By Michelle DJONG HUI ING

A cacophony of noises in urban settings have increased not only the annoyance of residents but proves to also be a cost to their health. What forms of transportation produce these noises, what has been done about them and what recommendations can we propose to resolve these challenges?

This article focuses on the public health costs of noise pollution and the solutions that have been carried out to reduce the noise pollution in densely populated cities. While noise is usually viewed as an issue related to one’s quality of life, it is often not seen as a health issue. However, recent findings show otherwise. A 15-year analysis in Switzerland discovered that transport noise is a major contributor to cardiovascular deaths and even had “effects starting below current [WHO] guideline limits.” 

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Where do the noises come from?

Cities such as London, Paris, Tokyo and New York City are renowned for their busy lifestyles with a lot of noise due to the constant sounds from traffic and other modes of transportation. The way roads are constructed contributes to noise pollution. Rue d’Avron in the 11th district of Paris is such an example. Since there is fast-moving traffic along both sides of the street and these streets run from the ring road surrounding Paris known as the périphérique into the city center, it is one of the busiest and by extension noisiest roads in the French capital.

Besides the design of roads, motorcycles and scooters also often have exhaust systems illegally modified to boost noise and power. The issue has deteriorated to the extent that lawmakers in France introduced the mobility orientation law in 2019, defining noise as a form of “pollution” for the first time. 

The European Environment Agency data shows that Paris is one of Europe’s noisiest cities due to traffic noise and congestion, with more than 5.5 million in the Paris region exposed to road traffic noise at 55 decibels or higher. The road traffic noise is determined by the World Health Organization as the threshold for cardiovascular disorders and high blood pressure. 

What has been done to quiet the noises?

The Medusa by Bruitparif

The use of automated sensor technologies such as sound radar programmes has allowed for hard data and evidence on noise pollution to be produced. In Paris, these are called “medusa” devices, developed by the nonprofit Bruitparif to identify drivers and motorcycle riders who are not following noise regulations. 

This device consists of microphones and cameras to detect noise offenders by focusing on where loud noises originated from to photograph the license plates of ‘noise offenders’. In 2023, the city will begin fining drivers 135 euros if their vehicles break set noise levels. 

Paris’ first Noise Plan ran from 2015 to 2020 and implemented many innovative measures, including installing rules as diverse as having sound barriers along half the length of the périphérique and establishing a rule that new housing must have at least one façade unexposed to external noise. 

The first Noise Plan reduced noise in Paris by two decibels, and this second phase aims to reduce it a further 37 percent between 2021 and 2026. The important question, however, is whether this will be sustainable in the long term.

Recommendations to overcome the challenge

Photo by Anna Claire Schellenberg on Unsplash

The effort to quiet the noises coming from traffic congestion and certain vehicles complements the wider campaign to make Paris greener, cleaner and less car-dependent. At the moment, there are vehicle restrictions in the city center, expansion of cycling networks and other micro-mobility devices that do not emit as much noise as larger vehicles. This would also improve levels of physical activity as more active mobility lifestyles can be promoted.

However, there are various obstacles that need to be overcome in order to sustain the effects of these solutions. 

Firstly, car-owners need to be convinced of the fact that their transportation needs will be met if they are to give up their share of the road to other mobility devices. Secondly, infrastructure development for bicycle paths takes time. In the meantime, we need to consider other incentives to reduce the noise pollution.

Thirdly, urban logistics need better and more efficient modes of transport. We simply cannot ignore the rise of e-commerce since they also contribute to traffic congestion. Finally, we can better understand the mobility ecosystem and density of each route through open data, as illustrated in this article on the use of mobility data by city planners to improve transport. 

It seems that noise pollution is a multi-layered issue that requires various stakeholders to be present at the discussion table. It’s still not too late to lower those decibels.