From Dissonance to Harmony

4 min. read
Alex Baum is the Global Networks Manager at BYCS. His research on traffic noise has been published in the American Planning Association’s 2020 State of Transportation Planning journal. 

Screeching wheels, blaring horns, roaring engines – these are not the sounds that one would associate with a pleasant place to live, work, or play. And yet for anyone living near a busy street or intersection, these are the instruments that make up the daily symphony of life. These unhealthy traffic noises also drown out important sounds that can contribute to urban wellbeing, such as children laughing, music, bicycle bells ringing, or passerbys greeting each other. 

Every year, one million healthy life years are lost from traffic related noise in western Europe as a result of increased stress and reduced sleep, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and hypertension. An estimated 100 million people are exposed to harmful road traffic noise (above 55 decibels), considered the second most harmful environmental stressor, behind only air pollution from fine particulate matter. In addition, nearly five times as many people are exposed to road traffic noise than rail and air traffic noise combinedIn order to reduce the negative health impacts of noise, especially on those who suffer most, we must prioritise walking, cycling, and the use of public transit in the planning of neighbourhoods and cities.

In many cities, the poorest neighbourhoods are often located near highways, airports, trash dumps, wastewater treatment plants, and hazardous waste sites. As a result of a number of factors – a lack of voice in land-use decisions,  the inability to afford to live elsewhere, and structural racism in urban planning – those with lower socioeconomic status and, often, of a minority race or ethnic group, are forced to disproportionately endure the negative health impacts of where they live.

Studies in the U.S. and Canada have shown that neighbourhoods with lower socioeconomic status and a higher proportion of racial/ethnic minorities are associated with higher levels of noise. Another study went a step further and showed that the association between noise and these factors is higher in racially segregated neighborhoods.

How cities got this way differs depending on context. In many cities in the US, the noise came to the areas with lower socioeconomic level and higher percentage of people from ethnic or racial minority backgrounds through the combined interest in “renewing” these areas and building federally-funded highways. Also, because streets with high levels of traffic noise have lower property values, the busier and louder a street gets, the poorer it gets as those who can afford to leave and those seeking affordable housing move in.

Despite the severity of the issue, little has been done to address the problem. Within the United States, regulations were established in 1972 but soon lost funding and the work effectively ended. Current efforts focus on noise barriers and open space around highways but do not “address many of the other types of highly traveled urban or suburban arterials or feeder roads.” Responsibility also often falls on multiple levels of governmental authority and departments and is addressed by engineers rather than planners, sociologists, and community leaders, who might approach the problem differently.

The other more common, but less understood, means of dealing with noise is to run from it. The search for “peace and quiet”, mostly by those who could afford it, was one of the main catalysts for the sprawling and unsustainable development that has radiated out from cities since the 1930s and especially since the 1950s. The low density development that has resulted, though, has created a complete reliance on automobile travel, which continues to push people farther afield in search for less noise.

There are a number of potential solutions to this challenge that focuses on reducing the noise rather than simply blocking it or running from it. Some cities have had success with reducing the speed limit and number of lanes, promoting quieter electric scooters, and eliminating cars altogether. Understanding the perspectives of residents, for example by identifying problematic areas and noise sources as well as discussing how they would like to see the noise addressed, is an important first step before engaging in any of the suggestions below.

  • Make areas walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly – reduce the need for people to use a car at all.
  • Increase greening and tree canopy cover in residential neighbourhoods – recognising the health benefits of trees for sound and other health factors.
  • Right-sizing – use the right vehicle for the needs of the trip. Bike-, car-, and truck-sharing can help reduce unnecessary trips in vehicles that are too big and loud.
  • Reduce through-traffic eliminating vehicles that do not need to travel through an area reduces the overall noise.
  • Reduce speed reducing vehicle speeds through ‘traffic calming’ from 40 to 30 mph (roughly 65 to 48 kmh) is as effective as removing one-half of the vehicles from the roadway.
  • Implement a noise/use ratio – some vehicles make more noise than others because they are carrying a lot of people or goods. Restrict vehicles that produce a disproportionate amount of noise (relative to the goods or passengers they are carrying).
  • Approach soundscapes in a proactive and holistic way – integrating them with other planning aspects, working with local communities and considering the end user’s auditory experience throughout.

Noise is a serious health concern that affects hundreds of millions of people – disproportionately low-income and ethnically/racially minority – and needs to be acknowledged as such and addressed. There is no single solution that will solve the problem – a suite of short- and long-term actions is required – but we must act now. 

To expand on this multifaceted issue, we spoke with researchers from Montreal, Philadelphia & Chicago who are taking different approaches to raise awareness and shape how our cities sound. From greening strategies to creating healthy soundscapes, we hope these perspectives can recenter the importance of sound for urban  health, and the role active mobility has to play.

Read the full edition: Sounds in the City