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Case Study: Implementing an Idling-Control By-Law in London, Ontario


In November 1999, the City of London, Ontario, passed an idling-control by-law. This case study outlines why and how the by-law was conceived, developed and implemented and describes the City's preliminary plans to advise citizens of the by-law and its enforcement. This study also reports on developments regarding the by-law as of fall 2000 and aims to share the City's experience with other communities that are considering implementing a similar by-law.

How the Idea Emerged

In 1996 the City of London was developing a 20-year plan to address the needs of a growing and changing city. Creating the plan involved researching and reporting on several topics, including transportation, vehicle emissions and land protection. The issues of environmental protection and air quality were frequently raised. The City had also been participating in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' "Partners for Climate Change" initiative. In October 1997, the Middlesex-London Health Unit released its State of the Environment Report on Air Quality, which described how air contaminants from the Ohio Valley were negatively affecting air quality in the Windsor-Quebec corridor. The report offered several recommendations to improve air quality. In addition, the Province of Ontario had developed a plan with municipalities and the business community to reduce smog through voluntary emissions-reduction targets.

From these factors emerged the idea of developing an air-quality policy for the City of London. A range of stakeholders supported the idea, including City staff, City councillors, a community advisory group on the environment and the Middlesex-London Health Unit.

First Steps

A City councillor asked the Health Unit to comment on the feasibility of London having an air-quality policy and to suggest what should be included. Together, they discussed possible initiatives, such as encouraging the use of alternative fuels, undertaking regular maintenance of fleets and personal-use vehicles, and implementing an idlingcontrol by-law.

The councillor brought the idea of the by-law to City Council, where it was referred to the Advisory Committee on the Environment (ACE) for review. The ACE, appointed by City Council, comprises voting and non-voting members. Voting members consist of citizens with an interest in environmental protection. Representatives from the Health Unit and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment are non-voting members who sit on the committee to provide information and advice. The ACE directly supports the Environment and Transportation Committee (ETC), which is a subcommittee made up entirely of City councillors.

ACE members had already been exploring ways to improve air quality in London and had noted recommendations in recent reports to City Council, including the idea of implementing an anti-idling by-law. The ACE approached the Health Unit for assistance. The recommendation for the anti-idling by-law complemented the Health Unit's work because of the perceived public health benefits of decreasing air contaminants. Stakeholders from City Council, the ACE and the Health Unit worked together on the idea. The by-law had immediate appeal because it seemed to be simpler to implement than other initiatives being considered.

Initial Research

ACE members consulted a number of sources on the topic of vehicle idling, including Natural Resources Canada, Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, to determine the impacts of idling and current policies and practices. They also looked at how other jurisdictions, including Toronto, Montréal and Caledon, had implemented idling-control by-laws.

Health Unit staff searched for published material that linked health benefits to idling-control by-laws. Although little published material was found, Internet searches revealed that there was activity and legislation around the world related to vehicle idling.

In December 1997, the ACE submitted a report to the ETC that outlined impacts of idling and reasons to proceed with an idling-control by-law.

Council Hears Two Views

In November 1998 the ETC raised the issue at City Council. The proposed by-law was being seriously considered, but questions arose regarding the actual impact of the by-law. For example, would the benefits of implementing the by-law merit the resources required? The subcommittee was asked to review the by-law further. During this time, the proposed by-law received attention from the local press. To assist with the review, the ETC invited the Health Unit to attend a subcommittee meeting to discuss the issue. Supporters were encouraged by the media attention, and many felt that if the ETC supported the views of the Health Unit and recommended to City Council that the by-law be implemented, that it had a good chance of passing.

During the subcommittee meeting, however, an engineer with the City's Environmental Services Division raised concerns over vehicle "cold starts." He cited a scientific journal that indicated that it takes a few minutes for a vehicle's catalytic converter to heat up once the vehicle is started. The article stated that a catalytic converter, which is used to treat exhaust emissions, does not operate at capacity until it is warmed up. Some experts have argued that the first few minutes after starting a vehicle accounts for 80 percent of pollution from cars that are equipped with converters.

The engineer was concerned that increasing the number of times that a car is turned on and off may actually increase the amount of emitted ozone precursors. He suggested that the City focus instead on other initiatives to improve air quality, such as promoting cycling and taking public transit, until the positive impact of an idling by-law could be demonstrated.

City Council asked all parties to revisit the issue in order to answer the following questions:

  • Would an idling by-law increase or decrease harmful vehicle emissions?
  • What are other levels of government doing to reduce vehicle emissions?
  • How does stopping and starting a vehicle affect its emissions levels?

