Say What?

cable_car_at_columbus_and_powell_7316.jpgThe vibrations and rumble of cable cars used to occur on many of San Francisco’s streets.

We are often attracted to city life for the energy, the boisterousness, the noise. I am a city guy having lived all my life in cities (born in Brooklyn, Chicago until age 10, Oakland until 17, and San Francisco since I was 20). I often make the joke that "nature is trying to kill me," when one of my friends suggests we go camping. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a punk rock fan, and went to dozens of shows with ear-splitting volumes. I’ve been to plenty of other events through the years with overwhelming noise, from other concerts to major sports events, etc. Maybe that’s why I have had a ringing in my ears for the last two years (tinnitus). And perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly frustrated at the oft-overlooked urban problem of noise pollution.

red_motorcycle_7323.jpgThe roar of approaching motorcycles drowns out all conversation until they’re well past.

There are many specific contributors to our unnecessarily noisy
environment, from the incessant sirens of emergency vehicles to the
mechanized roar of the early morning garbage trucks, to the always
galling car alarm serenade.

San Francisco’s streets, however, are not that noisy compared to say, New York City. Or even compared to what it must have been like in the early decades of the 20th century when the City was criss-crossed by streetcars. Our cable cars are good examples of the kind of noisy transit that used to dominate the streets. For those who live along the tracks of the J-Church or N-Judah, or the cable cars, they know well how noisy a "light rail" vehicle can be.

Transit and street noise is taken largely for granted. We know it takes mechanical devices using fossil fuels to carry us around, unless we’ve embraced bicycling.

For us cyclists, the sounds of our whirring wheels and gentle gear changes is a pleasant confirmation of our self-propulsion. One of my favorite aspects of Critical Mass is the completely altered soundscape that accompanies our progress through the City. Sure, sometimes we’re hooting and hollering, and there are at least a half dozen folks who might show up with serious sound systems pumping loud tunes into the air (a side note: the SFPD ticketed all the sound systems last month for lack of sound permits in their ongoing war of attrition, trying to literally raise the price for participating in CM). But the majority of time the sound is that of rolling bikes, murmuring voices, tinkling bells, and laughter. It’s such a lovely kind of quiet, full of life and sweet energy, but so different from the anonymous, unaccountable thrumming of machines that fills our ears so often that we frequently stop noticing until they are turned off. And once you’ve ridden through the city in a mass of bicycles, it’s hard not to remember that different urban environment, and wonder why it can’t be more like that all the time.

One of the pleasures of a vibrant street life is the serendipitous encounter with street artists or performers, whose work is often dependent on the availability of a quieter public space. I had the pleasure in 1980 of running into Jean-Francois Batellier on the streets of Paris, France, one of the more prolific street artists there at the time (he appears in the car-free plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou daily to vend his drawings, books, postcards etc.) A lot of his work speaks to the alienation of modern life, the destruction of the urban fabric, and specifically a lot of great cartoons addressing the car culture. I got his book at the time, and one of his pieces stayed with me all these years:

batellier_I_exist.jpgBy Parisian street artist Jean-Francois Batellier.

I really hate the motorcycle that you hear from blocks away. As it approaches, sidewalk conversation has to stop since no one can yell loud enough to be heard over the roar of the engine. The motorcycle has to be a full block away before anyone can even try to resume talking in a normal voice. Many Streetsblog readers are enthused about the new public plazas, mini-parks and parklets that are finally getting a local tryout. I love them, and see in them a harbinger of a more convivial, friendly, sociable city. But in this awkward interim period before they’re fully developed, and while the preponderant use of local throughways is still overwhelmingly automobiles, we sit in our new parklets next to traffic, the sonic environment dominated by internal combustion engines (not to speak of the olfactory environment!).

battellier_human_sacrifices.jpgBy Parisian street artist Jean-Francois Batellier.

Another pet peeve is the sonic deterioration of BART. I recall riding it when it opened in the early 1970s and being impressed by its smooth, quiet, gliding quality. These days, whenever the train is going through a turn, whether between the Civic Center and 16th Street stations, or from downtown to West Oakland, the jarring screech of the metal wheels on rails is deafening; again it stops all conversation. Even just at high speed through the Transbay Tunnel it’s much harder to converse than it used to be.

