engines, and would expand the list of exceptions to include — among others — rideshare vehicles and taxis; food trucks; any vehicle actually loading or unloading passengers, merchandise or other contents; food delivery vehicles; and government vehicles. An exemption to Knudsen’s proposal would allow idling under the vague circumstance an idling vehicle is “necessary.” Enforcement is delegated to the Chicago Police Department (CPD), parking aides, and employees of the city’s Health and Transportation Departments.

In sum, Knudsen’s ordinance will exempt Amazon, UPS, FedEx, mail trucks, CPD vehicles, Uber, Lyft, food trucks, and food delivery vehicles, as well as all government vehicles. It is difficult to imagine what could possibly remain. Knudsen’s statement that the ordinance will “protect kids’ health” suggests that it is intended to apply to parents waiting in line to pick up their children after school. However, Knudsen’s proposal would apply only when the weather is not too cold or too hot, and only to those who drive autos with combustion engines, as opposed to those who drive electric vehicles.

Furthermore, the ordinance will soon be obsolete, owing to car manufacturers installing automatic “stop-start” technology, which automatically stops and starts a car engine when the car is standing. This feature greatly reduces engine idling.

In addition to its uselessness, the ordinance raises the obvious question of enforcement priorities. Most would agree that curbing soaring rates of armed robbery and carjacking are a more pressing need than whatever idling is not exempted by the ordinance.

This, naturally, brings us to the difficult questions revolving around enforcement of the proposed ordinance. Enforcement is likely to be non-existent for two reasons: The understaffing of the Chicago Police Department and the impracticality of enforcement. As to first point, the staffing shortage at CPD has been well documented elsewhere, as Chicago simply cannot afford to misuse police personnel in an understrength CPD. Second, it is wholly impractical and unproductive to demand officers be charged with monitoring idling cars. Imagine, for a moment, a police officer sitting for three minutes, timing the offending vehicle, and issuing a citation for the idling offense. Enacting laws that are never enforced diminishes respect for the legal system.

Knudsen’s idling ordinance evokes memories of Chicago’s anti-noise ordinance. Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., noise played over any loudspeaker that is “louder than average conversation level” at a distance of 100 feet or more is banned by the city. Violation from a car can subject the vehicle to impoundment. Yet, as any resident of Lake Shore Drive, the Gold Coast or River North can tell you, the noise ordinance law was rarely enforced, and today it has simply faded from memory.

Where does Alderman Knudsen’s proposed ordinance restricting idling cars leave us? While Alderman Knudsen’s draft proposal may be submitted with the best of intentions, violent crime in the 43rd Ward he represents is trending in an upward trajectory. In June, Lincoln Park suffered a mass shooting, which injured five, including a 17-year-old girl. While climate change may be an issue over which Knudsen may have a deep concern, the idling ordinance submitted in June represents his misplaced priorities. To best serve his residents, perhaps Knudsen could pivot to drafting legislation for the improvement of public safety, lowering taxes or improving Chicago’s miserable schools. All three, crime, taxes, and schools, should be of greater concern to Knudsen than idling cars.

Ultimately, the ordinance is probably harmless, but it is beyond silly to think that it will “save lives,” protect the planet, or in any meaningful way improve the quality of life for Chicagoans. Reducing the crime rate or simply just enforcing the noise ordinance would have a much greater positive impact.

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