THE “verdant vigilante” is a familiar figure on the streets of New York, the non-caped crusader doing battle for the environment by forcing the drivers of celebrity-carrying stretch limos to switch off their idling engines.
Maybe Glasgow can’t match the glamour – but now it can match the crusade. Scotland’s biggest city has its own “verdant vigilante”.
Taking his cue from his famous Wall Street counterpart, property manager Eric Kay is spearheading a campaign in one of Glasgow’s pollution hotspots to get drivers to switch off so everyone else can breathe more easily.
A member of Hillhead Community Council, Kay’s biggest concern is vehicles parked with their engines running, and the risk it poses to the health and ambience of his West End neighbourhood.
Although councils throughout the country are able to issue fines to motorists caught with their engines ticking over for lengthy periods, enforcement has been falling because of staff cuts.
Kay knocks on drivers’ windows to alert them of the problem, handing them council leaflets warning of the penalty. His crusade mirrors that of the original verdant vigilante. George Pakenham was spurred into action four years ago when he saw a stretch limo with its engine running outside a restaurant near his Manhattan home while the driver’s clients were inside having dinner.
After discovering motorists could be fined up to $2,000 (£1,300) for the offence, Pakenham had the cards printed and started taking a tally of his thousands of encounters. He claims to have been successful in four out of five cases. He said: “I tell them that I’m just a concerned citizen and want to make sure we improve our environment and address our oil addiction.”
Pakenham now has his own website and has featured in print, radio and on television in the US and internationally.
Kay, who hopes to become equally successful, received a mixed reception from drivers last week in Byres Road.
One woman, sitting with her engine on outside the Bank of Scotland, refused to even talk to him before driving away.
But further up the street, a taxi driver whose engine was running as he waited for a parking space, admitted he had been fined before. He told Kay: “You are perfectly correct. What you are doing is right – I’m not bitter.” However, he said customers had complained if the cab was cold because he had switched off the engine.
Van driver Calum Mathieson, who runs GMC Floorcare, also readily agreed Kay had a point, saying: “I didn’t have an issue with air pollution until you told me. I noticed the difference when I was on a job in Arrochar [in Argyll], but I think it’s worse in Edinburgh than Glasgow.”
The UK’s biggest motoring group said idling engines cost 3p a minute in fuel, but cautioned against vigilante-ism.
Head of roads policy for the AA, Paul Watters, said: “If you are stopped for more than a couple of minutes, switch off. Put the engine on for small bursts of a minute or so if you need the heater.”
He added: “Handing out leaflets is OK, but entering into dialogue is always confrontational these days – it’s better left to officialdom.”
Glasgow City Council said drivers were fined £20 if they refused to switch off their engine after it had been idling for three minutes, but staff cuts had affected enforcement.
A total of 448 drivers have received penalties since 2005, but this has slumped from a peak of 146 in 2007 to just 16 last year.
A council spokesman said: “Our approach has always been to combine enforcement with education – and we have worked extensively with neighbouring authorities to raise public awareness of the problems engine idling causes.
“However, we have to acknowledge that nobody has resources to carry out these operations full time.”
Edinburgh City Council said no fines had been issued since they were introduced last year because the drivers caught had agreed to switch off their engines. Robert Aldridge, its environment convener, said: “Engine idling is a serious concern and is one of many contributors to transport-related pollution. We’re asking drivers to switch their engines off when parked or stationary for long periods of time.”
Kay is now being joined by other commun-ity activists to spread the word. He said: “The city council is concerned about the problem, but it has insufficient resources to tackle the issue. Part of the problem is many people are not aware of the impact of idling vehicles on air quality.
“Taxis are not the worst offenders; it’s drivers of company – or even council – vans. They are used to having their own microclimate and do not realise what it’s costing in fuel either.
“Ice cream vans are even worse, especially those stopped in parks. That is completely unacceptable.”
Kay insists that in Byres Road and other urban streets in other Scottish cities the level of pollutants in the air is increasing.
“During the recent warm weather, air pollution exceeded an acceptable level, which is a cause for concern, especially for residents,” he said.