Noise is recognized by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) as a serious issue. And there is a Noise Task Force that brings together representatives of the police, DPH, city officials, entertainment businesses, and others. The enforcement of noise pollution ordinances is somewhat balkanized, with a half dozen agencies having varying responsibilities for it. The fight over late-night nightclubs is often driven by noise concerns, and Community Boards mediation services are often employed to address conflicts between neighbors with radically different tastes when it comes to amplified music and other kinds of noise.

It’s an issue that comes up in more and more of our lives, and as more of us are getting older, we can hope for a more respectful approach to social space and noise. I know there will be comments here that say basically "if it’s too noisy for you, stay home (or move to the suburbs)!" I’ve been struggling with bars and restaurants for a while already, but it’s not nearly as bad as the problems my 78-year-old father has. If we don’t find a restaurant with a quiet corner, we might as well not go out to eat because he really can’t hear a thing over the roar of most San Francisco restaurants.

Sad to say, I’m heading the same way, even though I’m only 53. I’ve pretty much given up on bars, unless there’s a quiet room or booth in the back. I can count the restaurants on one hand that are quiet enough to have a personal conversation that doesn’t require yelling to be heard. It’s a mystery to me why the common wisdom for restauranteurs is that a loud roaring restaurant is the most profitable. It would be nice if the private spaces in which we gather to drink,
dine, and talk would honor the desire to talk as much as their narrow
focus on selling us food and beverages. Perhaps some bar owner might
still decide to promote a quieter environment. I’m sure there are a few
out there already.

Ultimately our streets are our primary public spaces besides parks. We have a right to less noise, especially that imposed by trucks and motorcycles that are far exceeding the allowable decibel levels as they roar through our streets. If we continue to spend more time in our reclaimed street space, we should demand that right.

  • Sprague

    Great piece with cool illustrations. Thanks for writing and posting it.

    Just like we are learning ways to improve transit and streetscapes in SF from other cities and countries, we can also learn ways to reduce urban noise. Ermergency response vehicles (ambulances, police, fire) are instructed to use their sirens minimally in Vienna, Austria. Generally this means that they are only turned on for the brief moments when they’re being driven through an intersection against a red light. This results in few sirens disturbing sleepers.

    If more SF streets were rebranded as residential streets or bike boulevards, and through vehiclular traffic was discouraged, the result would be quieter residential streets (and louder thoroughfares). As someone who lives near Scott Street (at Hayes), I know there is an attempt underway to “calm” it. I certainly think that it would be great for our ears, and for pedestrians and bicyclists, if traffic calming was implemented on more of our streets.

  • Gary

    There was a time a few decades ago when I could open my back window at night and there was peaceful silence. Today, I hear a constant low level roar of traffic, and of course, motorcycles, some quite distant.

    Why are they able to manufacture and sell motorcycles (and some cars) with excessively loud exhaust systems in the first place? Seems a failure again of the system.

    Your not alone with the tinnitus, I’ve had a ringing in the ears for the last 20 years, probably from working in a auto repair garage.

  • elizabeth creely

    I couldn’t agree more: Populations should stay put, rather dispersing into rural/semi-rural or suburban spaces looking for peace and quiet.

    We need to stop disparaging people’s needs for quiet. I have neighbors that blast music (I mean blast) across the street from my house, It’s been explained to me that objecting to mariachi music that’s so loud I can’t hear anything in my house without closing all my windows (who wants to do that on a beautiful day?) is culturally insensitive and is a force for gentrification. I think this is nonsensical; I’d have the same objections to anyone blasting The Swans, or Gilbert and Sullivan and I can’t believe I’m the only one who feels this way. It is making me want to move.

    On the issue of BART screeches: the redoubtable Alexis B. Dinno is applying for a grant to show that BART makes waay too much noise and that the level of screeching is a health hazard. I’m going to collect data for her on the BART system, if the grant money comes through.

  • Jon Beckham

    The open top tour buses are pretty loud too, and they rub it in my neighborhood’s face. Sometimes their tape is a bit premature, so instead of the usual trivia I hear something like “Out of respect for the neighborhood, and the many tour buses passing by each day, we will pause our broadcast.”

    It makes me want to drop water balloons on them.

  • I vaguely recall a dining out guide (in NYC?) which listed the noise level of restaurants. Is there not something this in the Bay Area?

    In such a scheme, ratings could be left up to reviewers or of course restaurants could invest in a “sonic hygiene” certification scheme.

    OR… Maybe some noise-health related org. wants to organize a few whispering flash mobs in noisy eateries.

