Noise Pollution Assaulting Our Greenville SC Home is Intolerable

By Dom Nozzi

I’m sorry, but I’ve had it with the house we bought a few weeks ago in Greenville SC. The noise pollution coming from nearby Butler Avenue is three times higher than any I’ve ever experienced in all the places I have lived. And the fact that we have emergency vehicle sirens screaming down Butler multiple times a day makes an already unacceptable noise problem SIGNIFICANTLY worse. The unbearable noise is degrading the property values of all homes near Butler. Complaints have arisen from more than one of my neighbors about the sirens. My stress level is skyrocketing. The unending noise is making me short-tempered, hostile and a generally unpleasant person to be around. I find myself angrily screaming at my partner Maggie on many occasions. And I have been obligated to wear ear plugs in several instances – that is, when I cannot suppress the stubborn desire to sit on my front porch to read.

I did not sign up for this.

The professional literature, as an aside, shows a clear connection between noise pollution, and a number of medical and societal maladies such as high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, depression, inability to engage in conversation, foul mood, fatigue, loss of sleep, anger, poor concentration, productivity losses at the workplace, cognitive impairment, tinnitus, hearing loss, and failed relationships.

We also know from many studies that excessive noise leads to a substantial decline in residential and retail property values. One inequitable, downwardly spiraling aspect of this are studies showing that homeowners abandon their porches and other rooms near the roaring roadway and incrementally migrate toward rooms as far from the inhospitable, anti-urban road as possible – in other words, a flight from the front of the house to the back of the house.

To add insult to injury, I must also mention that every afternoon we have a high-speed, very loud convoy of 25 to 35 USPS vans racing down our street to get to the big USPS facility down the street from us. The mail delivery employees are racing to end their shifts for the day. I have gone to the USPS facility five times and requested that I be able to speak to the postmaster about having the vans redirected one block off of our street so that they use two larger roads – two non-residential, commercial streets – instead of our residential street. Each time I’ve spoken to staff at the USPS, I am told it is not possible to redirect the vans off of our street, even though this is clearly possible. And clearly called for, given the noise pollution and safety hazards posed by the speeding vans. Each time I ask to speak to a supervisor and each time I am assured I will get a call back from the postmaster. I have still not gotten a call.

Maggie and I have started to place our garbage carts near the middle of our street in a “tactical urbanism” effort to slow down speeding vehicles (it is not just the USPS vans) on the street to slower, safer, quieter speeds.

A few days ago, I met a Greenville elected official for the first time, and complained to him about the out of control siren use in the city by emergency vehicles. I’m sure that went in one ear and out the other.

Yesterday I posted a note to the neighborhood Nextdoor email list that I would like to hear from anyone that knows of a house in the neighborhood that will be listed for sale in the future. My quest is to move to a home that is not being severely degraded by noise pollution the way my newly-purchased home is being degraded.

As an aside, I believe that like the requirement that new homeowners be warned that they are buying a home affected by such natural hazards as a floodplain, it should now also be required by law that homebuyers be warned that they are buying a home that is being regularly subjected to extreme levels of noise pollution.

I have professional and academic expertise in noise control, as I have advanced degrees in town planning, transportation, and environmental science. This led my former employer to have me prepare a noise control ordinance for a city with a larger population than Greenville. I am very well aware of the fact that those living in or near a town center need to expect a higher ambient noise level. That is a basic, understandable trade-off for living in a town center that offers the convenience of many nearby destinations.

On the other hand, I am also well aware of the fact that our society has far higher levels of noise pollution than are necessary for a city. Levels that have been worsening severely over the past several decades (my research has led to me to learn that noise pollution is one of the very few forms of pollution we are losing ground over). It is simply not true that a functioning, healthy city must accept the ever-worsening levels of noise pollution that city dwellers are now subjected to.

Healthy cities, in fact, can and do function much better with far lower levels of noise pollution. For starters, it is well known that public safety and economic health are in no way jeopardized by a reduction in the deafening roar of ever louder and almost continuous emergency vehicle sirens. Nor is city health in any way compromised when we install effective traffic calming tools to slow speeding motor vehicles (motor vehicles are by far the leading source of urban noise pollution). Effective tools? On-street metered parking. Road diets. Landscaped bulb-outs. Raised medians. Chicanes. Canopy street trees. Shorter signal lights, signs, and street lights. Smaller turning radii.

