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Idling rules could get tougher as city looks at bylaw changes

Car exhaust contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and reducing the time people can idle their vehicles could make a big difference, says one expert.  (Yvon Theriault/CBC - image credit)
Car exhaust contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and reducing the time people can idle their vehicles could make a big difference, says one expert. (Yvon Theriault/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa is looking at revamping its idling bylaw in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it wants to know what residents think.

Enacted in 2007, the idling control bylaw currently limits the majority of drivers to running their vehicles for no more than three minutes in a given 60-minute period.

It's in effect when the temperature is between 5 C and 27 C; when it's warmer or colder, drivers can idle as long as they want.

There are also exemptions for emergency vehicles, mobile workshops, OC Transpo buses and other vehicles in the city's fleet that provide municipal services.

In July 2022, council directed staff to have another look at the bylaw, including those exemptions, fines and enforcement.

"It was time to dust it off," said Valerie Bietlot, the city's manager of public policy development.

"[We need to] make sure that the provisions of the bylaw are still working well, and essentially still meeting council's goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality in Ottawa."

There's currently a survey online until mid-March, seeking feedback on why residents idle, where they see other vehicles idling and how that impacts them.

The city also wants feedback on the proposed changes, which could also include shortening the idling window.

"We are asking several questions around potential policy changes, in particular considering a reduction from three minutes to one minute," said Matthew Suatac, a bylaw review specialist with the city.

"And we want to hear from the public on how that might impact them."

Ecology group in support

One Ottawa-based ecology group is in favour of the review.

"I think it's excellent," said Angela Keller-Herzog, executive director with the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability.

Keller-Herzog said she'd like to see drivers only get one minute of idling, along with the tightening of other restrictions.

"I think in terms of the temperature range, we could probably take it to a bit colder. You know, we are Canadians," she said.

The review process, Keller-Herzog said, should also look at whether there needs to be a blanket exemption for municipal and emergency vehicles.

"If there's bylaw officers [who are letting their vehicles run while] giving parking tickets, why should they basically commit a bylaw infraction while enforcing another bylaw? That is just too ironic," she said.

Angela Keller-Herzog is the executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability Ottawa.
Angela Keller-Herzog is the executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability Ottawa.

Angela Keller-Herzog is the executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability Ottawa. She says any new idling bylaw should also tighten up the rules for municipal vehicles. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Small changes can make a big difference, says expert

Staff have researched how Ottawa compares to other cities, Suatac said. They've found idling bylaws across Ontario and the country vary greatly, including when it comes to fines.

Ottawa's current fine is $500, while just across the river in Gatineau, Que., you'll only pay $50 for an infraction. 

Other jurisdictions like Toronto and Burlington, Ont., have already reduced the allowed idling time to one minute, something recommended by Natural Resources Canada.

"It's very important to know that your car, if it's idling for more than 10 seconds, it's actually idling unnecessarily," said Robert McLeman, professor of environmental studies at Wilfird Laurier University.

While two or three minutes of idling might not seem like much, when added up it makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gas pollution, McLeman said.

Federal government research has found that if everyone who idled their vehicle reduced their idling time by three minutes a day, it would be the equivalent of taking 320,000 vehicles off the road — a good reason, McLeman said, for the city to consider it.

"It's probably a fraction of a litre of gasoline, but when we add it all up, it's the equivalent of taking multiple cars off the road altogether, just in the city of Ottawa," he said.

After the public consultation wraps up in mid-March, staff will analyze the information and post a report online. Recommendations are slated to be in the hands of council members in the fall.