City Living

San Jose tackled two noise problems in one meeting

Photo credit: Tim Wilson licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In San Jose, California, the City Council recently considered two separate community noise issues in the same meeting: leaf blowers and train noise. Either the Council members are brave, because they’re willing to take on two typically nasty and intractable battles at once, or they were in for a nightmare meeting they didn’t anticipate!

Read the San Jose Spotlight article above closely and you’ll see that California actually has some tools available to regulate noise that many other regions of the U.S. do not, such as the California Air Resources Board and a statewide cap-and-trade program. Either of those programs could fund a “buy-back/Buy-Quiet” program that would remove polluting gas-powered leaf blowers and other gas-powered outdoor maintenance equipment and substitute electrical alternatives. That could accelerate the state-wide regulation of small gas-powered devices. In fact, California is far ahead of the rest of the country in regulating this equipment, with about 70 cities in the state having already addressed this problem

According to the San Jose Spotlight, Sunnyvale, Los Gatos, Los Altos, Palo Alto, and Mountain View have already banned gas leaf blowers and roughly “70 cities across California have some restrictions on gas leaf blowers, including Los Angeles, South Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.”

What about train noise? The train-noise issue is entirely separate. But it turns out that the regulatory agency did NOT consult with local neighborhoods before they increased night-time train schedules. So San Jose caught the agency on a technicality.

Either way, this must have been an interesting City Council meeting in San Jose, and we wish the city’s citizens good fortune!

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Is Boston too noisy? One city councilor says “Yes!”

Photo credit: Henry Han licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from Boston.com reports that city councilor at-large Althea Garrison is concerned about the adverse health impacts of high urban noise levels.

She’s right to be concerned. There can be no rational doubt that urban noise levels in many American cities are high enough to damage hearing, disrupt sleep, and cause hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and stress.  Anything that interferes with or disrupts sleep will cause adverse health and productivity impacts.  And noise causes stress and anxiety, too.

Kudos to Councilwoman Garrison for looking out for her fellow Bostonians. If enough people in other cities complain to their elected officials about noise, I can guarantee that laws will be enacted and enforced to make cities quieter. Because if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

San Francisco’s BART has been made quieter

Photo credit: Luis Villa del Campo licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article by Dianne de Guzman, SFgate.com, reports that the San Francisco area’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system trains have been made quieter after repairs to track and wheels. More importantly, BART has ordered 775 new cars to be delivered in 2022, and these cars have specifically been designed to be quieter.

I have hyperacusis.  Sounds that don’t bother others are uncomfortable or even painful to me. I rode BART from the airport to downtown on a recent trip to San Francisco. It was certainly quieter than the subways in New York and London, but I still put on my noise-cancelling headphones (which were in my backpack for the flight up to SFO) because it was loud enough to be uncomfortable for me. I didn’t measure the sound pressure level, but I would estimate it to be 80-85 decibels, and that’s loud enough to cause hearing loss.

Subway noise is a problem in many cities, New York and London among them. But as New York City’s newest subway line and BART show, public rail transit can be made quieter. As The Quiet Coalition’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD, wrote: if there’s a will to make subways quieter, there’s certainly a way. This isn’t rocket science, simply bread-and-butter acoustic engineering.

And that’s perhaps the most important point. There seems to be a growing awareness that urban noise is a problem, and that it’s actually relatively easy and not all that expensive to make cities quieter.

Because if the subway sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

New NYC bill targets siren noise

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

A new bill introduced in New York City Council would require sirens to adopt the European two-toned model. City Council member Helen Rosenthal, who introduced the bill with fellow council member Carlina Rivera, said that she was “inspired to take action” after hearing feedback from Mt. Sinai Hospital’s trial of the European siren. According to Joseph Davis, the senior director of Mount Sinai’s emergency medical services, Mt. Sinai trialed the European siren after receiving complaints about the siren they had been using. The fix was always available, Davis said, as the ambulances had switches that allowed the hospital to use a variety of tones.

People who live in the neighborhoods served by Mt. Sinai’s ambulances could hear the difference. Said Roberta Semer, the chair of the Upper West Side’s community advisory board, the new siren was “better than it was.” Beforehand, she added, people were losing sleep because of the loud, shrill sirens.

Loud sirens can do more damage than just interrupting sleep (which is bad for health on its own). Richard Neitzel, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, notes that loud sirens can have “serious health effects,” adding that “[a] build up of unpredictable and uncontrollable noises a person can lead to stress, anxiety and even cardiovascular disease.”

So kudos to council members Rosenthal and Rivera.  We hope they succeed in getting this bill passed.

Is background music a human rights violation?

