Disorderly Sound

Why is New York City so noisy?

Winnie Hu, The New York Times, writes about the number one complaint in the city, noise, in, “New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up.” And we discover that the short answer to the question as to why the city is so noisy may be this: New York City needs more noise enforcers.

Hu interviews Richard T. McIntosh, a long-time resident of the Upper East Side who complains that he “has never heard such a racket outside his window.” Hu writes:

New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing.

Construction is a huge factor in the increase in noise, but residents can’t escape outdoor noise by ducking into noisy city restaurants, gyms, and stores. And noise complaints have increased even after the city adopted an overhauled noise code in 2007. So what can be done? Hu writes that city councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, “has made curbing noise one of his top priorities,” adding that “[h]e and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act.”

Hu reports that while “the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs.” So how many inspectors does the Department of Environmental Protection have? Only 54 for a city of over 8 million residents. Apparently 8 more inspectors are going to be hired this year, bringing the total number of inspectors for all five boroughs to meager 62. And the response time is equally appalling. Hu reports that median response for police officers was 152 minutes, but the median response “for noise inspectors was four days in 2016.”

With construction noise before and after hours being the top complaint in every borough except for Staten Island, it’s unreasonable to expect noise violators to change their behavior when an inspector may show up four days after a noise complaint is filed. Indeed, a recent audit of New York City noise complaints by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”

City councilman Kallos believes that increasing the number of noise inspectors “would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation.” Kallos adds that “[i]t is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen.” We agree. We also agree with Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Chair of Noise Committee for Grow NYC, who notes that “with eight inspectors being hired soon, apparently we do not need legislation to hire inspectors, we just need the money for increased hires to be added to the budget NOW.”

If you live in New York City and want to see Kallos’ and Constantinides’ proposed legislation move forward, contact your city council person and ask him or her to sign on. While you’re at it, ask your councilperson what his or her answer is to New York City’s noise problem. Not sure who represents you in the city council? Click here to find out.  If you reach out to your councilperson’s office, please report back and tell us how they responded in the comments.

And Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, weighs in with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Landscapers fail to blow away leaf blower bans

Photo credit: Dean Hochman licensed under CC BY 2.0

Recently, the city of Newton, Massachusetts, and town of Maplewood, New Jersey, passed restrictions on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers because of public health, safety and environmental concerns. Gas-powered leaf blowers are a source of substantial pollution as well as deafening noise levels. In both cases, the courts refused to grant emergency relief to the landscapers thereby allowing the ordinances to take effect. Here are the stories of what happened and what they mean. Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Executive Director, Quiet Communities

By Jeanne Kempthorne, J.D., Co-Chair, Quiet Communities Legal Advisory Council

Landscapers came out swinging to prevent municipalities in New Jersey and Massachusetts from enforcing gas-powered leaf blower ordinances limiting their use. So far, they’ve struck out.

Quiet Communities’ legal advisors have been following the litigation with interest, and have provided legal and technical assistance to municipalities forced to respond to last-minute efforts to stymie enforcement of local ordinances.

Newton, MA

In January 2017, the City of Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb west of Boston, amended its noise ordinance to, among other things, limit the use of leaf blowers between Memorial and Labor Days to the use of a single electric- or battery-powered machine emitting no more than 65 decibels per property. (The previous ordinance had already limited the permissible decibel level to 65, but was rarely enforced). The amendment followed two years of study and hearings by the City Council.

Shortly before Memorial Day when the summer limitations would take effect, a group of landscapers filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the enforcement of the amended ordinance. They argued that the ordinance was preempted by state environmental laws concerning air quality and claimed they would suffer irreparable economic injury if the ordinance were enforced. The plaintiffs also raised constitutional due process and equal protection claims, the latter on the basis of the ordinance’s distinction between gas- and non-gas-powered equipment operated at the same decibel level .

The Middlesex Superior Court denied the landscapers’ motion for a preliminary injunction, emphasizing, first, that the landscapers had not proved that they would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction. The plaintiffs had sworn in affidavits that they would suffer the loss of some business as a result of raising prices in order to comply with the ordinance, which, even if true, falls far short of the necessary proof of irreparable injury.

