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|Year : 2010 | Volume
| Issue : 46 | Page : 1--6
Abating New York city transit noise: A matter of will, not way
Arline L Bronzaft
Lehman College, City University of New York, Council on the Environment of New York City, 51 Chambers Street, N. Y. 10007, New York, USA
Arline L Bronzaft
Council on the Environment of New York City, 51 Chambers Street, N. Y. 10007, New York
From the latter part of the 19 th century, when New York City trains began to operate, until the present time, New York City's Transit Authority has received train noise complaints from riders and residents living near its transit system. The growing body of literature demonstrating the adverse effects of noise on physical and mental health raises the question as to whether transit noise is hazardous to the health of New York City's transit riders and residents living near the transit system. Several studies have examined the impacts of the noise of New York's transit system on hearing, health and learning. Despite the Transit Authority's efforts to remedy transit noise in response to complaints, the noise problem has not yet been satisfactorily ameliorated. This paper will suggest how the Transit Authority could employ techniques that could lower the noise levels of its system and benefit the health and welfare of New Yorkers. The recommendations in this paper could also apply to other cities with major transit systems where noise abatement has not been treated seriously.
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Bronzaft AL. Abating New York city transit noise: A matter of will, not way.Noise Health 2010;12:1-6
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Bronzaft AL. Abating New York city transit noise: A matter of will, not way. Noise Health [serial online] 2010 [cited 2023 Mar 26 ];12:1-6
Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2010/12/46/1/59994
New York's Noisy Transit System - Potential Impacts
Two recent studies , have drawn attention to the noise of New York City's transit system. These studies concluded that the noise exposure of the New York City's transit system, especially its subway system, has the potential of causing noise-induced hearing loss among its riders. Collecting noise level measurements within the subway system, the authors reported that the noises exceeded the allowable exposure times recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1974 and the World Health Organization in 1998. Furthermore, noise readings were also taken on the commuter railways, buses, tramway and ferries, which are controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York; and the authors similarly cautioned about the dangerous levels of noise of these systems as well. Recognizing that there are very few studies, citing only two foreign studies which have reported measurements of transit noise, the authors acknowledged that predicting actual hearing loss amongst riders will require collecting additional data.
The noise from the New York's noisy transit system is only one of the many noises to which New Yorkers are regularly exposed. To the list of noises, one can add aviation, highway traffic, backup beeps, emergency vehicle sirens, horn honking, loud street music and the general cacophony of sounds caused by large groups of people moving about in urban environments. The League for the Hard of Hearing in New York City had collected hearing acuity data on older New Yorkers for 19 years and found that with each passing year a higher percentage of older New Yorkers failed the hearing screening test.  Bat-Chava and Schur hypothesized that the increased noise levels in the city probably accounted for the yearly increase in the numbers of people with poorer hearing. With years of living in New York City possibly hastening hearing loss of its residents, it is essential to work on lessening the din of the wide array of noises in the city, including transit noise.
With so many United States citizens riding in public transit systems or living alongside these systems, Neitzel et al. concluded that "noise-abatement efforts have the potential to benefit the public's health." The research linking noise to adverse health impacts has indeed been growing, ,, with the strongest evidence for cardiovascular effects. Berglund et al.,  writing on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO), caution that noise may be harmful to health. Short of eliciting adverse health impacts, community noises can diminish one's quality of life, robbing residents of enjoying activities such as reading, conversing, resting, etc., in their homes. [8,9]
New York's Subway System Noisy - Nothing New About That!
