Tag Archive: New York City

Why a Toronto study on commuter noise is relevant to New York City

Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

In their recently published article “Noise exposure while commuting in Toronto – a study of personal and public transportation in Toronto,” Dr. Yao and his associates concluded that the sound levels associated with mass transit were intense enough to potentially cause some hearing loss. The authors found that while average noise levels in subway cars and on the subway stations were high, peak noise levels in the subway system exceeded 100 dBA. They also reported noise levels for buses and street cars with subways and bus average noise levels exceeding the average noise level for street cars. Recognizing that the mass transit system in Toronto is likely to expand, the authors suggested that “…engineering noise-control efforts should continue to focus on materials and equipment that confer a quieter environment.”

As a New Yorker and regular subway rider, I have long been aware of the impacts of New York City subway and elevated train noise on the health and well-being of its employees and riders as well as those who live, work, and attend school near the elevated train tracks. Yet, it was my research, done over forty years ago, on the adverse effects of elevated train noise on the reading ability of children attending classes near the elevated train tracks that led to my greater involvement in advocating for a “quieter” transit system. It was this advocacy that resulted in the Transit Authority installing rubber resilient pads on the tracks adjacent to the classrooms to lessen the train noise in these classes. The Board of Education also installed acoustical ceilings in these same classrooms.

The follow-up study of reading scores in these classrooms after the abatements were in place found that the children in classrooms adjacent to the track were now reading at the same level as those on the quiet side of the building. To me, these studies yielded another important finding–transit noise can be reduced.

It is within the context of my many years of writing about transit noise and its adverse impacts on mental and physical health that I will address the findings of the above Toronto study. For the purposes of this review, I will not be addressing bus noise which I have also examined in the past.

My research on subway noise impeding classroom learning received a great deal of attention and it led to my being given the opportunity to examine Transit Authority records on noise complaints and actions. I learned that back to 1878 when the Third Avenue El was opened, the noise from passing trains disturbed students attending Cooper Union College and the school had to relocate a dozen classrooms to the other side of the school building. The Transit Authority compensated the college for the move by paying them $540.00.

In the years that followed this first complaint, there were other complaints to which the Transit Authority responded by abating the noise on the tracks. In fact, as early as 1924, the then Transit Commission acknowledged the potential harm of noise on its employees and attempted to set up noise abatement programs for its existing lines as well as its future ones. In looking at how the New York Transit Authority responded to noise complaints, I found that complaints led to attempts to reduce noise but within a short time transit noises returned only to have the Authority respond again with noise abatements. My paper “Rail noise: The relationship to subway maintenance and operation,” published in Urban Resources in 1986, presents a historical overview of how subway noise has been addressed by those in charge of the New York City transit system.¹

Of particular note is the year 1982, when the State of New York decided to pass a Rapid Rail Transit Noise Code requiring the Transit Authority to develop a comprehensive plan to address its noise problems and to report annually to the State Legislature about its efforts to abate noise. The impetus for this bill came from community activists who lived near a rail curve in Coney Island that led to loud screeches as trains navigated the curve. The citizen group, The Big Screechers, led by Carmine Santa Maria, lobbied their legislators to pass the Rail Transit Noise Code.

My 1986 paper discussed how the Transit Authority at this time coordinated its noise abatement project with ongoing capital purchases and maintenance demonstrating its awareness that decreased transit noise is a sign of a poorly functioning system. Just as an automobile owner would bring in a noisy car to the repair shop recognizing that attending to the noise would very likely prevent more serious trouble ahead, the Transit Authority acknowledged that noise is very likely a clue to potential breakdowns.

With the primary sources of subway train noise involving the wheel, the rail, and the subway car’s propulsion system, noise abatement measures included wheel truing, rail welding, rubber resilient pads, track lubrication, and acoustic barriers—all of which also contribute to the proper operation of the system. These noise abatement measures lessen noise but also facilitate the integrity of the transit system while providing a smoother and quieter ride for the passengers as well as a quieter system for its employees. The Transit Authority also purchased quieter traction motors for their subway cars, demonstrating an awareness that quiet can be built into the original design.

