Epidemiologists around the world have sounded the alarm about the health risks of increased noise pollution, calling cars one of the biggest sources of the crisis. In our quest to make cities quieter, though, noise researcher Dr. Erica Walker says we miss a critical conversation about how unique communities experience their local soundscape, both on the streets and off—and who we hurt when we adjust decibel levels without listening to the marginalized first .
In this episode of brakesWe sit down with Walker to explore not only why ultra-quiet electric cars don’t actually lower the volume in our neighborhoods that much, but who decides what our cities should look like, how we enforce arbitrary audio standards, and why a peaceful, walkable street is often unlike Silence.
Follow us below, at Apple podcastor wherever else you’re listening, and Learn more about Dr. Erica Walker and the Community Noise Lab here.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.
Kia Wilson: The primary way your work intersects with the Streetsblog conversation, is that a lot of the noise in our cities, frankly, comes from cars, and that’s a really common talking point, among people who want to see American cities become less dependent on cars. Tell me a little bit about your perspective on regulating road noise through the lens of your work.
Erica Walker: So road noise is kind of how I cut my teeth in this area. I initially wanted to start creating a map of the sounds of transportation in the city of Boston, where I did my graduation work.
[So I went around measuring] Sound levels with my sound level meter and in the process people will come up to me and ask me what I’m doing and share their experiences. So when I traveled around different neighborhoods that varied in terms of racial makeup, level of infrastructure repair, socioeconomic status, all of those things, it made me realize that we tend to make a very superficial cut and when it comes to sound — and a very punitive piece.
So yeah, if you live near a major source of transportation noise, it’s definitely louder. But when you’re talking to people, some people say, “Hey, I can’t sleep if I don’t have the sound of the highway that puts me to sleep,” or “I can’t work in a place where there isn’t that voice in the background.” Some find road noise too therapeutic; Others found it very annoying.
So just by having that conversation with people and getting these kinds of different ideas about what transport noise means to people, I’ve realized that, well, it’s important for me to understand the physical aspects of sound, but it’s also important for me to interview people and you talk about Things that made people feel it, like road traffic noise. Understanding sound is one thing, understanding society’s expectations is another.
I’ve seen that poor communities have traditionally been those that have been designated to be in places with major transportation networks. They were usually the ones closest to the highways, or directly from the very busy bus lines. There have been some cultural practices where people like to drive into really noisy cars with their mufflers or tires creaking; There were some cultural aspects to that.
So there are some [problems with] Urban planning and design where we do not take into account the acoustic landscape – especially from transportation – when deciding where to place people. Or maybe we do [consider the soundscape,] It is intended when we put people who may not be able to defend themselves when it comes to issues of environmental injustice such as unfair distribution of voice.
But then there are these cultural and societal expectations of voice that should not be ignored. So if someone tells me that the most important sound in their community is transportation noise, or noise from a crowded park, or noise from an industrial activity — for me, that’s where I’d lead. And I wouldn’t go to drive in this traditionally or overwhelmingly not affecting the neighborhood.
I find that a lot of these punitive measures [around sound] Don’t take these kinds of things into consideration. Someone somewhere has a measuring stick for what is acceptable for a society in which they may or may not live [to sound like]And I think that’s totally crazy.
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