Dr. Gershon's concern that transit noise may impair hearing was preceded by that of a fellow Columbia professor, Dean Mancuso, an audiologist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, who, when asked by Chad Smith,  a reporter of New York's Downtown Express (May 19-26, 2006), about the high decibel levels of noise recorded by the reporter in the subway system, stated that over time such high levels could do permanent hearing damage. Years before, Annette Zaner,  while identifying sources of noise, in Thomas Fay's book Noise and Health, pointed to the noises of subway systems, especially older ones, such as New York City's system, as being "unbearably loud." That New York City's transit system is extremely noisy is nothing new. In fact, as far back as 1873 when the Third Avenue El opened adjacent to Cooper Union College, students complained that the train noise disrupted their classes. A dozen classrooms had to be transferred to the Fifth Avenue side of the building, and the Transit Authority actually compensated Cooper Union for this move with a payment of $540.00, thus acknowledging the adverse impact of its noisy trains.
In 1916, it was a school principal's complaint about noisy elevated trains that led to the installation of felt pads under the rails, but unfortunately, this method did not correct the problem. If we move forward to 1972, we learn that a group of parents of students attending Public School 98 in Upper Manhattan was still complaining that train noise disturbed their children's classroom learning. Nearly 100 years later, complaints about transit noise disrupting classes continued without the Transit Authority arriving at an adequate abatement technique to lessen the din of trains adjacent to schools. It should be pointed out that rail noise disrupts learning in schools other than those in New York City, as noted in President Obama's speech to the joint houses of Congress in February 2009: "And I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina - a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels pass their classroom."
The parents of the children at Public School 98 (P.S. 98) took their case to court; but when the court heard the case, it ruled that the parents had not demonstrated that elevated train noise actually lowered academic scores. Interest in transit noise at P.S. 98 led to a study  that examined the reading scores of children whose classrooms at P.S. 98 faced the elevated tracks and compared their scores with those of the children on the opposite, quiet side of the building. The study found that the children in classrooms that were exposed to the elevated train tracks were nearly a year behind in reading scores by the sixth grade when compared to children sitting in classrooms on the quiet side of the school building. These findings drew the attention of the media and the public officials in New York City; and to the Transit Authority's credit, the agency installed resilient pads on the tracks adjacent to the school to test out the effectiveness of such pads in abating transit noise. The Board of Education also responded by installing acoustical ceilings in the noisiest classrooms. Determined to learn whether these abatement measures made a difference in the learning environment, a later study  was conducted and it was found that the children on both sides of the building were now reading at the same level, demonstrating, indeed, that the noise-abatement measures were effective.
Interestingly, some years later when Lincoln Center in New York City was working with architects to employ materials to improve the quality of sound within the Center, the Transit Authority assisted this effort by welding the subway track adjacent to the building and by installing rubber pads to lessen the noise of the passing trains. 
The Transit Authority Responds to Noise Complaints
The Transit Authority had been aware back in 1873 that rail noise could impede learning, but it took the findings of the 1975 study and the resultant publicity to move the Transit Authority to be more assertive about reducing elevated train noise adjacent to schools. Recognizing that the people residing near the elevated structures were also affected by the noise, the Transit Authority decided to install these rubber pads throughout its elevated structures, making it part of its noise-abatement program.
Early on, the New York Transit Authority also acknowledged the physiological and psychological effects of noise upon its employees; and in 1924, the Transit Commission established allowable noise standards. Interest in abating noise was even higher in the 1930s and 1940s; but according to Martin Huss,  the 1950s and 1960s passed with little effort on part of the Authority to implement noise-abatement techniques. In response to criticism, beyond that of Mr. Huss, the Transit Authority commissioned noise studies in 1973, 1974 and 1979. With a federal grant in 1975, the Transit Authority undertook noise abatement efforts, e.g., installation of welded rail and rubber resilient pads, purchasing of a wheel-truing machine. The 50-million grant was followed by over 150 million dollars more for noise abatement, and it appeared that the Authority was becoming more concerned about rail noise.