Guildford Arms, a Quiet Scotland approved pub | Photo credit: alljengi licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It is according to Quiet Scotland, writes Tony Diver, The HeraldQuiet Scotland describes itself as “an informal group of Scottish residents who campaign for freedom from unwanted background music in cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, GPs’ surgeries, hospital waiting rooms, and other public places.” Diver tells us that Quiet Scotland began in 2012 and has around 200 members. It’s goal is simple–to persuade restaurants and retail establishments to shut off the background music.

To encourage businesses, and help those who just want to eat and shop in a quiet space, the group maintains a list of music-free places in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland’s biggest cities. The group is also asking the general public to help out, by offering feedback cards that allow customers to rate spaces based on how loud they are.

As Anne Wellman, the group’s treasurer explained, they started out as a branch of Pipedown, an English organization. But since piped music has a different meaning in Scotland, they soon changed the name to Quiet Scotland “because everybody who joined intensely dislikes background music played in public places.” Says Wellman, “[t]hink of the types of music you don’t like, and then have that blasted at you when you’re trying to eat. Because that’s mostly the case.”

Wellman adds that loud background music is not just annoying. Rather, for people who have a medical condition like tinnitus, autism, or hearing loss, background music is actively distressing. And for them, she suggests, “disability legislation designed to protect those with medical conditions from discrimination could be applied to the loudness of music in public places.”

While some may scoff, Wellman compares Quiet Scotland’s actions to anti-smoking campaigns in the past. “There was a point at which that was laughed at, and then it reached a tipping point when people actually started to agree,” she said.

 

 

Do we have a right to live in a quiet community?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Do people have a right to live in a quiet community? Trevor Hancock, of the Times Colonist, thinks so, and so do I.

Hancock’s article discusses community noise, and highlights The Quiet Coalition’s Antonella Radicchi, PhD, who spoke in November 2018 at the Acoustical Society of America’s meeting in Victoria, BC, Canada, about her Hush City app.

In the U.S., the Noise Control Act of 1972 “establishes a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”

The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked by Congress with the responsibility to make this happen. Unfortunately, in the Reagan era Congress defunded EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control, and the country has gotten much noisier since then.

But it is now clearly known that noise is a health and public health hazard, causing hearing loss and other auditory disorders and non-auditory disorders including heart disease, stroke, and death.

We hope this knowledge will empower the public to demand quiet, just as the knowledge that secondhand smoke was a health hazard empowered the public to demand smoke free spaces.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Embracing stillness

NBC Left Field interviews Steve Orfield, owner/operator of an anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records once named as “the quietest place on earth.”  Orfield talks about the importance of silence, noting that “the more perceptual stimulus you have, the less you are able to think clearly.” In the end, Orfield observes that we spend most of our energy trying to entertain ourselves until we go to bed, and concludes “if you look at all the things we spend money on and all the things we think we need, what’s the cost of peace?”

It’s a fascinating interview and well worth your time:

Sure, this will happen

I believe I can fly.   Photo credit: sv1ambo CC by 2.0

In “Uber’s Flying Car Chief On Noise Pollution And The Future Of Sky Taxis.,” Fast Company tells us that Uber has a shiny new thing to distract its billionaire investors from its extraordinary burn rate and man-child CEO.  What is this game changer?  FLYING CARS! No really, they are coming and Uber is on it. Fast Company’s Sean Captain writes that “Uber is taking the technology seriously and this week it takes another step forward with a summit meeting that lays out its vision.”  A vision that surely will make up for all of the bad press Uber has garnered in the last couple of months.

After rolling our eyes at the thought of “an urban flying taxi system” somehow maneuvering through Manhattan without killing anyone, we focused on the claim of Uber’s Flying Car Chief, Mark Moore, that “the slower-spinning electric motors will keep noise to a hum.” “What were (sic) looking at is, in the next several years, being able to bring experimental aircraft into and test them in the relevant environment of the city,” says Moore, who fails to mention that Uber had to stop its self-driving car program in California because they were operating their test vehicles without proper permits.

So back to noise. Captain tells us that “Uber plans to use electric VTOL planes that briefly tilt their wings and propellers up to take off vertically like drones, then tilt them forward to fly forward.” Uber is opting for planes because helicopters are too noisy. Moore assures us that Uber’s planes “will be higher-pitched..blending into the hum of car traffic in cities rather than rumbling on over a longer distance and rattling windows.” Then a discussion follows about the difference between helicopter blades and airplane blades, with Moore asserting that plane propellers are “as much as 32 times quieter.” “That’s where the magic happens,” says Moore.  Hey everyone, Uber’s flying care are going to be quiet because of magic!

