Traffic noise
The shock of the quiet

Who knew that birds were so loud? That the house across the road had a forthright grandfather clock in the hallway? That the door bell was redundant because the hinge on the front gate squealed first?

Without the incessant thrum of motors, wheels and exhausts, our world is revealing a new dimension, a soundscape that has been largely hidden from us since the advent of motordom.

Those living in places where car traffic is greatly reduced have been surprised at how their senses have changed, how alert, cued in and connected they feel to the world around them.

Coronavirus has delivered some upside.

And bike riders are among those that first noticed the impact.

The dull blanket of traffic noise has lifted, and gone with it that sense of oppression and stress that usually dogs our footsteps, and pedal strokes, as we move about town.

Noise is now recognised as one of the most serious environmental causes of health problems. Many ailments, including heart disease, have been tied to long term noise exposure.

Rather than short, sharp bursts, it is prolonged exposure such as traffic noise constantly intruding into the background, that does the damage.

A new report from the European Environmental Agency calculates that twenty percent of Europe’s population are exposed to long-term noise levels that are harmful to their health. And efforts to curtail the problem are not working.

There are just too many cars.

The number of people exposed to noise from road traffic far exceeds that exposed to rail, aircraft and industry sources.

It is estimated that approximately 82 million Europeans are affected by levels of road traffic noise of at least 55 dB during the day-evening-night period inside urban areas.

Countries, regions and cities are taking a variety of measures to address noise problems, for instance, installing low noise asphalt on roads, using quiet tyres in public transport vehicles, putting more infrastructure for electric cars in cities, promoting active travel like walking or cycling, pedestrianisation of streets, etc.

A significant number of cities and regions have also put in place so-called quiet areas, where people can go to escape city noise. These are mostly green spaces, like parks or nature reserves.

The humble bicycle has its role to play. The more people we can get on bikes, the more road space that is dedicated to active transport, the quieter and healthier our streets will be.

And the birds will thank us too. Nature communicates with sound, and without the traffic roar, birds, and all wildlife will benefit.