City and State Ask Transit Authority to Lessen the Noise
The New York City was also concerned about subway noise; and in 1973, the Bureau of Noise Abatement of the Environmental Protection Administration of New York prepared a report entitled Rapid Transit Railroad Noise for the City Council as required by the New York City Noise Control Code passed the year before. The report starts out saying that "... the noise levels in the system are so great, so far from what we would consider acceptable acoustical performance standards."The report then makes recommendations with respect to curve squeal, welded rail, acoustical ceilings in the noisiest stations, etc. Tables accompanying the report note the expected benefits, including reductions in decibel levels and the costs associated with the abatements. However, the best the report could do was to make recommendations! On the other hand, New York State could mandate the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to abate noise; and in 1982, the state legislature passed the Rapid Transit Noise Code. This bill mandated the Transit Authority (a subsidiary of the overseeing agency the Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to assess the extent of noise from its noise sources and implement programs to gradually reduce the noise. The Rapid Transit Noise Code set noise levels to be achieved over a 12-year period and the Transit Authority was to prepare a progress report each year for the State and when it failed to achieve goals designated the year before, the Transit Authority had to provide explanations for these failed goals.
The first annual report was prepared for the State in 1984 and detailed the progress of the Authority in abating subway noise during the period August 1983 to July 1984. There was no equivalent reporting for buses, largely because the legislation was limited to subways. This first report had been preceded by two earlier documents in October 1983 and January 1984 presented to the governor and the legislature; one report provided general information on noise abatement and also analyzed the system-wide noise levels using a computer modeling system known as PEACE; and the second report laid out a general long-range strategy to reduce noise, as well as a planned implementation schedule for the specific abatement programs that were to be used.
The first report in 1984 reported on new car purchases, rail welding, retrofit of traction motors, rubber rail seat installation, station acoustic treatments - all capital improvements. Operating maintenance activities related to noise abatement included wheel truing and rail lubrication. Testing and evaluation programs included the damped wheel test. Noise measurements were planned to validate the PEACE model, particularly in stations, and were to commence in 1984, but this was not done, as noted in 1985 report. A later report indicated that the PEACE model testing had been abandoned. Reports continued to be prepared for the following years, and the final report was written in September 1995. This last report spoke of the following: installation of 13 miles of welded rail in subways and opencut areas and plans to weld 10 more miles in 1995; the installation of resilient rail fasteners along 12 miles of track and plans to do over 13 miles the following year; testing of new-technology test trains with lower noise levels; and station-rehabilitation projects. Although the report claimed that all cars purchased under the 1982-1991 Capital Program were less than 80 dBA at speeds up to 40 miles, there were no data provided on testing of these cars. In fact, the Transit Authority refused to carry out periodic measurements of the system, which would be the best indicator of actual drops in transit noise levels.
Whatever the shortcomings of these reports, the Authority had to designate a group to gather data from different departments on their noise-abatement efforts and prepare a report summarizing these activities each year for the duration of the legislation. With respect to the earliest reports in 1983 and 1984, the group of people assigned to write these reports was familiar with the noise-abatement efforts of the agency. After 1995, no further annual reports were required by state law (state law only lasted 12 years); and, as a result, no further reports were prepared by the Authority. Thus there was no vehicle by which the Authority could examine the progress in the noise-abatement projects undertaken by the different departments. This does not mean that the departments did not continue to weld rail or install resilient rail fasteners or true wheels; there was no single document summarizing the activities of the departments. To gather such information for the ensuing years would require contacting each department for the data pertaining to the work of that department with respect to noise abatement for the past 14 years - a time-consuming task even if material were indeed accessible. Additionally, the Transit Authority has continued to pursue its policy of not taking actual measurements of noise within the system. The Authority measures on time performance and passenger loading by taking samples and generalizing from these data to the entire system but claims the sampling technique would be inappropriate for noise assessments.