As I understand it, a number of homeowners in our vicinity (likely including the former owners of our home) were not able to continue tolerating the noise and danger problems associated with motor vehicles. Rather than do what most all citizens do – which is to decide “there is nothing that can be done about noise pollution, so we will continue to accept lower and lower quality of life expectations” – some in our vicinity have opted to sell their homes so they can move to a place without a 24/7 roar. I have learned both academically and professionally that countless citizens either leave a home in or near a town center, or never consider living in such a location due to their (accurate) perception that cities are failing to do anything to stem ever-worsening noise pollution, vehicle danger, and oversized, unsafe roadways that are (unnecessarily) severely degrading our town centers.

Across the street from us, the City inexplicitly allowed a financial institution to install a four-lane, 24-hour-a-day drive-through. The parking lot on the other side of the bank is a vast, sea-of-asphalt parking lot that dwarfs the size of the bank, and as Donald Shoup says (see his The High Cost of Free Parking), artificially breeds far more car trips than would have occurred had there not been such an oversized, free-to-use parking lot. This highway oriented breeder of day- and night-long car traffic in front of our home pumps toxic fumes onto our front porch all the time. It has produced queues of cars hundreds of feel long in front of our house. And it regularly brings in drivers completely distracted, as I see many filling out their deposit or withdrawal forms as they approach the drive-through. This is particularly unsafe when the driver is in a hurry. Or when seniors or children are on the sidewalk. The design of the financial institution is much better suited to a 10-lane suburban strip commercial roadway than a neighborhood and what should be its safe and quiet streets. Indeed, there is very little that is more UN-neighborly than the design of this bank.

I do not at all believe it is unreasonable to expect to be able to live in a half-million dollar house (or even a more modestly-priced house, for that matter) that does not suffer from deafening roadway noise 24/7. In fact, such an expectation is a basic, fundamental human right. A right that is being unceasingly violated – mostly by a failure to control dangerous, noisy suburban design in the urban area.

All of this is unacceptable.

For a number of days now, I’ve started looking online for houses for sale in the neighborhood. By far my leading criterion for a house to buy is that the home is at least one or two blocks away from a major car sewer highway. It is not just the high-speed freeway near our home. I have also learned there are other roads in Greenville acting like dangerous, deafening interstate beltways: Academy, Pete Hollis, Buncombe, Augusta, McDaniel, Stone, Rutherford, Poinsett, Pleasantburg, and Laurens.

I need to be able to find a home at least a block or two from all of these ruinous highways. Countless other homeowners and renters in Greenville have arrived at the same conclusion. The long-term result of the creation of these monster roads – besides inducing large numbers of deadly crashes and ramping up the number of trips that must be made by car – is a decline and residential abandonment of homes in neighborhoods near these over-sized roadways.

Each time such roads are created, their effect is not unlike the impact of aerial bombing runs on the nearby neighborhoods. Each time elected officials make a decision to install such highways, they are in effect destroying nearby neighborhoods that have the misfortune to be close to such roadways, and are also condemning their city with a future of declining property tax revenues, a growing number of motor vehicle crashes, increasing noise pollution, a decline in walking, bicycling and transit use, and an increasing levels of motor vehicle use.

In sum, such decisions show that these elected officials are engaged in serious malfeasance as elected officials, and should be removed from office.

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On Changing the Deadly Road Design Paradigm

By Dom Nozzi

Traffic engineer Charles Marohn is doing heroic work. Tellingly, he gets significant pushback when he repeatedly insists that conventional engineers should be held responsible for recommending roadway designs they know are unsafe in their never-ending efforts to promote higher-speed, higher-volume roadways.

 I faced similar pushback from my colleagues in my town and transportation planning career. It is a threat to a worldview that engineers and planners have subscribed to their entire lives. And as Kuhn notes in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, nearly all of these conventional thinkers will go to their graves subscribing to that paradigm, regardless of the evidence and logic of the situation.

An important way out of this tragic, downward spiral that conventional traffic engineers are promoting is for citizens and elected officials to give traffic engineers permission to revise their design paradigm. Without such permission, engineers face termination, reprimand, or hostility if they step outside the accepted paradigm.

Why is permission not granted?

Because citizens and officials are trapped by a single-minded, 100-year campaign to create a car-dependent world that requires maximum motor vehicle speeds and maximum motor vehicle roadway volumes. Most citizens and officials have almost no choice but to make nearly every trip by car, which tends to obligate them to insist that free-flowing, higher-speed motor vehicle travel be enabled by engineers. Anything else is seen as a dire threat to their way of life.

