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Noise In New York

by Bryan Farrell, Aug 31, 2006
 

Though it will not take effect until next July, the city’s new noise code seems to have few champions. Passed last December, the first revision to the code in 30 years was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to silence everything from dog barking to Mr. Softee trucks. But businesses, noise awareness groups and others find fault with the new law. They are especially doubtful it will be able to do much about the noise emitted by nightclubs, bars, and car alarms.

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Meanwhile, both the noise in New York, and New Yorkers’ intolerance of it, seem to have increased. According to a poll of community leaders conducted by Baruch College's eTownPanel and released in July by the nonprofit Citizens for NYC, street noise is seen as the biggest infringement on the quality of life in New York City, rising from number three on last year's poll. And noise is the number one complaint phoned into the 311 hotline. In a recent month, there were 24,191 noise complaints, which was some 200 more than the same month two years earlier, which was around the time Bloomberg announced his anti-noise legislation.

By many measures, noise has become New Yorkers’ biggest concern.

What Can Government Do?

In late 2002, the mayor announced a citywide quality of life program in conjunction with the New York Police Department called Operation Silent Night, which targeted 24 zones throughout the five boroughs that were plagued by “chronic and disruptive” noise. As of August 2005, almost three years after its inception, the program made an example of nearly 20,000 noise violators with both misdemeanor and felony arrests.

Yet it would be difficult to find anybody who says that the problem is improving.

“You can’t rely on the government to solve a problem of respect,” said Peter Kostmayer of Citizens for NYC. “People need to understand that this is a problem they have more individual control over.”

Kostmayer believes noise pollution is a concern that needs to be tackled at the personal and community level. To stimulate that interest, Citizens for NYC will soon be awarding grants to neighborhood groups with innovative approaches that help solve the problem without legislation or police activity.

Glenn McAnanama, however, of the community organization Upper Green Side has a different interpretation of why the problem persists, despite the laws and initiatives in place.

“The people responsible for the noise production do not live in the areas where they produce the noise,” McAnanama said. “There is little social pressure that the community can apply to perpetrators, especially those in automobiles.

“For instance, every Saturday morning, when the garbage truck comes to pick up the trash, it creates a back-up all the way down the block and frustrated drivers express that by honking their horns.”

McAnanama believes that’s where governmental policy and enforcement can have a great impact. If traffic agents temporarily closed blocks of traffic while the truck made its pick-ups or had the pick-up dates coincide with the alternate parking side days, there would not be any anger-inducing gridlock.

Car Alarms

Despite their differences over the government’s role, both activists agree that car alarms are the most prevalent and intrusive of the noise pollutants.

In fact, one New York City-based group is working to ban car alarms all together, asserting that the audible anti-theft device is nothing but a neighborhood nuisance.

“The right way to stop alarm noise would be to ban noisy alarms, and the mayor hasn’t done this,” said Aaron Friedman, head of Silent Majority, referring to Bloomberg’s 2004 veto of council-approved legislation that would have banned the sale of certain kinds of audible car alarms. Bloomberg received flack at the time for holding on to the hope that car thieves are deterred by noisy alarms.

According to a 1997 analysis of insurance-claims data from 73 million vehicles, which was reprinted in a recent report by Transportation Alternatives, cars with alarms “show no overall reduction in theft losses,” when compared to cars without them or with silent alarms. The report, titled Alarmingly Useless, also figured the average New York City resident pays a car alarm “Noise Tax” of about $100 a year, based on lost productivity, decreased property value, diminished quality of life, and health costs.

Diseases exacerbated by noise include from cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal illnesses, and psychological problems, according to well-established research that goes back to former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry, who is better-known for issuing the first warnings from the US Surgeon General about tobacco.

A German study conducted last year found that a person does not have to be annoyed by noise to be damaged by it -- cardiovascular disease was more closely related to the level of the sound than with the reaction to it.

Nightclub Noise

Currently, nightclubs can be cited if police officers simply determine “unreasonable noise.” But after discussions with the New York Nightlife Association, the City Council agreed to change the language of the new noise code and create a specific technical definition of “unreasonable noise.”

When the law takes effect next summer, officers will actually be using noise meters to measure sound levels 15 feet outside bars and clubs. If the establishment is 10 decibels or more above ambient sound in the daytime and seven decibels or more above ambient sound at night it will be issued a fine.

Despite the agreed-upon compromise, some owners feel they are being forced into a catch-22 situation by another quality of life measure, the smoking ban.

Bars and nightclubs face the loss of their operating license if state inspectors catch patrons lighting up inside, so they must force smokers onto the street. But this creates tension with neighborhood residents, who continually call the 311 hotline and complain about the late night noise from the smokers below their windows.

Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association, said the law only addresses sound systems, not people. He described a scenario where a noisy outdoor restaurant can get by without a violation, but the bar next door is liable.

The New York Nightlife Association offered to pay off-duty police officers to patrol the streets and help keep the peace by preventing quality of life violations. So far the New York Police Department has refused the offer and the City Council has blocked a proposal supporting the effort.

Is Noise Necessary?

“Everyone is entitled to peace and quiet,” Peter Kostmayer said. “The question is whether it’s unnecessary. We live in a big city where a certain amount of noise is inevitable. But there are many more residential neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island, where noise is not even an issue.”

Aaron Friedman of Silent Majority, however, said that notion reminds him of what someone living in New York a hundred years ago might have heard: “It’s like saying people need to realize that they are living in one of the biggest cities in the world, and that there are going to be a lot of tenement fires and cholera epidemics.”

And Glenn McAnanama of Upper Green Side said certain rights are being trampled when noise pollution is regarded as a necessary evil.

“People have a right to shape how the world around them is used,” he said. “If they want fewer cars coming into their area, they have a right to demand that people be encouraged and given the right incentives to take mass transit instead. If people want a dedicated lane that emergency vehicles can use to prevent blaring sirens, then they have a right to ask their public officials to do that.”

Several supplements to the noise code are already in the works. Councilmember Alan Gerson of lower Manhattan introduced five new bills, dealing with noise levels from circulation devices, portable generators, motorcycles with straight pipes, and construction work. He also plans to take up the issue of patio and courtyard restaurants.

The volume may be rising, but many believe that New York does not have to be the subject of so much auditory pollution. “It is completely within our control,” McAnanama said, “to reduce noise.”

 
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