    For now I have a similar problem to Chris… and gotta get people to sit on my right side…

  • Papa Juliet

    Noise pollution from loud, illegally equipped motorcycles is a growing blight across America.
    The large percentage of motorcyclists that operate illegal exhaust systems is not going to change their self-centered ways without law enforcement. If you are sick and tired of this childish special-interest group shattering the peace of our communities, please sign this petition. It is a nation-wide petition. Let’s put an end to this nonsense.

    Thank you

  • Amazing piece, Chris, as usual!
    About 10 years ago, I was regularly bike commuting from the Western Addition to SFSU. One semester, I had an early morning class and I was having regular run-ins in the Sunset with someone driving a ridiculously loud motorcycle — loud enough it felt like my internal organs were about to come loose.
    I learned a couple things in the aftermath of that semester:
    –Stock motorcycle mufflers work just fine, and motorcycles with legal parts are no louder than cars coming off the lot.
    –Although some motorcyclists (like the one I was encountering) defeat the mufflers as a way of projecting a style or an attitude, many motorcyclists see loud mufflers as a defensive mechanism against cars. Like bicyclists, many motorcyclists are hit by car drivers who say “I didn’t see her” or “He came out of nowhere.” The theory in some circles is that given the dominance of cars and trucks on the road in the U.S. today, making motorcycles loud is the best defense against motorcyclists being killed.
    So as we work to make streets safer for all two-wheeled vehicles, we’re opening the door for quieter motorcycles, too!

  • Brandon

    I ride BART daily and it is ridiculously loud. Ive never heard another rail system like this. I think it really should be at the top of their to-do list as it makes it a really uncomfortable system.

  • The building across the street from me pays a guy to blow the sidewalk (as in with a leaf blower) every Monday morning for fifteen minutes around 7:30 AM. I watched him once–he literally walks around blowing nonexistent things off the cement. I waste time sometimes and get paid for it too, but this is some obnoxious shit. Every week that I hear it I resolve to stencil the sidewalk in a few places with a leaf design and ‘Blow this!’ message soon.

    The motorcycles are really bad. And the low hum of any car is bad too. The prius included. But we often see worries that electric cars will be too quiet and pedestrians and cyclists will not be getting audible cues that a cager is nearby. Solution lies in toning these things down and better engineering of the streets to really make bikes and peds primary and privileged over the auto–then the remaining cagers can be as quiet as they like.

  • And while these folks are right about the leaf blowers, they are fun to watch. Wow. I mean hi-larious.

  • Also, the iTuneDropOut people phonorcating with their personnelistening devices won’t give funk all about any Harley et al causing decibHELL.

  • My pet peeve these days is the “news” and “traffic” helicopters that hover over a location for 10-20 minutes so they can say “Live from above…” They are incredibly loud! And I’ve never seen any good reporting from a helicopter (well, maybe if you’re an LA chase fan), and the traffic is all monitored these days by the sensors in the freeway, so the helicopters do little to add to what is actually happening.

  • Thanks for the article. I hate having to yell in restaurants, too.

    I agree that helicopters are incredibly annoying, and they always seem to gather over the Castro if there’s the least bit of controversy, as if they expect the neighborhood to spontaneously combust on camera. (Plus helicopters are just about the most inefficient vehicle fuel-wise that humans have ever created.) I would gladly vote to ban them from city limits except for emergencies. Leaf blowers and loud motorcycles, ditto.

    One of the nice things about Muni electric buses is that they are quieter than most other forms of motorized transport, especially going uphill.

    One of the few good things about Peak Oil is that things *will* get quieter.

  • Nick

    Just how can SFPD ticket bicyclists for playing music while they ride? Do they ticket car drivers for playing a radio song? How many lawyers are also cyclists? Sounds like work!

  • Jordan

    Where do I report the license plate numbers of people with ridiculously loud motorcycles?

  • Michael Baehr

    The helicopter one really irks me. If there’s so much as a 20-person march somewhere, SF turns into fucking Baghdad. Does each station really need their own chopper? Why can’t they just pool their resources and operate one? Is the footage really different?

    Of course, this idea has probably never crossed their mind. Nor has the idea of just having someone on the ground figuring out what the hell is going on. People from above just look like dots.

    All those stations will be bankrupt in another few years anyway, so hopefully the helicopters will go with them.

  • julia

    Jordan, based on this story from a couple of years ago (no idea what the status is now), I think local law enforcement is unlikely to be interested in ticketing illegally loud motorcycles.

  • marcos

    Didn’t BART reconfigure its train programming in the mid 1990s such that they were able to squeeze an extra 10-15% speed increase at the expense of some more noise around the curves and at higher speed in the tube?

