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Sounds Electric

Many years ago, when I was living in Spain, I traveled by train to Basel, Switzerland. In Spain my ears had gradually become accustomed to the sounds of Iberian urbanity — the one that always registered foremost was the toxic whine (and acrid whiff) of cheap motos, clattering off the narrow streets. Stepping out onto the streets of Basel (on a Sunday, no less), I was almost overwhelmed by the stillness. So much so that, as I wandered about in a near fugue state, I was almost struck by one of the city’s trams. But it sounded a polite bell to alert me to its presence, and I survived Switzerland.

I thought of the episode when reading Dan Hill’s brilliant exposition on a recent Economist article on the idea that electric/hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which of course make much less noise than traditional cars, represent a grave threat to urban safety, and that traditional (loud) car noise will have to be retro-fitted back into the car. I had always thought the car of the future, as depicted in sci-fi and the like, would proceed past with nothing more than a soft whoosh, but one wonders: Is this is a real issue?

Hill writes:

Let’s quickly deal with the safety issue first. People will adapt easily enough. We’ve adapted to numerous successive modes of transport in the past without the need to artificially increase the noise that mode of transport generates (though the first automobiles required a man with a flag walking in front of them. Is this not the aural equivalent of that, and so equally likely to fade away?)

One of the numerous reasons why bicycles are a more civic mode of transport is that they do not make much noise. Even at the speeds cyclists can get up to, this near-silent mode is apparently still safe enough not to warrant a pedal-powered drone, say. A bell suffices, and after that it’s about taking due care and attention on both sides. As bikes slowly become the dominant mode of personal transport in cities, this shouldn’t change. Cyclists, a few idiots aside, have to rely on individual responsibility to a greater extent than motorists, partly due to their relative fragility. This is not a bad thing necessarily – it forms a thin undulating layer of civic substrate.

Of all the possible threats cars pose to pedestrians in cities, lack of noise seems an odd crusade for the Economist to get behind — why not the speed of cars (which is a de facto explanation in all urban pedestrian fatalities), the provision of pedestrian facilities (a key reason behind literally hundreds of thousands of pedestrian fatalities in a country like India), visibility in car design (some current models have a dreadful range of sight), the weak legal penalties for striking a pedestrian, etc. etc.

We also need more than anecdotal evidence that Priuses are causing more pedestrian fatalities than other cars (see the comments in this website for an interesting discussion; and if anyone has any real data, please advise); I might imagine there would be a statistical artifact here even if there were slightly more Priuses involved in pedestrian fatalities — i.e., Prius’ market share is higher in places where there are more pedestrians. And as Hill notes, there are certainly more effective pedestrian safety strategies — ones that would benefit blind and well as sighted pedestrians — than ratcheting up noise; Volvo’s CitySafety for one. Not to mention there are already plenty of pedestrians who don’t hear my normal-sounding car because they’re wrapped up in an iPod or on the phone.

Traffic noise, or at least excessive traffic noise, after all, is a detriment to the quality of life — shown in everything from real estate values to people’s stress responses to noisy intersections (the work of Christian Nold, for example) to the negative environmental impacts (the work of Richard Foreman) — why on Earth would we want to artificially raise it, when there were other options available?

Hill’s piece goes on to consider a number of interwoven strands of cars, sound, and urban life, and he taps a wonderful passage about the horn in New Delhi from Geoff Dyers’ new novel Geoff in Venice:

“The din of horns rendered use of the horn simultaneously superfluous and essential. The streets were narrow, potholed, trenched, gashed. There was no pavement, no right of way – no wrong of way – and, naturally, no stopping. The flow was so dense that we were rarely more than an inch from whatever was in front, beside or behind. But we never stopped. Not for a moment. We kept nudging and bustling and bumping our way forward. Given the slightest chance – a yard! – Sanjay went for it. What, in London, would have constituted a near-miss was an opportunity to acknowledge the courtesy of a fellow road-user. There were no such opportunities, of course, and the idea of courtesy made no sense for the simple reason that nothing made any sense except the relentless need to keep going. From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time. So did everyone else. Unlike everything else, this did make sense. Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?”

New Delhi, an incredibly noisy city, is hardly a paradise of pedestrian safety. Pinning pedestrian safety to car noise sounds a bit suspicious to me.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 8:18 am and is filed under Cities, Etc., Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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