An effort in Palo Alto to pass a law barring cars from idling moved ahead on Monday night, when the City Council fully endorsed the new ordinance.
By an 8-0 vote, with City Councilman Adrian Fine absent, the council directed staff to come up with an ordinance that would make it illegal for cars to run their motors while standing still for more than two or three minutes. The new law would be based on similar ordinances in Salt Lake City, Utah and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once drafted, the ordinance would go to the council's Policy and Services Committee for review before the full council adopts it.
The drive to pass an anti-idling ordinance was sparked by a campaign conducted by youth members of the local Sierra Club Chapter and Shelly Gordon Gray, a Sierra Club board member who also sits on the city's Human Relations Commission. Earlier this year, students attended a council meeting to show an educational video they made of cars idling in front of Hoover Elementary School. They have also been talking to administrators and teachers at local schools and distributing cards for students to take home and have their parents sign, pledging that they won't idle outside schools.
In response, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and council members Karen Holman, Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois co-authored a memo urging a new anti-idling ordinance. The law, they acknowledged, would prioritize education over enforcement. The primary costs, according to the memo, would be posting signs at idle-rich places such as schools, truck delivery stops and employee-bus stops. Even independent of enforcement, "just signs and education are likely to have some impact," the memo states.
"I think there's very little dependency on enforcement," said Filseth, who calculated that the ordinance would reduce emissions by roughly the same amount as taking between 120 and 240 cars off the road per year. "It's just getting people to think differently -- like separating our food scraps. We sort of internalized that."
Kniss, a former Santa Clara County supervisor, said that the county already has an anti-idling law that pertains to trucks, buses and other large vehicles. Palo Alto's new ordinance would apply a similar approach to cars and other smaller vehicles.
"Most people think if you turn your car off and turn it on again, you are wasting gas," Kniss said. "Any number of studies show this is actually not the case."
Tanli Su and Rachel Loewy, members of Sierra Club's youth division, told the council that they've reached out to councils in Los Altos, Saratoga and Los Gatos. In all three cases, officials expressed interest in prohibiting idling.
"We believe if Palo Alto takes the lead and passes this ordinance, it will have a domino effect and other cities will get on board," Loewy told the council.
Council members agreed that, if nothing else, the new ordinance will raise awareness of the issue. Holman said since she has learned more about the issue, she has observed more people idling for long periods of time. Three weeks ago, she observed someone sleeping in their vehicle while the motor was on, Holman said.
"With the increased incident rate around asthma and among young children, I think this is an important leadership position to take and an important leadership action to take," Holman said.
Andy Zeng, vice chair of the youth division of Sierra Club's climate action team, said idling laws is one area in which Palo Alto has fallen behind. He endorsed a two-step approach -- with an education campaign followed by enforcement.
The memo acknowledges that the anti-idling ordinance would make exceptions for emergency responders heading to calls, Public Works vehicles working on projects and individuals who need to keep the engine running because of health conditions. It argues that the new ordinance would make a "modest but measurable" contribution toward the city's "80 by 30" goal, which calls for reducing emissions by 80 percent by the year 2030.
Not everyone at Monday's meeting was convinced that the new ordinance is a good idea. Omar Chatty, vice president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, asked the council to respect the intelligence of the city's residents, who are well-educated and who "don't need laws for every nit-picky thing."
"Let's not turn Palo Alto anymore into an over-regulated eco-socialist mini-state," Chatty said.