City Noise: How Much is Too Much?

The Pattullo Bridge consultation process has got me thinking about acceptable city noises. (Photo courtesy Graham Ballantyne)

Translink has embarked upon a new series of consultations about the Pattullo Bridge. The City of New Westminster itself also recently made waves when it announced it was going to focus on completing its Master Transportation Plan before collaborating with Translink (for the record, I say “bravo” for that). The future of the Pattullo Bridge will have a significant impact on residents in New West, as it seems Translink is quite determined to widen the bridge to 6 lanes, bringing more traffic using our city as a thoroughfare to get to other places. Green New West and City Caucus have already blogged about the first consultation (and local Hector Bremner got a sneak peek at the plans) – but there are other consultations, including one tonight at Inn at the Quay. All New Westminster residents should make plans to attend at least one. If you can’t make it in person, a live webinar is scheduled for March 8th.

Downtown Parkade in New Westminster by Graham Ballantyne
Downtown Parkade in New Westminster by Graham Ballantyne

The reason I draw your attention to the Pattullo Bridge plans is because the increase in traffic noise is something that has been raised as a concern (and was when we talked about the UBE too), and it’s gotten me thinking about noises in the city.

I live on the ambulance feeder route to Royal Columbian Hospital and when we moved in we spent two or three sleepless nights, tossing and turning to the screeching and whining of the sirens. And then we adjusted. People come to our house now comment on the sirens, and we generally reply “What? Huh? Oh, right, the sirens,” because we have completely forgotten about them.

A friend of mine used to live by the airport in Richmond in a small community called Burkeville. I remember one New Year’s Eve we sat in her hot tub in her yard and toasted the midnight clock strike under a giant jet headed for destinations unknown. Planes rumbled over her house with cupboard rattling proximity and we hardly even noticed.

City noises permeate our life. Whether it’s your neighbour and their incessant leaf blowing or car vacuuming, or whether you live on a major transportation route, city noises are a part of what makes up the urban fabric. They are a trade-off, in essence, of having easy access to services we desire.

So many cities worldwide have a noise bylaw and they generally address things like barking dogs, construction, obnoxious neighbours, and other noises I see as irregular noises. Your neighbours are prevented from doing things that may generate unacceptable levels of noise – no construction before or after certain times, for example.

A city generates sounds – the whoosh of traffic, the hum of a factory, the sounds from a working river or railway. The become a part of the landscape of where we live. I took a trip once to visit my brother in Northern BC and the first two nights I was there I couldn’t sleep because it was simply too quiet. During this most recently held municipal election, I was chastised for not caring about my fellow residents because I admitted I don’t mind the sound of trains, and in fact, I kind of like them.

What do you think are acceptable city sounds?


Jen Arbo

Jen Arbo is the editor and co-publisher of Tenth to the Fraser. She's been writing for the site since 2007 and lives in Sapperton with her family. A project manager at heart, she also operates Hyack Interactive, a digital communications company. Find her on Twitter or Instagram.

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  1. I find the train noises really reassuring. I grew up right near major train traffic, and it reminds me of my childhood. The noise of more vehicles coming into New West doesn't really bother me either. To me, it's the sound of more potential customers for our fabulous local businesses. While I recognise that the majority of these vehicles will just whizz right through, I know that I have ended up frequenting businesses along the route of my commute.

  2. Good point about the noise. I raised this concern at the February 15th Pattullo stakeholder meeting, suggesting that sound baffling and/or berms be considered to reduce ambient noise. The response from Translink was that noise abatement will be analysed and options presented at the Environmental Stage, which is a few years out, and follows the current phase, which is to determine how the bridge will link to the mainland on each side.
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  3. I too am one of those that find the sound of trains in the night kind of comforting, although I admit I don’t have a condo right next to the tracks (a bad place to buy for those who don’t like trains, I guess). I’ve lived in some noisy places, I guess – the Annex in Toronto, off of Norwood High Road in London in England (there’s a noisy city all around). I’ve even lived in an apartment building on the ground floor in the town I grew up in next to a pretty busy traffic artery. I suppose I’m a city person that way.