Turning to the merits, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their legal claims at trial. Addressing preemption, which the court characterized as the “principal challenge to the Ordinance,” the court stated that the landscapers’ argument lacks merit because “[t]he [state] Air Act . . .  nowhere mentions noise pollution let alone suggests field preemption with respect to noise control.” The court emphasized that state law expressly authorizes municipal noise ordinances–-a fact the landscapers had ignored. Finally, the court summarily rejected the due process and equal protection challenges as unlikely to succeed. The City need merely show that the ordinance is a rational exercise of its police power, and that the distinction drawn between types of equipment is rationally related to a legitimate purpose.

Maplewood, NJ

In early April, the town of Maplewood, New Jersey, adopted an ordinance that prohibits the commercial use of gas-powered leaf blowers from May 15 through September 30. This replaced a previous ordinance that banned the use of equipment louder than 65 dB, an ordinance the Town found nearly impossible to enforce. On May 10, five days before the ordinance was scheduled to take effect, the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, “a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to advancing the integrity, proficiency, profitability and personal growth of the landscape professional,” sued the town, its mayor, and the township committee in federal district court in New Jersey seeking to invalidate the ordinance and to enjoin its enforcement.

The NJLCA complained that the ordinance was arbitrary and irrational in distinguishing between commercial and non-commercial users, and therefore ran afoul of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the state constitution. It also argued that the ordinance was preempted by the federal Clean Air and Occupational Safety and Health Acts. According to the complaint, the Clean Air Act empowered the State of California, and only the State of California, to regulate emissions from two-stroke, “in-use, non-road” engines. California having not done so, no other state or political subdivision of a state may do so. Nor may the town impose other or different requirements to protect workers, NJLCA complains, because OSHA already regulates worker safety.

In opposing the landscaper association’s motion for an injunction, the Town argued that it rationally distinguished between commercial and non-commercial users in terms of intensity and frequency of use. Moreover, the Town rationally concluded that commercial users were unlikely to engage in problem-solving discussions with the neighbors concerning noise and pollution. The Town disputed the premise of the Clean Air Act preemption argument, noting that the ordinance does not purport to regulate emissions. Finally, the Town noted that the landscapers did not merit equitable relief since it was apparent that they had ignored the previous ordinance which banned equipment operating at more than 65 decibels, which most commercial gas-powered leaf blowers do.

After a hearing on the association’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court dismissed the landscape association’s complaint without deciding whether the constitutional and preemption arguments had merit. Instead, it ruled that the association lacked legal “standing” to bring the complaint. If an individual landscaper is willing to be named as plaintiff, the complaint may be refiled. So far, that has not happened. Stay tuned . . .

Our take

What these cases illustrate is a burgeoning threat to local initiatives to protect the health and safety of community residents: the misuse of the little-understood preemption doctrine, which is being deployed more and more by business interests to quash democratic action at the municipal level. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the legitimate concerns of the public and industry workers, some in the landscaping industry have chosen to fight local efforts to protect public health and safety in court, forcing municipalities to spend scarce resources defending their right to enact and enforce local ordinances. Happily, the courts are calling them out.

We do not mean to sweep in a pile all players in the landscaping industry. Many responsible landscapers are conscious of the social, health, and environmental impacts of their work and are more than willing to pick up a rake or to use quieter, cleaner, and safer equipment. Ask them! Let’s reward those who are willing to work towards a more healthy, clean, and serene environment with our business.

Originally posted at Quiet Communities.

Tired of background music in public spaces? Want to make it stop?

Photo credit: Andypiper licensed under CC BY 2.0

Introducing Quiet Ann Arbor! Finally, the U.S. has a local chapter of Pipedown, a UK organization that campaigns “for freedom from piped music” (i.e., ubiquitous background music) in “pubs, restaurants and hotels; in the plane, train or bus; down the phone; ruining decent television programmes; adding to the overall levels of noise pollution in public places.”

The Ann Arbor organization has just been formed, and the website is a work in progress, but it’s a start. If you live in Ann Arbor and want the piped in music to stop, contact them by clicking this link. Their mission is simple: to promote the benefits of silence and encourage noise moderation in public. Live in the U.S. but not in Ann Arbor? Contact Pipedown to start your own chapter.

Hear, hear!