Further Research Inconclusive

Over the next few months, the Health Unit met with Ministry of Environment staff and reviewed published material. There did not appear to be any helpful research results available, however. The Health Unit then engaged engineering consultants who worked in the area of air quality. The Health Unit specifically wanted to know if an idling by-law would have a positive impact on reducing vehicle emissions and therefore have a positive impact on public health. The engineers' report provided some guidance, but was inconclusive regarding the impact of turning off a catalytic converter for short periods of time.

Mother Nature Steps In

While staff at the Health Unit and members of the ACE are looking for answers, the weather put the idling by-law back in the forefront. During the spring and summer of 1999 there were three air-quality alerts. The legal department of the City of London was asked to draft a by-law, and the City's medical officer was asked to submit a report to the ETC with one of the key questions being "Where do we go from here?" Staff at the Health Unit responded as best they could and again recommended that the by-law be passed. The Health Unit also indicated that it would be willing to enforce the by-law. In August 1999, City Council passed the idling by-law. It became law in November 1999, when the final schedule was approved by the Office of the Attorney General.

London's idling by-law is similar to Toronto's except that it makes no reference to boats, and the allowable idling period was extended from three minutes to five.

Key Facilitators

Parties involved in the process were asked to identify what factors helped implement the by-law. Following are their comments.

  • Political climate: The political climate was right because air quality was a stated priority of municipal, provincial and federal governments. There were also key organizations, such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, that were undertaking initiatives that were specifically related to improving air quality.
  • Political support: Political support from City councillors was instrumental in initiating the discussion of the by-law and in keeping it alive when there was opposition. There were a few occasions where a decision could have been made to abort the process. In these instances, supporters suggested further review instead of taking a vote or stopping the process.
  • Community-based support: The ACE was instrumental in initiating and developing the by-law. It provided community input and took the lead at key points that no doubt kept the process alive. A key strength was that the ACE had direct access to City councillors.
  • Active involvement from the Health Unit: Similar to the ACE, the Health Unit showed tireless support for the by-law. Because of its well-regarded position in the community, its support gave the process credibility and profile.
  • Working together: The combined and collaborative efforts of the ACE, City councillors and the Health Unit increased the impact of each stakeholder.
  • Simple, tangible and controllable: In light of the political environment and growing concern related to air quality in London, there was a will to take action. The by-law is a concrete and comparatively simple step. Although it is only one part of a far bigger problem, it was something that persons working at a local level and individual citizens could do to improve air quality.
  • Credibility: Having a by-law gives the issue of excessive vehicle idling more credibility. Some argued that an education program was all that was needed. Supporters of the by-law, however, argued that education was not enough. They suggested that passing a law legitimizes and raises the profile of the issue and provides a way to deal with the chronically non-compliant. Those hoping to see tangible results found the argument convincing.
  • Taking responsibility for enforcement: Enforcing a by-law requires resources. When the Health Unit accepted responsibility for enforcement, this removed a possible barrier.
  • Similar by-laws in other communities: The fact that other communities had passed similar by-laws facilitated its acceptance. Precedents had been set.
  • Air-quality alert days: One of the strongest facilitators was the occurrence of three air-quality alerts in the summer that the law was passed. Growing concerns about air quality and press coverage that London had a higher risk of mortality on these days drew much public attention. These were powerful motivators to take action.

Key Barriers

The following were seen as key barriers to implementing the by-law:

  • Lack of empirical evidence: The concern related to vehicle cold starts appeared to be a major stumbling block. Conflicting information regarding to the best way to proceed caused confusion and hesitancy among key decision-makers.
  • Scepticism regarding the by-law's impact: Sceptics were concerned that the impact would not warrant the resources expended. Some believed that the key problems originated outside the region (i.e., air contaminants from the Ohio Valley). Others believed that the by-law would be difficult to enforce and therefore have a minimal impact. They argued that it would be more effective to focus on other areas and that an education program would be the best route.

