Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A 'Noise Strategy for Bristol' is needed to tackle this often forgotten pollutant

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I've been working on the issue of noise pollution recently. My call for a noise strategy for Bristol is stimulated by my experience of noise on busy roads in Bristol. A 'green city' would be a more tranquil, less noisy place (see the recent work of the CPRE).

Bristolians are increasingly living with unacceptable and unhealthy levels of noise (city council website acknowledges this). The noise levels from traffic, which the council acknowledge as the main noise source in the city, often peak at what can only be described as 'industrial' levels at the busiest times, especially with heavy lorries. However, strategies to address the problem are available and should be enacted now - thus my attempt to highlight the issue and call for a noise strategy and action plan for Bristol modelled on London's.

I have been taking noise pollution readings with a sound level meter along the Wells Rd in Knowle at various times, dates and locations on the road. My findings: when roads have just a few cars a 50 decibel reading (at 4-5 metres distance) is typical, the level at which normal conversation is conducted. As soon as a steady flow of traffic is present readings are a steady 80 decibels - note that normal conversation is interrupted at 60 decibels and shouting is needed to be heard above 70 decibels. Its common experience in Knowle that you cant walk your child to Hillcrest School down the Wells Rd and hold a conversation or give an instruction without shouting and you cant walk to work listening to your MP3 player without turning up the volume more than normal.

When traffic is busiest and heavy lorries are on the road noise pollution reaches industrial levels at around a common 93 decibels. The highest reading I recorded was 97 decibels, from a particularly large, heavy lorry which rattled as it broke the 30mph speed limit climbing the hill opposite The George pub on Wells Rd. If in industry, where it is recommended in Health and Safety regulations that workers are not continually exposed to noises louder than 90 decibels during their day, exposure at 97 decibels would be strictly limited to around an hour or so and/or ear protection issued. If we are to have a truly better quality of life we need to get far away from industrial standards on our streets.

The Bristol City Council website states that the council 'do not have legal powers to deal with...traffic...noise' (or noise from aircraft, or rowdy behaviour for that matter). But there are things that could be done eg on quieter roads surfaces, better road maintainance, and crucially traffic reduction and weight limits.

Noise pollution issues should be heard much more on the political agenda. Noise has become another form of urban blight which we need to quell. It causes behavioural changes such as inducing irritability and annoyance, boosts stress levels and nervous disorders eg through disturbing relaxation and sleep. Noisier areas tend to have higher incidence of taking pills for blood pressure, stomach complaints, tranquillisers and sleeping pills. Noise also causes 'acoustic fatigue' in buildings, resulting in stress cracks and damage.

Noise is certainly a significant factor in Bristolians' list of quality of life concerns, but the powers-that-be have so far refused to treat it with urgency or give it the seriousness it deserves. Unlike the UK capital, which has had the London Noise Strategy for a few years now - the first in the country - Bristol has no noise management strategy or action plan yet, according to the city council website.

London's strategy contains some 100 policies designed to tackle ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ noise in buildings as well as from traffic, aircraft and other sources. Its a very good model to follow for Bristol.

In view of the forecast population and traffic increase in Bristol over the coming years, it is particularly important that we address noise pollution - in many respects the forgotten pollutant - effectively, now.