    One of the best aspects of living near the BART line, and near a primary school for that matter, is that when the winds are right, you can hear both the groan of the trains as they pull into or out of 16th Street Station as well as the screams of kids playing during recess.

    In the middle of my green garden oasis that makes me forget about the human misery congregated around Heroin Plaza, I can hear snippets of the urban soundscape carried by the fabric of urban space/time at its most vibrant, to mangle the plannerese, which contextualizes it all.


  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    BART is loud because it’s from bizzaroland, designed and built by people with no business designing or building railroads. If you’ve been on one of the new Alstom subway cars in New York you know how quite and comfortable a standard subway car can be. You can barely even tell those trains are moving.

    As for motorcycles, the best thing you can do about your neighbor with the loud Harley is to sneak out in the middle of the night and shove it down the hill. No, I’m not kidding. Sometimes violence *is* the answer.

    Final thought: the #1 reason my family moved to Oakland was the constant roar of the SFFD, day and night. At our house in San Francisco it was typical for the SFFD to go howling down our street 10-20 times a day, and at night we heard continuous sirens blaring around the Western Addition. These days we hear sirens so rarely that we think it’s novel.

  • Thank you for reminding me of the moron(s) with modified mufflers on their motorcycles who rip-roar their crazy loud machines back and forth between Treasure Island and San Francisco last Saturday night from around 2:00 am until 3:00 am. The constant rumble of 280,000 cars crossing the Bay Bridge wouldn’t be so bad if weren’t for these selfish, immature jerks who modify their motorcycles purposely to get attention (for safety my ass). I live right under/beside the Bay Bridge at Harrison and Main, and those loud motorcycles’ owners should be fined as a nuisance … and if you know me, I think all motorized vehicle tickets should start at about $500 to have some bite.

  • Sean T Hedgpeth

    Bart does not have rubberized wheels, (MUNI trains do) which allow for a much quieter ride. The reason why is safety, at BART speeds there is a derailment risk, which happened in Japan and killed lots of people. Slowing down the trains would require more rolling stock and drivers, making the system not only less convenient, but more expensive to run. There is no easy fix, but a good bandaid is noise cancelling headphones.

  • Sandy

    BART’s mechanically noisy, yes, but it’s white noise one can sleep through, and BART is NOT the place for conversation. It’s conversation that intrudes on fellow commuters. BART ought to have a “quiet car”, say the first car, w/ no cell phones, ear plug music that your neighbor has to hear, or chattiness. –I really need a nap on the way home. Human random behavior-wise, how is it that all the talkers, ear-plug listeners, and cell-phone users spread out so there’s just one or two in each car, spread throughout?

  • Yes i agree BART is not the place for conversation….

  • Thomas Holder

    The atrocious noise pollution in the Tenderloin– mainly from ridiculously loud motorcyles (why they are not banned instead of soda machines in public buildings is a mystery), and trash pickup at 3 am –would simply not be tolerated in a more affluent neighborhood. Alas, my email to Supervisor Daly regarding this problem went unanswered.

  • kermitthefrom

    motorcycles are hella cool, thomas holder you be trippin

  • Jan Tree

    Each time a bus is stopping, or starting there are heavy sounds of airpressure (lifting or pushing the brakes? / regaining power for opening or closing the doors?). Even the new E-Busses evade these sounds. That is not compliant with technological progress: it is unnecassary and unhealthy. By the way it is louder than any European bus.



Getting Romantic About Transit

Love at the bus stop. (Photo: lucam via Flickr) Today on the Streetsblog Network, we came across a sweet post from one of our favorite network members — Seattle’s Carla Saulter, better known as Bus Chick. She’s celebrating a milestone — seven years of living car-free. And she takes the occasion to share some memories: […]

Mapping a City by the Sound of Its Streets

As a country bumpkin who moved to New York City in my early twenties, there was no remedy for the overwhelming cacophony of noise that assaulted me on every street and underground, whether it was the piercing horns from cabs or the unbearable throttling clatter of the express trains roaring by me on the local […]

Matthew Roth Departing Streetsblog San Francisco

Editor’s note: Matthew Roth, Deputy Editor and co-founder of Streetsblog San Francisco, will be leaving as a full-time staffer starting in the new year as he pursues further journalism opportunities. Over the course of two years of work (530 stories), he has helped make Streetsblog what it is today and we’ll miss his regular presence, […]