Noise pollution: Shhhhh!I live in Nepal and love most things about the country. But there are some things I don’t like much:
I live in Nepal and love most things about the country. But there are some things I don’t like much: amilo achaar, the caste system, and noise. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who disliked the endless din, but along come new regulations about horn use. Apparently, it’s not just this light-sleeping ‘bideshi’ who can’t stand the ruckus.
My favourite story about Nepal and noise comes from my friend BB. After his first visit to the US, I asked for his impressions. He started telling me about the drive from the LA airport across town. “I was so surprised, yaar. We drove for almost an entire hour, there were cars everywhere but I didn’t hear a single blaring horn. Not a single one. It was so strange.”
One of the great things about travel is that you get to see that yours is not the only way, that other worlds are possible.
It might surprise some to learn that American streets were not always so (relatively) horn-free. In the early days of automobiles, American cities resembled Nepal’s mad horn-fests more closely than they do today’s cities. During the 1910s and 1920s, the “intolerable screeching” of cars made them the single most hated source of noise in America. Drivers relied more on their horns, as urban historian Raymond Smilor has explained, than their brakes. In 1911, a pedestrian described the American motorist’s mindset: “I am coming. If you do not hear my Gabriel trombone [horn], I am afraid I shall run over you.”
Actually, at first, automobiles were seen as quiet. During the 1890s, when cars first appeared in American cities, a much bigger source of noise was the clanking of horseshoes and iron-rimmed carriage wheels on cobblestones. For help, Americans turned to cars—or horseless carriages, as they were called then. “The noise and clatter which makes conversation almost impossible on many streets of New York,” the magazine ‘Scientific American’ wrote in 1899, “will be done away with, for horseless vehicles of all kinds are always noiseless or nearly so.” Alas, as so often happens, the fix itself became the problem.
During the 20 century’s early decades, as newly industrial cities exploded in size, noise levels skyrocketed as well. The racket came from not just vehicles but factory machines, police whistles, peddler’s calls, and roosters and other animals. One of the biggest complaints was the noise created by milkmen delivering their wares each morning.
Noise was only part of a much bigger problem: the environmental crisis that burgeoning cities created. Rapid unplanned growth had spawned overcrowding, inadequate housing, poor sanitation, air and water pollution, uncontrolled garbage heaps, and traffic congestion. Filth and disorder were ubiquitous.
Urban residents worried about not just stench and eyesores but also public health. Cholera and other outbreaks were a real possibility. Noise pollution, too, could undercut health and productivity. How could students, factory labourers, and office workers perform well with headaches from ear-splitting street-noise and hangovers from interrupted sleep?
War without decisive victories
Public anti-noise campaigns sprouted up, pushed by organisations such as New York’s Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. The writer William Dean Howells, this group’s vice-president, likened New York’s noise to “a crushing weight upon the head.”
Noise, of course, is just sound out of place. It depends upon the ear of the beholder. But noise was not just a middle-class concern. “Slum residents hated noise as much as any social group,” Smilor writes. “What we cannot stand is the noise,” one female tenement resident wrote, “it never stops. It is killing us. We work hard all day and need sleep and rest at night. No one can sleep till midnight and [then] all the noise begins again at five.” In Philadelphia, slum dwellers demanded that the city’s board of health regulate the ruckus.
More generally, city streets became a special site of social struggle. Urban public spaces were changing quickly. Who and what were they for? Would private interests win out or the public good? Would working class interests be drowned out as the middle class expanded? Cars and other vehicles posed a special problem. Were streets common spaces to be shared by all—rich and poor, young and old, men and women—or simply arteries for wealthy elites to use to speed around town?
By 1915, every city in America had passed anti-noise ordinances. Baltimore became the first city to task police with enforcing quiet zones around hospitals. Other municipalities regulated areas around schools and residential areas. Some cities prohibited barking or howling dogs (imagine that). Innovations such as rubber tires and better carmufflers also helped.
But this was a war without decisive victories. Despite improvements, as American cities grew, so did the racket. Only better organisation, public awareness campaigns, stricter laws and tighter enforcement, new technologies, and new habits made a difference over the long haul. Ditto with other environmental problems. And yet, many problems persisted.
When I first arrived in Kathmandu nearly 30 years ago, the city was a joy to bicycle and walk around. That has changed dramatically, and not just because of the dust. I especially worry about what the changes mean for children and the elderly. I hope the city can find a way to ease transport bottlenecks but also create public spaces that are safe and pleasant for Nepalis of all ages.
Robertson is an environmental historian and executive director of the Fulbright-Nepal office; views expressed here are his own