Lessons Learned

Parties involved in initiating the by-law offer the following as lessons learned:

  • Get key players onside. At the outset of the process, organize support within key stakeholder groups. These include community-based groups, the local health authority, City Council, City staff and the Ministry of Environment.
  • Get key players working together. Develop a mechanism in which stakeholders can work collaboratively.
  • Gather as much support information as you can early in the process. A critical step is to be convincing regarding the value of having an idling-control by-law. Collect as much information as possible on the effects of vehicle idling on air quality, climate change, public health and other topics, and be prepared to relate the local benefits of having a by-law.
  • Develop a strategy for measuring the impact of the by-law. Even if empirical evidence is not available, develop indicators of success. As one Londoner stated, "Be ready for this question, as it will come up."
  • Ensure that councillors who are championing the initiative are well informed. Giving them as much information as possible to address queries will help smooth the process.
  • Learn from and refer to the experiences of communities that have passed an idling-control by-law.
  • Determine responsibility for key roles early in the process. Having clear strategies on communicating and enforcing the law will remove barriers.
  • Emphasize the indirect benefits of an idling by-law. The direct impact of an idling by-law on overall air quality is not likely to be significant. However, it increases public awareness of this and other environmental issues and contributes to awareness that there are steps that individuals can take. The overall value of an idling by-law should not be determined by examining only direct impacts.
  • The argument for an idling by-law is most convincing when it is made within the context of a more comprehensive air-quality policy.

Communicating the By-Law to Citizens

Communicating the London's idling-control by-law to its citizens is expected to be a collaborative effort among the Health Unit, the ACE and City staff. The parties involved emphasized that the success of the by-law depends on effective promotion and public education. As one interviewee pointed out, "It is a behavioural change, just like smoking and seat belts, and needs to be regarded as such. You can't just make the law and leave it. It will not amount to anything if it is not promoted."

There was also general agreement that, although some communications tools will be directed at vehicle-idling behaviour, communications initiatives should be within the context of the broader issue of air quality. As of fall 2000, London's key communications tool for its idling by-law has been radio public-service announcements. This campaign focused on air quality and emphasized what citizens can do when there is an airquality

advisory. The radio spots, written by the Health Unit's communications manager, focused on more than the anti-idling message and highlighted a range of other actions that citizens can take to improve air quality. Local personalities recorded the 30-second messages. Some spots were aired free of charge; air time for other spots was paid for.

Other elements of the communications plan include:

  • communications with municipal staff;
  • "no idling" signs;
  • posters and literature to be distributed to key organizations, such as day-care centres; and
  • billboards.

Some interviewees noted that the timing of communications activities is key. For example, the City will probably step up the campaign in the spring and summer to coincide with likely air-quality alerts. The assumption is that citizens will be more receptive to air-quality issues at such times and that this will increase the campaign's impact. London's communications campaign was still being developed at the time of this writing. However, there appeared to be concern that resources committed to the by-law's promotion will be inadequate and thereby limit its effectiveness. For the short term, the ACE has applied to an Environment Canada program for assistance with London's air-quality public outreach programs.

Implementing and Enforcing the By-Law

The Middlesex-London Health Unit is playing the lead role in implementing and enforcing the idling by-law. In fact, it is leading energy efficiency initiatives in the London area to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions. This is a new and unique role for the Health Unit, which has been allocated resources for 2001 to enable it to hire an airquality/energy manager.

Compared to other jurisdictions, it is unique to have the local health authority enforce the by-law. London's by-law will be enforced by public health inspectors (in Toronto, by-law enforcement officers enforce its anti-idling by-law). Enforcement will be linked with education. Although enforcement officers have been fully trained and have the power to issue tickets, they plan at first to focus on education and issue warnings. As one interviewee stated, "our approach is to warn people first and not give fines yet." In time, tickets will be issued.

Having public health inspectors enforce the by-law is seen as appropriate because of their training in public education on health issues. Some other by-laws they enforce have a stronger compliance tone, but limiting vehicle idling is seen as more of a community initiative, and its enforcement should take a different enforcement approach.

London's enforcement of the idling-control by-law has three approaches:

  • Citizens can complain directly to the Health Unit when an infraction occurs, reporting the situation, location and the offender's vehicle licence number(s). Enforcement officers will focus on repeat offenders.
  • Citizens can report "typical idling behaviour." This includes situations that are not taking place at the time the report is made, but that reportedly "go on all the time." Enforcement officers will contact the parties involved.
  • Enforcement officers plan to encourage community commercial organizations to initiate idling policies if they operate fleets. Enforcement officers are also developing a program that rewards positive idling behaviour.


London's experience with implementing its idling-control by-law points to the value of making such an initiative part of an overall air-quality or environmental policy. It should involve the local health authority, City staff, City Hall, the Ministry of Environment, community stakeholders and the local business community. Without such support, progress on the larger issue of environmental protection may never happen.

Further Information

For further information on implementing an anti-idling by-law or on other aspects of energy efficiency, please contact Catherine Ray of Natural Resources Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency by e-mail at