The 1982 Rail Transit Noise Code was indeed effective in getting the Transit Authority to reduce its noise but, unfortunately, someone interpreted the law as having a “12 year life span” and, by 1995, the Transit Authority no longer had to report annually to the State on its efforts to lessen transit noise. With the Transit Authority no longer having to report annually on efforts to reduce noise, one might expect the subway system to grow louder in the following years. Indeed, a 2009 study examining sound levels of the New York City subway system, like the one carried out in Toronto, similarly concluded that the subway system’s loud sound levels have the potential to cause noise-induced hearing loss among its riders.

A paper I wrote in 2010 entitled “Abating New York City transit noise: A matter of will not way,” again highlighted the fact that subway noise abatement techniques exist and that addressing the noise issue would not only benefit the operation of the system, potentially leading to fewer breakdowns, but a quieter system would be beneficial to the health and welfare of New Yorkers. A few years after this paper was published, I was pleased to learn that the State assembly and State Senate delivered to the Governor an updated Rail Transit Noise bill in December 2014. Sadly, this bill was vetoed by Governor Cuomo on December 17, 2014 [pdf link]. Had this bill been passed, encouraging the Transit Authority to address its subway noise problems, I believe the subway system today would be quieter, better maintained, and running more efficiently. Without having measured the sound levels of the subway system these past three years, my ear seems to indicate that the subways are now noisier and the many media stories speak volumes to the lack of proper subway maintenance and the deteriorating service.

Let me turn back to the Toronto noise study and comment on its relevance to the New York transit noise issue. According to a research memorandum from Toronto in 1983, that the New York City Transit Authority shared with me,¹ Toronto indicated that the city spent a considerable amount of money in the testing and application of noise control procedures. The memorandum stated that rail sections were continuously welded, acoustical material was used throughout the system, floating slabs were installed on tracks near noise-sensitive buildings, and wheel ring-dampers were being tested on their subway cars. The Toronto subway system, considerably younger than New York’s system, having opened in 1954, appeared to be led by people who were well aware of the importance of transit noise abatement.

In light of the media headlines following the release of Dr. Yao’s article noting excessive transit noise in the Toronto subway system is putting commuters’ health at risk, I would expect that the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, Andrew Byford, is now preparing a response to the publication. Why should his response be relevant to New Yorkers? Because Andrew Byford will soon be the President of the New York City Transit Authority and his response to the noise report might clue us in as to whether he will address what my “ear” seems to indicate. Namely, that our system is growing louder. It would also let New York transit riders know if he, like several former Transit Authority leaders, understands the relationship among noise levels, transit maintenance, and subway performance, and would also tell us as to whether he fully understands that a quieter subway would positively impact the mental and physical health of New Yorkers.

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.

¹Bronzaft, A. L. (1986). Rail noise: The relationship to subway maintenance and operation. Urban Resources, 4, 37-42.

Finally, some good noise news

 

Photo credit: Kevin.B licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

NY hospitals testing ‘ambient’ ambulance sirens. Why? Because of the noise complaints, of course. The ear-crushing squeals of New York City ambulance sirens ricochet off of hard building surfaces, making otherwise pleasant residential streets into hellish echo chambers.

So what do these new sirens sound like? If you’ve ever traveled to Europe, you probably heard the loud but surprisingly tolerable two-toned sirens favored there. If not–or you need a reminder–this is what you can expect to hear [NOTE: If you are sound sensitive, lower the volume before listening]:

And here’s the hellish traditional siren the newer two-tone ambulances may make obsolete (if we’re lucky):

Here’s hoping hospitals and fire departments nationwide quickly move past the testing stage into the replacement stage.

Good news for New Yorkers who love to dance

But potentially bad news for bar neigbors: After 91 Years, New York Will Let Its People Boogie.  Annie Correal, The New York Times, writes about the repeal of the law that banned dancing in New York City bars. While this repeal is great news for bar owners and patrons with happy feet, it may not be embraced by near by residents looking for a good night’s sleep. So what should a bar owner do to let her customers dance the night away without disturbing the peace?