And for those who think fighting public noise is ridiculous or not worth one’s time, we note that Pipedown scored a big victory last year when it got Marks & Spencer, the UK’s biggest chain store, to turn off the piped music in their stores.

Good luck, Quiet Ann Arbor!

Is eating out bad for your ears?

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

We all know from personal experience that restaurants are too loud. In this piece in The Washington Post, Gail Richard, the president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, writes that noise levels in restaurants are loud enough to damage one’s hearing. Specifically, Richard states that “[c]onsistently listening to noise levels above 70 decibels can cause hearing loss over time,” noting that “it is not unusual for restaurant reviewers who regularly list restaurant noise in their reviews to find levels above 70 and even 80 decibels.”

The Quiet Coalition has covered a number of reports about restaurant noise so this information is nothing new, but this opinion piece is a nice summary.

The only thing I disagree with is Richard’s suggestion that restaurants could provide quiet zones for customers with hearing loss or those who prefer less noisy spaces. The idea of “separate but equal” spaces embodied in quiet zones, quiet rooms, or even a request for a quiet table runs counter to the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that places of public accommodation offer those with disabilities full and equal enjoyment. Someone with complete hearing loss in one ear would appear to meet the ADA definition of having a disability.

Simply put, we shouldn’t have to ask for a quiet table or a quiet room. All restaurants should be quiet enough to allow all customers to converse.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

There goes his playwriting career

 

Lincoln Tunnel exit into NYC | Photo credit: Jim.henderson

Man sues landlord because apartment is too loud. Ross Toback, The N.Y. Post (sigh), writes that a “retired New Mexico state senator who came to the Big Apple to pursue a career as a playwright is suing his Manhattan building manager, saying his Hell’s Kitchen apartment is just too noisy.” Why so noisy? Because former New Mexico state senator Joseph Carraro’s “high-rise rental faces West 42nd Street at 11th Avenue and also happens to overlook the noisy Lincoln Tunnel entrance.” Carraro was supposed to have an apartment in a marginally better location within the building, but claims building management used the ol’ bait-n-switch to get him to agree to take the apartment from hell. “Being from New Mexico their selling point was for me to look at the river,” he said.

Between the fire trucks and police sirens and then the construction noise during the day, Carraro claims the “noise sent him to the ER where he was diagnosed with a ‘breakdown of body function because of extreme exhaustion.'”

Lies, deception, dashed dreams, and a retired state senator from New Mexico….we smell a Broadway hit!

 

We couldn’t agree more

Will Pulos,Time Out New York, writes about a common scourge of the city in “Loud-ass motorcycles in NYC are driving us completely bonkers.” Pulos talks about how they thunder out of the blue, “disrupting the peace of everyone in their nefarious paths,” all in a shameless attempt to get attention. He describes the assault of the erupting sound “that echoes through the streets with fury and arrogance,” and with a perversely exquisite sense of timing–striking just as you put the baby down in its crib or you pour yourself an end of the workday adult beverage. VROOM.

What adds insult to injury is the motorcyclist loudly screaming down an otherwise quiet residential street, setting off car alarms in his wake. We instinctively know that is not an accident. Which leads one to wonder when U.S. cities will embrace something akin to an ASBO for what is obviously anti-social behavior.

There is no social utility in purposefully loud motorcycles, so we might as well go after the low hanging fruit.

 

An innovative approach to managing nightlife

Photo credit: amsterdamredlight

Gregory Scruggs, Citiscope.org, writes about how Amsterdam deals with being one of Europe’s top nightlife capitals. Scruggs reports that Amsterdam found an innovative solution to managing nightlife by creating the position of night mayor. Specifically, in 2012, Mirik Milan, a nightclub promoter, was appointed the first night mayor. He “parlayed his experience in the club scene into a successful role bridging a burgeoning afterhours industry with both a City Hall eager to promote nightlife and cantankerous residents tired of being woken up by drunken partiers at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

So, how has it worked out? According to Scruggs there have been some impressive wins. For promoters and clubgoers, there are now “24-hour licenses that allow a number of clubs located away from residential areas to operate at any time day or night.” But “[i]n more densely populated neighbourhoods where bars mingle with apartment buildings, trained social workers are paid to help keep the peace.” Finally, Milan “spearheaded nightlife-specific business improvement districts” where bar owners are required to pay into a fund to support various improvements, including those to reduce crime (i.e., lighting for back alleys), with a payoff of reduced violence, noise, and nuisance complaints two years later.