It's 2009 - Status of Transit Noise Today
So now we reach the year 2009; the Transit Authority has not issued any annual reports for the past 14 years describing activities undertaken to abate the noise of its subway system, and two papers are now published , highlighting the noises of its subway system and its buses. The Transit Authority is a subsidiary of the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority and is primarily responsible for the operation of New York City buses and subways. Furthermore, the Revised Noise Code signed by the mayor in July 2007 calls for the Department of Environmental Protection to prepare a report on the noise of New York City's transit system, which should be forthcoming. Again, the city can only recommend to the Transit Authority, not mandate what actions should be taken to lessen the din of the system. However, this report plus the Neitzel and Gershon studies will once again focus on transit noise and exert pressure on the Transit Authority to lessen the noise of its transit system. How will the Transit Authority, the city and the state respond to the latest findings that its transit system is loud enough to potentially harm hearing, as well as bring about other non-auditory health effects? The author cannot speak for the Authority, the city or state but will attempt to identify some noise-control efforts that could be undertaken by the Transit Authority, keeping in mind that costs will weigh heavily in giving noise abatement a high priority.
Recommendations to Lessen Public Transit Noise in New York City
An Overseeing Noise Team: The ability of a team of transit employees to respond to the State Legislation requesting information on noise-abatement efforts and undertakings in 1984 underscores the need for the Transit Authority today to establish a committee of knowledgeable people at the Transit Authority to oversee its noise-abatement efforts. Furthermore, such a group would be better able to respond to studies such as those conducted by Neitzel and Gershon - not simply to excuse their shortcomings but to stress what activities are going on presently to curtail noise, as well as what activities are planned for the near future. Although there are, indeed, members of the Transit Authority with knowledge of noise-abatement techniques, it would take an overseeing committee designated to deal with transit noise to effectively and efficiently bring about changes that would indeed lessen the noise from the buses, the trains, the bus stops and the stations.
Linking Economic Savings to Noise Abatement: The New York Transit Authority, like similar agencies worldwide, is very conscious of costs, recognizing that the New York City transit fares were raised in July 2009. In its earliest reports to the state legislature in the 1980s, the Transit Authority considered noise abatement as an integral part of its maintenance programs and capital projects. The Transit Authority should be thinking in a similar vein today. Good maintenance requires attention being paid to rail welding and repair of loose bolts, two areas involved in noise reduction; but at the same time, a comprehensive maintenance program also needs to be in place to pay attention to the integrity of the entire system, and such attention will result in saved dollars. Welded rail is considered easer to care for than jointed rail, and this speaks to economic savings. Not truing wheels on a regular basis or not repairing rails when needed or not allowing trains to travel more smoothly on elevated structures will not only contribute to increased noise but also to wear and tear on the system as a whole, and this can be more costly in the long run. Wheel truing may reduce noise, but maintaining wheel flange contour and width also leads to longer life for wheels and rail. Proper maintenance of other parts of the system can also reduce noise, while saving money, e.g., careful sealing of windows and doors allows air-conditioners to cool more efficiently, while at the same time reducing interior noise.
Additionally, during customary maintenance of the system, the Transit Authority should explore possible causes of the problems found, not simply remedy them. For example in 1988, the Car Equipment Department modified the air brake valve in order to reduce overbraking, which the engineers had learned was causing higher numbers of flat wheels. By modifying the valve in 1989, wheel truing activity was reduced from 13,969 wheels in 1989 to 7,083 wheels through November 1992 (personal communication from President Alan Kiepper to author, January 23, 1993). Fewer flat wheels, less noise, less wheel truing and greater economic savings were the result of looking carefully at the cause of a problem. Timely maintenance resulting in less noise is the key to the integrity of the entire subway system and is economically wise.
Capital projects should consider the purchase of quieter buses, trains, etc., because the elements that produce noise in buses or trains may also be a function of a poor design that could lead to earlier breakdowns of transit vehicles. For example, in the 1980s the Transit Authority had agreed to purchase trains with traction motors noisier than those offered to other transit systems, only to discover that the noisier traction motors, with noise being caused by the blades of the fans that were cooling the motors, would have had shorter lives than traction motors with shorter blades that would not hit the side of the housing of these fans. After providing the manufacturers with a sum of money for research and development, the manufacturers were able to design quieter traction motors for the agency's trains. The Transit Authority received quieter and, as it turned out, longer-lasting traction motors. A small investment in research and development provided savings in the long run, and this effort should be explored now when economics is guiding many of the Transit Authority's decisions. Secondly, purchasing quieter products might also result in the need for less maintenance, and this is a major consideration of a transit authority that is facing financial cuts. Placing rubber pads between the rail and the steel elevated structure reduces noise, as evidenced in the cited research above  ; and it was found that these pads also reduced the transmission of vibration from rail to supporting structure, thus providing better maintenance for the elevated structure.