The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has the answer. DEP has produced a video that should help bar owners learn how to mitigate noise levels before they roll out the dance floor:

And the DEP helpfully has provided a list of noise control products and services available for all nightlige business owners.

Now let’s hope bar owners show some restraint–or spend some dough on sound insulation–in their rush to create a dance floor. If not, one hopes the next city council bill will be to give the DEP funding to hire more noise inspectors.

Subways can be quieter

Photo credit: Tim Adams licensed under CC BY 2.0

In San Francisco, BART is grinding down wheels on its cars, making the ride quieter. New York City, like San Francisco, uses metal wheels on its subways, making for a screechy, ear drum-bashing experience from the platform to the car. So BART’s attempt is a step in the right direction. But….

Here’s how you make for a much better subway soundscape:

We can dream of a subway future with rubber tires. It’s possible.

Our ocean is a symphony

There’s a new film out that looks at the risks of ocean noise to whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and reveals what scientists and conservationists are doing about it. To read more about the film, click to read this review by John C. Cannon for Mongabay.com. Here’s the mesmerizing trailer:

And in related news: New York City noise threatens new neighbors, endangered whales.

How to deal with noisy neighbors

By Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD, Board of Directors, GrowNYC

Alexandra Levine’s recent article on noisy neighbors revealed how New York Today readers have dealt with noisy neighbors. While simply speaking to your “noisy” neighbor may result in a lessening of the din, there are many times when polite requests don’t work. Some residents, we learn from the article, turn to shaming their neighbors into quieting down. I have heard about others who “fight back” by inflicting similar intrusive sounds on the offensive neighbors. I do not suggest this latter response because I believe people inflicted by noise have a better case when they don’t engage in similar offensive behavior.

As a member of the board of directors of GrowNYC, where I oversee its noise activities, I am often asked to intervene on behalf of New York City residents whose requests to their neighbors–and even to the managing agents of their buildings–to “quiet it down” have gone unheeded. In writing to the managing agents on behalf of the people who have sought my assistance, I urge them to direct their attention to my research and writings on the adverse effects of noise on health. I explain that noise is not just an annoyance—it’s a health hazard–and that those in charge of managing buildings must familiarize themselves with the deleterious effects of noise so that they do not dismiss noise complaints, as many do.

When we talk about noise we are not necessarily talking about loud sounds, as bothersome sounds can disturb sleep, rest, or simply reading or watching television. Noise is defined as unwanted, unpredictable, and uncontrollable sound. Short of the harmful effects of noise on health that are discussed in the research, noise diminishes one’s quality of life.

I include GrowNYC’s Noise brochure which discusses health effects of noise and ways to lessen noise with my letters to managing agents. I also point out that under the the warranty of habitability clause in their leases residents in both rental buildings and cooperative dwellings are entitled to “reasonable quiet” in their homes. In follow-up phone calls to my initial letters, I explain the word “reasonable.” One could say that a reasonable person would be bothered by footsteps from the above apartment at six a.m. in the morning. Unreasonableness, on the other hand, would be a complaint of a toy dropped by a visiting grandchild once and only once.

I will then direct the telephone conversation to the specific noise problem and ways to abate it. I ask if the required carpeting is in place in the apartment and if the superintendent or managing agent has gone to the apartment to hear the noise. I, too, have dealt with a sex complaint that was handled by suggesting that the couple who was the source of the noise move their bed several inches from the wall so that it would no longer bang against it during sex. Often, I suggest that all residents receive flyers that speak to the harmful effects of noise and what can be done to lessen noises in their own apartments.  Finally, I stress that neighbors should be informed that living together in a building means respecting the rights of others, and this includes greater quiet in apartments.

New Yorkers face so much noise as they traverse the streets of our city. When they get to their apartments and close their doors, they hope for some quiet. Let’s join together and provide quiet for our neighbors and in return hope they will do the same for us.

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.

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.