Sadly, there are naysayers who counter Moore’s rosy view. Says Brien Seeley, founder of the Sustainable Aviation Foundation, “the sound of a plane or helicopter has to be below 50 decibels, about the volume of a conversation at home, at a distance of 40 meters from its landing area.” Why? Because “[o]therwise either the noise will annoy neighbors or the airport will have to be too big to create a buffer.” Seeley has proposed a competition to develop air taxis “that meet the 50-dB at 40 meters target.”  A competition?  Surely we will have a quiet air taxi in no time! Or maybe not–Seeley describes the development effort as a “Herculean challenge.”

The article then focuses on Uber’s “mini-airports, called vertiports (complete with fast battery charging),” that will be put on top of buildings “to minimize the noise.” And there is a discussion about gridlock. All of this while Uber is effectively out of the self-driving car market because of the California snafu discussed above, and that little matter of Google’s Waymo lawsuit against Uber for allegedly stealing its self-driving technology, which Wired suggests could “kill Uber’s future and send execs to prison.”

We will believe in Uber’s magical noise-free airplane taxis after Uber makes an actual profit.

Update: Noise aside, Popular Mechanics offers “6 Reasons Why Uber’s Flying Taxis Are a Mirage.”

 

Do not do this

Rosemary Behan, The National, writes about the shockingly common use of smart phones for entertainment, sans earbuds, in public places. Behan starts her piece by recounting a recent encounter with a stranger in which she had to ask him to turn down the volume of his smart phone. Why? Because he had “casually been using his smartphone as a home cinema, without earphones” for five minutes and she decided that she “didn’t want to spend any part of my Friday morning listening to the loud film clips of a random stranger.”  We have all been there.

What follows is Behan’s lament about how often we are subjected to this kind of behavior and her wish that “hotels, restaurants, cafes, or airline managers” would “lay down the rules about this kind of thing” or, perhaps, keep “a supply of disposable headphones on hand, for this purpose.” If only.

The problem, of course, is that the miscreant with the loud phone can completely focus on whatever he or she wishes to without a worry about annoying others (seemingly), while the annoyed others cannot concentrate on their immediate interest or concern because of the miscreant’s use of his or her phone for entertainment. Hence quiet cars on trains, which Amtrak introduced at the urging of regular commuters who “had become fed up with obnoxious cell phone chatter,” and which have since been adopted by other train systems.

Count us among those who are grateful for the quiet car, but isn’t it a concession by the train operators that they are unable or unwilling to police the anti-social behavior of some percentage of their riders? Separation is probably be the best option–it’s relatively free of friction and more certain to reward those seeking some quiet–but why is it even necessary to complain about this frankly selfish behavior? By trying to find ways to accommodate both those who want some control over their soundscape and those who don’t give a damn who they distract and offend, are we not rewarding bad behavior? In the end, do we make the problem worse tomorrow by not discouraging this anti-social behavior today?

Toronto to tackle transportation noise

Photo credit: GTD Aquitaine, who has released this photo into the public domain.

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

That the noise from the commuter trains, passing the homes of David Bosworth and his neighbors living in Upper Toronto, Canada, intrudes on their household conversations as well as their sleep is readily understood by the millions of residents whose household activities and sleep are disrupted daily by the noise from overhead planes, nearby trains, and passing road traffic. Mr. Bosworth, like the millions of others similarly impacted by transportation noise, feels that the noise issue has not been addressed as a serious pollutant. This, despite the abundant literature linking noise impacts to cardiovascular and sleep disorders, learning disruptions, and diminished quality of life. Furthermore, Mr. Bosworth fears that the expansion of the train route near his home will bring even more noise disruptions.

In the Globe and Mail article linked above, Sasha Zeidler writes that the Toronto regional transportation agency Metrolinx is looking to lessen the noise to which residents will be exposed in the future even as it plans to expand the transit line. Toronto, says Zeidler, is a city aware of the effects of noise on its residents and it “is aiming to reduce noise pollution from traffic, transit and other infrastructure projects.”

I, for one, will look to see whether Toronto successfully carries out its mission to reduce noise pollution.

It is interesting to note that in this article, there are references to the World Health Organization guidelines, a study published in a German academic article linking heart attacks to traffic and rail noise, mapping of noise in Florence, Italy and other Canadian noise studies but no references to research in the country south of Canada—the U.S. While the U.S. has not taken the lead in addressing noise pollution, I do not want readers to think that Americans have been lax with respect to noise research and activism. I suggest readers search back on this site for American noise studies and the Americans who are actively working to reduce noise in our society.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.