Further proof that the night mayor is a success is that London, Paris and Zürich all have night mayors now. And New York City may soon have a “nightlife ambassador” to serve as a liaison between city government and local nightclubs and music venues. There is no surer sign of success than imitation.

First link via Antonella Radicchi.

Fido hates fireworks

Many dogs are afraid of fireworks, as the noise causes them to hide or howl with fear and anxiety. Trish Hernandez, The Taos News, tells you how you can protect your dog from this trauma. Her article offers a number of helpful solutions to help your pooch make it through the upcoming fireworks season (which can run all summer long in places like New York City).

First and foremost, Hernandez strongly suggests that you not leave your dog home alone, noting that “[d]ogs with phobic reactions to fireworks can easily panic and injure themselves in the process….[and] [m]any panicked dogs find ways to escape from their yards and can be further injured or killed while running loose.” That said, your home is the best place for your dog, and staying with him or her will help to keep them distracted (and a few extra treats won’t hurt). Hernandez also gives advice for people with multiple dogs, noting that “if one dog already exhibits a fearful or phobic response to the sound of fireworks, [you should] separate the dogs so that non-fearful dog does not “catch” the fear.”

It’s not just pets who suffer from firework noise, humans can too. An editorial in The Adirondack Daily Enterprise notes that “[t]he booms and bangs of fireworks can be particularly harsh for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder,” adding that “[t]he sound of gunshot-like noises can trigger flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and even suicide.”

While taking steps to ease the trauma for humans and dogs is the obvious course, maybe we need to think about logical long-term solutions, like avoiding the trauma in the first place. For example, we could advocate for a ban on loud fireworks like the thoughtful residents of Collecchio, a town in the province of Parma, Italy. The local government there “introduced new legislation forcing citizens to use silent fireworks as a way of respecting the animals” by reducing the stress caused by noise from conventional fireworks.

That is, instead of each of us trying to protect humans and animals from the trauma of loud fireworks, we could protect everyone by requiring the use quiet fireworks. Quiet fireworks have existed for decades, and they are just as vivid and colorful as their conventional cousins. But unlike conventional fireworks, they don’t traumatize animals or people or cause hearing damage.

Until that time comes, here are directions on how to make a DIY “Thundershirt” that will help your dog deal with anxiety.

 

This is not surprising at all:

Photo credit: Waldo Jaquith licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Super-fast hand dryers in public toilets are ‘as loud as pneumatic drills.’ According to the European Cleaning Journal (yes, it exists), “[m]odern jet air hand dryers have the same impact on our ears as a close-range pneumatic drill.” We at Silencity can’t stand them. Why? Because high-speed hand dryers are abruptly and horribly loud, and then they are placed in rooms with tiled and mirrored surfaces and, often, metal stall dividers and doors. That is, super-fast hand dryers are pneumatic drills fitted into a small live box.

But the problem with the sudden loud noise they create is not just a matter of a temporary discomfort. According to Jonathan Ratcliffe from Audiologist.co.uk, powerful hand drying machines can cause lasting damage to the elderly, those with hearing problems, and children. Why children?  Because “the machines are typically positioned at the same height as their head which means they are getting it full blast,” says Ratcliffe.

We have often seen hand dryers accompanied by a sign suggesting that its use is ecologically sound. And while it is noble to save trees from becoming paper towels, these so-called ecological devices may be worse in the balance if we add in the cost of permanent hearing damage. Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds, however, if manufacturers turn to tackling the most obvious side-effect of these high-speed models and put real resources into developing quieter machines.  Now that would be an ecologically sound investment.

Link via @QuietEdinburgh.

 

 

What does making money sound like?

Photo credit: BalticServers.com licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Not very good, apparently, as the Missoulian reports that noise from a Bitcoin data center is disturbing neighbors. Surely it can’t be that loud, can it? Yes, yes it can. According to the data centers exasperated neighbors, it sounds feels like you are “sitting on a tarmac when a jet engine is winding up to take off, but the plane never leaves.”

And so we learn about the unintended consequences of chasing a dollar bitcoin.