New York City clean air program pays citizens to report truck idling

A white-paneled truck lay motionless and idling in Midtown one recent morning, its driver wrapped in his phone and oblivious to what was happening outside.

There, in the street, Paul Slapikas was stalking his prey. Slender and 81-year-old Mr. Slapikas stood in front of the truck like a bewildered tourist, a camera around his neck and a map sticking out of his jacket pocket. He seemed to be deep in conversation on an old flip phone—wide hand gestures, glancing at a watch, crane his neck as if looking for a friend.

After exactly three minutes and 10 seconds, Mr Slapikas – a lifelong New Yorker who lives a few miles away in Queens – turned off the phone, tapped on his watch screen and walked away. If all goes as it should, he just made $87.50, and maybe more, for those few minutes, and the company that owns the truck will be fined at least $350 than they did. never saw it coming. But for now, Mr. Slapikas is at the end of the block, a bounty hunter casually searching for his next target.

“Easy choices,” said the former marine computer scientist and retiree from Woodside.

This is a benign sounding but often noisy city scene Citizen Complaint Program on the Air, a public health campaign that urges — and pays — people to report trucks that are parked and idling for more than three minutes, or one minute if they’re outside a school. Those who report collect 25% of any fine against a truck by submitting a video just over 3 minutes long that shows the engine running and the company name on the door.

The program has dramatically increased the number of idling truck complaints sent to the city, from a handful before its inception in 2018 to more than 12,000 last year. Some of these complaints become threatening when truckers react.

“I go out thinking I’m going to get attacked,” said Ernest Welde, 47, an environmental lawyer. “I had my bags stolen by truckers. I was physically assaulted. I had to call the police several times. »

Another man, Eric Eisenberg, had a similar experience across town last year. An Amazon driver and two co-workers noticed Mr. Eisenberg pointing his phone camera at their idling truck, knocked him to the ground and held him down, according to a lawsuit Mr. Eisenberg filed in January .

“Yeah, that’s how it is, Dad,” one of the men said, according to the lawsuit.

Vehicle idling in the United States is thought to collectively expel millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year, and researchers have estimated that eliminating excessive idling of personal vehicles alone would have an impact. similar to the withdrawal of 5 million of the country’s 250 million cars. .

Several states have anti-idling laws, but few have citizen outsourcing programs like New York City.

The program and increased interest in filing complaints have brought a new game of cat-and-mouse to the city streets, as citizen journalists prowl for idling trucks and drivers, perhaps being bitten by past fines, increasingly wary of people with cameras. New levels of stealth have come into play, such as Mr. Slapikas’ tourist disguise.

The camera around his neck has no film. The flip phone does not work. These are distractions from what’s really going on, which he asked not to explain in detail and therefore reveal to the truckers – suffice it to say it’s an iPhone that it doesn’t fit in his hands as he records. And a lot of fake calls on the flip phone.

If all that sounds like a lot of trouble for a $350 fine quarterback, consider this: Mr Slapikas said he received $64,000 in rewards in 2021 for simply paying attention to his daily walks for exercise: “I would expect to get three a day without even looking.

He is one of approximately 20 busy citizen journalists who collectively submit some 85% of complaints to the city, an analysis of data found last year. They include a pediatrician, several lawyers and a retired police detective. The loose group swap tips and stories, call themselves Idling Warriors, and file hundreds of complaints a month. The pandemic and the city’s increased reliance on deliveries have only brought more work.

The city paid more than $724,000 in premiums last year alone, and $1.1 million since 2019. For its part, the city collected $2.4 million in fines last year, up 24% compared to the serious launch of the program three years ago.

And yet, several citizen journalists have said in interviews that creaky bureaucracy, loopholes, waivers and an apparent disinterest in issuing increasing numbers of fines have left countless fines uncollected.

For every fine it imposes, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the program, appears to discount others for reasons that to reporters seem arbitrary: the name of the company is not readable on the door of the truck, even though the license plate would reveal the owner. The truck’s engine is not clearly audible in the video, although smoke can be seen coming out of the exhaust pipe.

Mr Welde, the lawyer, said he filed some 2,000 complaints last year and most have yet to be dealt with.

“I got the city to have probably close to $800,000 in revenue and they just leave that on the table if they don’t have staff to go in there and report,” he said. declared.

A deputy commissioner for the department, Angela Licata, said the system is still evolving and hopefully improving, but the strict requirements for filing a complaint are necessary to successfully pursue that claim in court later.

“We can also understand that these people put a lot of time and energy into this,” she said. “We don’t want them to get frustrated.”

She said a staff of 14 manages the constant stream of complaints whereas before the program it was the occasional task of one person.

Excessive idling has been illegal since the 1970s, and the city unveiled a renewed anti-idling program in 2020 with the kitschy endorsement of, yes, Billy Idol, the spiky-haired rock star of “Rebel Yell” and ” White Wedding”. “Billy never idles”, went the slogan.

By then, the citizen reporting program had been quietly operational for over a year. Mr. Welde, the environmental lawyer, recalls a dramatic confrontation earlier in his report. He was filming a truck – “United Refrigeration”, he said – and the driver noticed it and turned it off, but when Mr Welde started to drive away, he turned it back on. Mr. Welde resumed filming.

“He went from zero to 100 and started taking off his shirt and watch and started chasing me,” he said. “Iran.”

Welde said he was passionate about improving air quality before the rewards program, but called it a great incentive. “Money is great,” he said. If his unaddressed complaints from last year result in fines, he expects to make between $200,000 and $225,000, he said.

Making the video is the easy part of the complaint. “Now the work begins,” Mr. Slapikas said. Videos and photos should be compressed and timestamped and accompanied by screenshots of credentials. Originally, the signature of a notary was required, but today, a sworn statement by the rapporteur is sufficient.

There is more work: It is the responsibility of citizen reporters, after filing their complaints, to follow them through the system of summonses and hearings. Many are surprised to learn that it is also their responsibility to determine whether a truck is a repeat offender, and therefore subject to a larger fine – and the reporter a larger bounty. Reporters said they spend hours sifting through open data records to see if any trucks have ever been cited — and wondering why the city isn’t doing it in the first place.

Ms Licata said the ministry was considering identifying repeat offenders itself and possibly increasing their fines.

Journalists are also responsible for claiming their rewards months later, once they learn a fine has been paid. The city does not automatically pay journalists.

The various hurdles may explain why the number of people who regularly deal with them is only about 20. A Manhattan attorney who has filed numerous complaints said he believes most people who don’t file only one give up.

The thrill of the hunt remains. “Your adrenaline is so pumped because you could be assaulted by this person at any time,” Mr Welde said. “I have a file with just assaults on my computer.”

Yet he tells his friends about the program. “Everyone I say that to says to me, ‘That’s great, I want to do it,’ and no one does,” he said. Similarly, Mr Slapikas said those around him showed little interest: “They don’t have the motivation to do it themselves, it’s a full-time job.”

In Midtown, Mr. Slapikas approached an idling truck as if it were a nervous animal, leaning down to place his palm on the exhaust pipe and confirm that its engine was running.

“They say the streets are paved with gold,” he said. He started his video, capturing the license plate, and slowly walked forward so he could record the sound of the engine. He started talking on his cell phone; if anyone had been there, they might have heard him reciting Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

In a truck Mr. Slapikas checked in sat a driver named Jason Rodriguez. Did he notice? “Never,” he said moments later, after Mr. Slapikas left. He turned off his engine. “Thanks for the warning,” he said, adding that his boss had previously warned against the complaints program. “He said it wasn’t fair.”

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