New York City operates one of the largest systems in the world, and it should have sufficient leverage with providers when it comes to meeting specifications for quieter equipment. The Transit Authority should use its clout to request and receive trains and buses that are indeed quieter. The Transit Authority should no longer accept excuses that certain parts of the vehicle cannot be quieted and should check with transit properties internationally to determine whether they have been able to acquire quieter vehicles. The Transit Authority failed to check with Washington, D. C., over 20 years ago when it was willing to accept noisier traction motors. Information today is more readily available, and the Transit Authority should note whether quieter buses are being used in Sydney, Australia; or in Berlin, Germany.
While it is true that acoustical treatments of stations appear to be an added expense, and this could explain why the Transit Authority dropped acoustical treatment from its renovation of a major station several years ago, it should be pointed out that acoustical treatments of stations, other than lessening the din, also improve the intelligibility of the public address systems. Acoustical treatment of stations also reduces crowd noises and exterior noises transmitted through entrances and shafts, and these noises also impede the intelligibility of public address systems. Too often passengers complain that they cannot hear announcements that are not only important in everyday travel but become even more critical during emergencies; and with the New York City Transit Authority frequently being cited as a possible target of terrorism, announcements are especially important. Announcements that cannot be heard and fail to properly direct passengers through the system can be viewed as a waste of money, a waste of consumer time and energy as they navigate the system, and a potentially dangerous situation.
The Transit Authority continues to respond to complaints from passengers about noise, as well as from residents living adjacent to the tracks. Does the Transit Authority figure in the costs of having to respond to these complaints? Many times, these complaints result in corrections, e.g., lubrication of rails, but it might be more cost-effective to keep better check on the lubrication system as a whole to decrease number of complaints, not to mention impacts of the noise on the complaining residents, which as we know from our research literature can result in adverse health problems. Of course, health of the residents exposed to the noise may not factor in as a cost-saving to the Transit Authority in the short-run; but it is very possible that one day, individuals who believe noise from adjacent trains may affect their well-being will bring lawsuits against the Transit Authority as did the parents of Public School 98 in the 1970s. Today, with the larger body of literature supporting link between noise and health, one of these lawsuits may turn out to be very costly to the Transit Authority and New York State.
Assessing noise in the transit system: The transit authority is reluctant to periodically check on the noise of its trains and buses, as well as the noise at platforms and bus stops. Yet, the best way to assess how effective your noise-abatement efforts have been is to have a regular monitoring program to measure the noises of the system. Furthermore, even with specifications for quieter trains and buses, the Transit Authority does not know whether these specifications hold up when the buses and trains are put into operation on our bumpy streets and "less than optimally clean" tracks. Buses have to be tested operating on New York City streets, when idling near residences, when stopping at corners and at bus stops. Interior car noise should be assessed as trains travel over New York City's rails, including travel within tunnels and over elevated structures. Train noise should be measured from the streets as trains travel around sharp curves. Requesting specifications which permit testing under "ideal" situations may have to be revised when testing is conducted during operation of buses and trains. When the Transit Authority has been asked to sample noise levels in the system and on its buses, it frequently responds that sampling would not give them an adequate estimation of the problem. However, the Transit Authority estimates passenger load on buses and on-time performance of trains and buses by using sampling. Proper sampling would provide a better indication of how "noisy" the system is than having no idea at all and assuming that noise levels are lower because specifications have called for quieter buses or that the established wheel truing schedules are adequate. Furthermore, the Transit Authority's earlier proposal in the 1980s to employ the computer modeling system known as PEACE to track the noise of the subway system indicates that the Transit Authority was at one time interested in noise measurements. The Neitzel et al.  study may result in moving the Transit Authority to set up its own periodic testing of the noise levels within the entire system.
