After the relative quiet of the pandemic, New York City has come roaring back. Just listen: Jackhammers. Honking cars and trucks. Rumbling subway trains. Sirens. Shouting.
Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to quiet the cacophony. One of the latest: traffic cameras equipped with sound meters capable of identifying souped-up cars and motorbikes emitting an illegal amount of street noise.
At least 71 drivers have gotten tickets so far for violating noise rules during a yearlong pilot program of the system. The city's Department of Environmental Protection now has plans to expand the use of the roadside sound meters.
“Vehicles with illegally modified mufflers and tailpipes that emit extremely loud noise have been a growing problem in recent years,” said City Council member Erik Bottcher, who heralded the arrival of the radars to his district to help reduce “obnoxious” noise.
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New York City already has one of the most extensive noise ordinances in the country, setting allowable levels for a host of noisemakers, such as jackhammers and vehicles.
A state law known as the Stop Loud and Excessive Exhaust Pollution Act, or the SLEEP Act, that went into effect last spring raised fines for illegal modifications of mufflers and exhaust systems.
Because police officers often have other priorities, offenders have gone their merry, noisy way. The new devices record the license plates of offenders, much like how speedsters are nabbed by roadside cameras. Vehicle owners face fines of $800 for a first noise offense and a penalty of $2,625 if they ignore a third-offense hearing.
City officials declined to reveal where the radars are currently perched.
A year ago, Paris, one of Europe’s noisier cities, installed similar equipment along some streets.
Evidence is clear that noise affects not only hearing but mood and mental health, not to mention possible links to heightened risks of heart disease and elevated blood pressure.
“You listen to the noise out there, it is nonstop — the horns, the trucks, the sirens,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams bemoaned during a recent press conference that blamed an expressway for noise and illness. “Noise pollution makes it hard to sleep and increases the risk of chronic disease.”
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Nearly a decade ago, one of Adams' predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, launched a war on noise, releasing 45 pages of rules that covered chiming ice cream trucks and how long a canine can continuously yap (five minutes during the wee hours of the night, 10 during most of the day) before its owner gets in the doghouse.
In 1905, the New York Times had declared the metropolis “a bonfire of sound that is rapidly spreading beyond the control of any ordinary extinguisher.” The article asked: “Is there any relief possible?”
A global pandemic more than a century later answered that question. For a few months in the spring of 2020, the roar of vehicles on city streets stopped as people stayed in their homes.
The silence allowed people to hear birdsong again — though it was often interrupted by wailing ambulance sirens and, at night, bursts of illegal fireworks.
“As quiet as it was during the lockdown, it was a very uncomfortable quiet. It was a scary quiet because it carried a lot of implications with it,” said Juan Pablo Bello, the lead investigator of Sounds of New York City, or SONYC, a New York University endeavor to study urban noise.
Bello and his team initially hoped to collect data on the dissonance of routine urban life but the coronavirus intervened. Instead, they monitored the acoustical rhythms of a city under lockdown.
The number of noise complaints actually grew during the pandemic, but some experts say that was a symptom of homebound people becoming hypersensitive to their uneasy environments.
Complaints over noisy neighbors nearly doubled in the first year of the pandemic. Many other complaints were attributed to cars and motorcycles with modified mufflers.
Still, some people say efforts to quiet loud vehicles go too far. Phillip Franklin, a 30-year-old Bronx car enthusiast, launched an online petition to protest the state's noise law.
“The majority of us live here in New York City, where noise is a part of our daily lives,” said his petition, which asserted that quiet vehicles pose dangers to inattentive pedestrians.
“Fixing potholes is a lot more important than going after noisy cars,” Franklin said in an interview.
Loud noise, hitting 120 decibels, can cause immediate harm to one’s ears, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even prolonged noise above 70 decibels can eventually damage hearing. A roaring motorcycle is about 95 decibels.
Firms specializing in architectural acoustics have multiplied. Designing new buildings or retrofitting old ones with anti-noise technology is now a booming business.
At the Manhattan offices of the environmental engineering firm AKRF, the company has what it calls the “PinDrop” room — suggesting a space so quiet you might hear a pin drop — that has an audio system that simulates the erratic symphony of sounds that the city's denizens must endure.
While architectural drawings might render the use of space, acoustical renderings depict how sound and noise might fill a space.
“So if it’s for sleeping, we want you to be able to sleep. If it’s for listening, we want you to be able to hear,” said AKRF acoustical consultant Nathaniel Fletcher.
Even with sound barriers, tight-fitting windows and noise-dampening insulation, there's only so much that can be done about the racket. Most New Yorkers come to peace with that.
“I think people developed an appreciation for the fact that it’s a messy, noisy city,” said Bello, the NYU researcher. “We like it to be active, and we like it to be lively. And we like it to be full of jobs and activity, and not this sort of scary, quite unnerving place.”