    But, even if you aren’t one, I think the reality of living in an urbanized, and even a suburbanized area, means that you will have to deal with the sound of life as it happens in the surrounding areas, even if it’s not your own life. A balance must be struck of course to keep some measure of peace and respect of boundaries, as you’ve suggested here in this article. But, this area of the world is expanding, and infrastructure to support it must be updated to accommodate it. To me this means growing pains. Also to me, the building up of infrastructure in this area is pretty exciting, a chance to connect the disparate communities in the lower mainland, to create greater access. This is how communities evolve. Luckily, there seems to be a lot of chances for dialogue, and lots of avenues to pursue it, as to how we guide that evolution.

    Cheers for the article!

  4. I can sleep through most noise, but my other half is very noise-sensitive (enter "how does she put up with you" joke here). At some point, droning traffic or city sounds become “white noise” that most people can sleep through, but I remember living on Royal and 10th when the occasional empty container truck bumped through the intersection at 2:00am, there’s no sleeping through that: too jarring. I have my own pet peeves: “open pipes” on motorcycles (who wants to be that much of a jerk?), traffic helicopters (Really? Is that necessary?), 2-stroke lawn equipment (want to borrow my rake?).

    Once I a while we go to visit the In-laws on East Point of Saturna Island, and the guest room is silent. Sensory deprivation silent. I could sleep till dinner there…

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  5. A friend of mine calls city noise "urban surf".

    Somehow, the noises that bother me most are the ones that have other associations for me; things like gas-powered lawn equipment (especially LEAF BLOWERS), toys (gas-powered RC vehicles), yappy dogs, loud motorbikes. It's not the noise that bugs me, it's more the fact that I consider them a waste of energy and/or their owners to be lazy sods. I mean, a Harley and the air ambulance chopper may make the same amount of noise, dB wise, but I find the former annoying while the latter not.
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  6. In Calgary I lived next to a fire hall, major road and rail yard for three years….needless to say it was loud. But I got used to the noise and didn't notice it too much.

    I think noise is the price you pay for living in a city. Expect there to be traffic, sirens, dogs barking, people talking/shouting, car alarms going off, etc. If I wanted to be in silence I would buy an acreage.
    I choose being close to public transportation and in the mix of it and if that means some noise, I'm ok with that.

  7. I can, and have, generally made peace with city noise and think, for the most part, it's a part of life. I get bothered though in two circumstances though:

    1) though I don't mind the sound of the trains (I live RIGHT by the tracks), it annoys me because I don't understand why the horns need to be that loud. From what I understand they were designed for the speed and openness for country roads and I don't see why they can have a slightly quieter "city" version. If I am going to be occasionally woken up I want to know it is for a good reason. The Ambulences, for example, have a good reason to be loud that I understand.

    2) I really dislike loud drunken yelling "conversations". It just really annoys me how inconsiderate some people are, of course made worse by the fact that they are drunk. But loud slurred swearing at 3am really gets me angry.

    So overall, yes, noise is part of city life. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question noise that has no good reason for being there.
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  8. Noise is fun to analyze.. When I hear fog horns I think safety on the waterfront. When I hear train whistles, I agree with Kathleen, the quieter Horn for the city. When I hear a Cop Chopper, out of concern I wonder whats going on and why is it taking so long to catch the culprit and when it stops it's a sigh of relief not that the noise stopped but they finally caught him/her. I can handle a noisy Harley providing it is not driven by an egotist rider wanting to hear his pipes…. has nothing to do with safety. Gas mowers are annoying but not as annoying as my neighbours 12" grass. Gas blowers are handy if you want to blow leaves from point A to Point B. Racing 1st responders racing to fender benders every half hour are annoying but who wants to be responsible for that one time they didn't and someone died
    So, have fun with noise! And Jen don't let being chastised during an election offend you. Being honest never hurts it's just the people who take it out of context.

  9. My biggest pet peeve is sirens. Not that they don't have their place, but after a certain hour, say for example after 2:00 AM, I really don't see the point. I look outside and not a creature is stirring… This should not be considered the status-quo for all cities, those who have lived in Europe know what I'm talking about. What probably bothers me most is when emergency vehicles blast their sirens when they're not even close to exceeding the speed limit. Either use them for their intended purpose, or turn them down, or better yet, turn them off.

  10. I like the sounds of trains too but when they blow there horn right outside my bedroom window at four amI am losing that love, A few engineers are quite good while some others are shall i say a little over enthusiastic at that time of night. Must be important to notify the world when you are doing 5 km an hour through an empty gate controlled intersection

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