Role of Consultants in Planning, Design and Construction
In his paper on forecasting community annoyance in planning noisy facilities, Guski  notes those planners in assessing impact of future noise situations often underestimate the actual annoyance that will be experienced by the residents. In New York City, there are major construction projects, e.g., Second Avenue Subway, Number 7 Subway Extension, that require environmental impact statements to assess the impact of the construction on the nearby residents. Unless these environmental impact statements appropriately evaluate the noise impacts, they will, as Guski warns, underestimate the detrimental effects of the noise. Furthermore, when projects underestimate the duration of the construction project, as has been evident in the building of the Second Avenue Subway, then the estimated impacts of the noise will be way off because residents will be more annoyed and disturbed as time passes. When individuals are told that something will end in 2 years, rather than 6 years, they may be more willing to accept intrusive noises; but their attitude will change drastically as the 2 years move into 4 and then 6.
Having read environmental impact statements prepared by engineers and planners who have been asked to assess noise impacts, I have found that too often these consultants lack sufficient knowledge of the literature that has demonstrated that noise adversely impacts individuals both mentally and physically. These consultants tend to view noise effects as being purely subjective and varying from individual to individual rather than recognizing, as the World Health Organization has, that noise, on the whole, is dangerous to our health and well-being. While it is true that some people may be less bothered by noise and others more bothered, it is the majority of the people in the middle who will be definitely adversely affected by the noise. Furthermore, if the environmental impact statements prepared by the consultants refer to "receptor sites" and "surrounding uses" rather than to residents and people, then these environmental impact statements are giving short shrift to the effects of noise on people. Too often environmental impact statements conclude that noise-abatement measures need not be part of the project because the impacts will be "only moderate." Moderate may be less than severe but most certainly warrants noise-abatement measures. A major lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration's plans to redesign its air routes in five mid-Atlantic states has charged that the agency has not employed the appropriate models to assess the impact of noise on nearby residents. This lawsuit underscores the statement that consultants have failed to appropriately assess the impacts of noise on exposed residents ( www.ourairspace.org ).
In New York City, the Transit Authority is not only involved in major capital projects noted above but it has ongoing improvement projects involving their bus depots and rail yards, their ventilation plants, etc., and these too require that consultants be fully cognizant of the potential impact of noise on nearby residents. It behooves the Transit Authority to request that their consultants be familiar with the latest research on the effects of noise on people and employ the best techniques to adequately assess the potential levels of noise that will result from their projects. Furthermore, the Second Avenue Subway delays appear to cast doubt on the ability of consultants to determine the length of time needed for this project, another indication of the use of poor assessment tools.
The Transit Authority does get complaints from communities about the noise imposed by its construction projects. These are less vociferous than those from communities opposing airport runway expansions because New Yorkers value their public transit system and probably are more tolerant of the noises for this reason. On the other hand, even more tolerant people may be damaged by the onslaught of the noises, and there are ways to lessen the noises for these people if consultants would be more cognizant of the hazards of noise.
From the time the Transit Authority began to operate its subway system, it received complaints of noise. Throughout the years, it attempted to abate some of the noises, but the results of the latest studies on transit noise indicate that the levels of noise are still far too high. Even today, as in the past, the Transit Authority employs individuals with knowledge of noise-abatement techniques, with many of these people attending national and international conferences and seminars on noise and ways to curtail the noise. However, noise abatement is not high on the list of priorities at the agency, which has just raised its fare to meet increasing expenses and is especially concerned about costs during this economic recession. That is why it is essential that the Transit Authority review its own documents prepared over 25 years ago that linked noise abatement to cost-savings and once again view noise curtailment within the context of capital planning and maintenance.
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