 

State: New York City needs to improve response to noise complaints

Photo credit: Keng-Yu Lin licensed under CC BY 2.0

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has released an audit showing a “growing number of noise complaints related to nightlife establishments in New York City,” with noise complaints more than doubling between 2010 and 2015. DiNapoli says that the audit “highlights the need for the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to better communicate and crack down on bars and clubs with persistent noise problems.” Despite the doubling of complaints, “including tens of thousands involving nightlife,” DiNapoli’s auditors “found limited communication between the SLA and NYPD to address the grievances.” Incredibly, bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”

Residents of the Lower East Side, an area hit particularly hard by nightlife noise, won’t be surprised by the report, as that neighborhood has become increasingly popular as a nightlife destination. In fact, residents there are working together to stop a force they see destroying their quality of life. Stacey Delikat, Fox5NY, writes about the residents’ efforts, and reports that party buses pull up at 2:00 a.m., the streets are clogged with drunks, and there is vomit on the sidewalks, something the residents call “just an average weekend on the Lower East Side.”

So now that the state and city are aware of the increase in complaints and the failure to address them, what’s the plan? DiNapoli recommends that the SLA “develop a formal process to access and analyze 311 noise complaint data….and develop and implement a formal communication protocol with the NYPD” and other public oversight authorities responsible for addressing noise matters that “pertain to SLA-licensed establishments.” DiNapoli also suggests that the NYPD enhance record keeping of noise complaints to improve “management analysis of response times and the effectiveness of the actions taken” and develop “system-wide procedures to follow up on establishments with high volumes of noise complaints” that include “periodic communications with the SLA.”

While better communication between the NYPD and SLA can’t hurt, the report states that although the SLA took actions against establishments with a high level of complaints, “actions were rarely taken (if ever) against certain establishments with comparatively high levels of noise complaints.” Rather, the report notes, “officials usually do not open cases based solely on noise complaints, such complaints are coupled with other issues (such as alcohol sales to minors or non-compliance with building codes) that officials believe are of greater importance.” Perhaps the report should simply have recommended that the SLA make noise complaints a higher priority.

In any event, within 90 days of the Comptroller’s report the SLA is obligated to report to the governor, comptroller, and various legislative leaders to tell them what steps were taken to implement recommendations, which recommendations were not taken, and why; the NYPD is requested to do the same.

Next up? The press release ends with a note that the Comptroller “is currently conducting an audit on construction noise in the city.”

 

“In Pursuit of Silence” opens in NYC and LA

In Pursuit of Silence opens in New York City on June 23rd, and in Los Angeles on June 30th. So, what’s the film about?  The producers explain:

In Pursuit of Silence is a meditative exploration of our relationship with silence, sound and the impact of noise on our lives. Beginning with an ode to John Cage’s ground-breaking composition 4’33”, In Pursuit of Silence takes us on an immersive cinematic journey around the globe– from a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, to the streets of the loudest city on the planet, Mumbai during the wild festival season – and inspires us to experience silence and celebrate the wonders of our world.

The film made the rounds of the film festival circuit last year–the upcoming New York City opening is its theatrical premier.  If you’re not near New York City or Los Angeles, click this link for a current listing of screenings or sign up for the mailing list to be notified of upcoming events in your area.

Here’s a preview:

 

It’s going to be a long summer

You’re finally settled into your new place! And then you learn that your neighbor is a DJ…

New rules limit NYPD’s ability to address noise complaints. Just in time for the summer, New York City police “will no longer be allowed to go onto private property and remove sound equipment when responding to noise complaints.”  The reason, reports the NY Daily News, is that a new directive provides that “’warrantless entry’…is not authorized solely for the purpose of abating noise conditions.” Under the directive, if police are not given permission to enter an address for which a noise complaint has been made, “the officers ‘may return on the following day and issue summonses as appropriate.’”

While we understand–and applaud–the police department’s concern about officers engaging in warrantless entries, providing that officers “may return the following day” (unlikely) to issue a summons seems like a recipe for disaster: take one obnoxious and indifferent neighbor, add in too much noise, stir in a bucket full of frayed nerves, and shake vigorously. If the NYPD wants to stop warrantless entries for noise complaints while maintaining the peace, maybe it’s time to extend night court hours beyond 1:00 a.m. and allow officers to get a timely summons.