Big Bus Tour employee Robgerlin Jackson stands outside the Spy Museum with his vehicle and a small fan around his neck on Aug. 15. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Big Bus Tour employee Robgerlin Jackson stands outside the Spy Museum with his vehicle and a small fan around his neck on Aug. 15. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

Outside the red double-decker tour bus he works on, Big Bus Tours employee Robgerlin Jackson stood with a small personal fan hanging around his neck. On the hot, humid day in early August, he and a coworker sat with their vehicle outside the Spy Museum, in a lane reserved for waiting commercial buses. 

Like the other buses in the row, Jackson’s vehicle wasn’t running the A/C.

“You have to open up the doors and let it get air in it, but you can’t just let it idle,” Jackson said. “It just can’t be done.” 

After more than six years with the company, the D.C. native knows the rules inside and out. In the District, commercial vehicles that run on gas or diesel cannot idle their engines for more than three minutes. If it’s below freezing, the time limit goes up to five minutes. The base fine for a first offense is $500, and the cost doubles for repeat offenders.

“Diesel exhaust specifically, has high levels of particulate matter, which we know affects both heart and lungs,” said Hannah Ashenafi, the associate director of the Air Quality Division at D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), which enforces engine idling laws. “There’s a lot of different health impacts.”

Vehicle exhaust is the single largest source of air pollution in the District. It causes ground-level ozone, also known as smog, which can cause respiratory issues and trigger asthma attacks. Plus, it’s expensive: idling a vehicle for two minutes burns about as much gas as a mile of driving, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).

Throughout August, MWCOG ran its “Turn Your Engine Off” campaign, which aims to provide information about idling laws in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to commercial vehicle drivers through direct outreach. MWCOG developed the yearly program about a decade ago, said Jennifer Desimone, the agency’s air program chief. 

“We typically have a lot of outreach to residents to businesses on kind of simple tips that they can do to help reduce air pollution, but there wasn’t any direct outreach to bus drivers, to truck drivers, to drivers of vehicles with diesel engines,” Desimone said. “That was a piece that was missing.”

During the three-week initiative, campaigners working with MWCOG spoke with bus and truck drivers around the DMV, focusing most of the outreach on two areas: I-95 rest stops and popular D.C. tourist spots with lots of motorcoaches. 

Drivers Say Scarce Parking Means Staying Out in the Heat

Jackson’s route with Big Bus Tours tends to keep the vehicle moving fairly consistently, because it operates with a hop-on, hop-off principle. But for tour buses taking groups in from out of town, waiting around for passengers to return is part of the gig. 

“I’m soaked with sweat,” said Richard Schoonard, a bus driver waiting with his vehicle on Jefferson Drive SW while his group checked out the Bible Museum. “It’d be a lot nicer if they wouldn’t close off all the bus parking and then regulate the idling at the same time.”

The National Park Service recently closed a popular commercial bus parking spot in Hains Point in July as part of a major traffic safety project. An NPS spokesperson said that metered spots just north of the spot along Ohio Drive provide “ample available space for bus parking.”

According to maps on DDOT’s website, the city offers more than 400 paid parking spots for buses. The biggest lots—like the 100 spots each at RFK Stadium and Union Station—are far away from popular tour spots. 

Evan Anderson, Director of Safety & Compliance for Anderson Coach and Travel, said that going across the city to park can make it difficult to follow the rules regarding how long drivers can be on the road during a given day.

Drivers say the rest of the spots, especially those on the street, fill up fast. Anderson said drivers often find spots reserved for commercial buses taken up by individual vehicles. With the loss of Hains Point, he hopes DDOT ramps up enforcement to make sure bus drivers can use the spots set aside for them.

“It’s very counterintuitive,” said Schoonard. “The [other] option is for the bus driver to loop around the city with no parking for six hours until they can pick up, which is more polluting. But at least we’re following the law.”

Idling Enforcement Elsewhere in the City — Residents Can Speak Up

While DOEE does not keep track of the type of vehicles that receive citations for idling, Ashenafi said that the agency’s four-person team of inspectors most often encounters construction vehicles like dump trucks and flatbed trucks. The team responds to 311 complaints and focuses routine inspections in areas that already face high air pollution burdens, Ashenafi said, including Brentwood and Ivy City

“We have a total of four inspectors to do air quality for the whole District,” Ashenafi said. “We enforce it as best as we can.” 

Following up on typical 311 calls about idling is difficult because the vehicle is often gone by the time an inspector arrives, Ashenafi said. But DOEE also has another option for citizens concerned about trucks polluting in their neighborhood.

If residents use the free 311 app to submit two time-stamped photos, five minutes apart, that show an idling vehicle’s license plate for identification, DOEE can use it to enforce the law. Since implementing this community enforcement option in 2018, Ashenafi said the agency has gotten just 106 submissions—most of which come from a handful of the same people. Those complaints are relatively effective, though: out of 106 vehicles residents reported idling, over 80 of them have already had to pay a fine. 

“We can’t be everywhere all at once, so I think that the community enforcement program definitely helps,” Ashenafi said. “And also, we really want to use it to empower residents to be able to have their own say in what things are enforced in the District.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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