Monday, August 31, 2009

NOPA Fails W.H.O. Noise Standard

Just 10% of NOPA's blocks are quiet enough to meet standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The global health body recommends ambient, or background, noise levels of no more than 55 decibels (dba) for residential neighborhoods, and most NOPA blocks exceed that limit. Much of our neighborhood falls in the range of 60 to 65 dba while our perimeter traffic corridors -- Fell, Masonic, Turk, Divisadero -- boom into a higher level at 65 to 70 dba. El sitio de la lucha contra el ruidoWas WHO targeting suburban or urban residential neighborhoods? Considering the health and livability impacts of the plus-55 dba on home-dwellers, does it much matter? Health authorities regularly link noise-induced stressors to negative impacts for individuals, including "chronic elevated blood pressure, coronary disease, ulcers, colitis and migraine headaches." But what of the effects on communities? Excessive noise in the neighborhood, especially when the sources are long-term and repeated, can disrupt sleep and trigger psychological stress to the degree that neighbors experience resentment, anger, a sense of powerlessness, and a tendency to disengage from their community.

WHO is notorious for convening expert panels that disseminate voluminous reports that stack nicely on bookshelves and make file drawers extra cozy. By its own admission the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) and other city agencies sometimes slog in the same bureaucractic swamp. In 1972 a "Transportation Noise Element" was included in San Francisco's General Plan, but most of its recommendations for noise abatement were summarily ignored. The Police Department shelved plans to regulate vehicular noise. Siren noise became even louder and more frequent. Recommendations to reduce the number of one-way streets and the greater noise that comes with their higher speeds faltered.

San Francisco's push to "smart growth" and "urban infill" land-use policies fly in the face of guidelines to discourage residential development in high noise areas such as along high traffic corridors and near freeways. A significant amount of noise-control mitigation will be required to make smart growth a good neighbor to healthy decibels.

Local efforts to monitor noise problems now rest with a Noise Task Force comprised of representatives of city departments. A review of task force minutes suggests the group is moving beyond "exchange of information" every quarter. For example, SFDPH developed a new program this spring to train motorcycle police to identify excessive cycle noise without the aid of a decible meter and to issue "fix it" notices to drivers based on the assessment.

San Francisco Transportation Noise MapThe city also developed a San Francisco Noise Map to help guide noise control efforts. But the map also helps neighborhoods identify problem areas, and that brings us back to NOPA. Our perimeter streets are noisiest; no surprise (but let's not assume that residents along them shouldn't receive the health benefits of traffic calming). But here's an anomoly: McAllister Street is among these high-noise offenders. Is Muni's #5 Fulton the culprit? The higher dba on the west end of McAllister begins at Central, right where the #5 turns onto or from McAllister. But if the #5 makes McAllister louder, why doesn't the #21 do the same for the much-quieter Hayes Street?

NOPA can boast blocks of relative calm and quiet, at least according to the Noise Map. Perhaps you're sleeping better if you live on these blocks:
  • Grove, between Masonic and Central
  • Golden Gate, between Lyon and Broderick
  • Central, between Hayes and Fulton
  • Lyon, between Grove and McAllister
  • Baker, between Turk and Golden Gate

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