The double standard is that such citizens and officials often DO often want engineers to step outside the danger-promoting paradigm if the neighborhood of the citizen or official is to be affected.

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Controlling Noise Pollution

By Dom Nozzi

Emergency Medical Services (EMS) vehicle sirens are an enormous noise pollution problem in cities and it is getting worse all the time. Motor vehicles (not just EMS) are the biggest source of noise pollution in cities.

Motor vehicle noise pollution goes way down when car speeds are lowered using traffic calming design for streets.

Studies show that neighborhoods tend to notice traffic being a problem far more if motor vehicle speeds are high compared to car volumes being high. In other words, high car speeds are much more of a nuisance and danger than high volumes of cars.

Controlling sirens, unfortunately, is extremely politically difficult. Which elected official, for example, wants to be seen as being in favor of babies dying in burning buildings? Some communities, however, have been fortunate to have elected true leaders who successfully demand their fire chiefs and cops and medical service administrators reduce the frequency and volume of sirens, and the type of calls that require use of sirens. This essential and growing need to reduce excessive high-volume siren use is particularly important at night and in residential areas.

Failure to establish policies that create a more tolerable (ie, more modest) level of siren use is essential for protecting quality of life in a city.

Flashing lights should be seen as sufficient in most of the mileage traveled by EMS vehicles. Controlling the size of fire trucks and buses, by the way, is also very important for improving community safety.

With excessive, high-volume siren use, a community can seem to be in a war zone, and it is probably not be a coincidence that “war zone” siren use helps artificially amplify citizen perception that crime and fires and medical emergencies are extremely rampant and out of control. By artificially inducing this sort of citizen hysteria, elected officials are more likely to feel the political pressure to pump ever more government revenue into these emergency service departments to contend with what is likely to be seen as a widespread and growing number of emergencies that seem to be raging in the community.

This all-too-common response tends to lead to a self-perpetuating downward spiral of ever-increasing allocation of public dollars to address what appears to be an intractable and substantial public safety concern – a concern that tends to be disconnected to real-world safety concerns because it is based more on excessive siren use than on actual safety issues.

It might very well be the case that controlling siren noise in the ways I suggest above is not feasible for the foreseeable future in a society that has gone overboard on safety. Ironically, going overboard on public safety tends to REDUCE overall public safety in several ways.

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Why I Prefer Greenville SC to Asheville NC

By Dom Nozzi

My girlfriend and I moved from Boulder CO in 2020 due to the extremely high cost of housing in that city. After quite a bit of research and comparison of what we believed were desirable cities to move to, we opted for Asheville NC. However, after a few months living in that city, we discovered that there are a number of important downsides for living in Asheville and a number of important upsides for living in Greenville South Carolina.

We decided there are too many interstate highways in the Asheville urban area. Partly due to these highways, we decided there is too much noise pollution in Asheville. The noise pollution problem is also created by an unusually large number of very loud motor vehicles in Asheville, as well as an out-of-control fire department in that city.

Speaking as someone who is mostly on the political Left, I came to learn that there are too many “Regressive Left” zombies in Asheville (ie, “wokesters,” “cultural Marxists,” “Social Justice Warriors,” “Black Lives Matter” virtue signalers).

Greenville, by comparison, is more bike friendly and walk friendly than Asheville — particularly in the town center.

Housing is more expensive in Asheville than in Greenville.

Greenville has had sufficient leadership in elected local office to have removed a highway bridge that obscured a waterfall, and accomplished the nation’s best road diet transformation of its main street. Asheville does not seem to have the leadership to do those things.

Greenville is less infected with “safety-ism” than Asheville. Asheville has a concern for safety that is so extreme that it degrades quality of life.

Greenville has more traditional architecture in its town center and more Craftsman homes than Asheville. This is true both for homes built decades ago, as well as new-build homes and other buildings.

The cost of living is lower in Greenville.

Finally, Greenville is served by passenger rail. Asheville is not.

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A Measure of a Quality City

By Dom Nozzi

A measure of a quality city: The more inconvenient it is to drive and park a car, the more wonderful the city. This goes a long way toward explaining why the town centers of American cities – which are characterized by a century-long effort to convenience cars – are nearly universally awful.

Yet another example of our being our own worst enemies is how we focus on the convenience of cars and forget what walking or bicycling or transit users need. This is understandable, tragically, because in our car dependent world, we are forced to drive everywhere, which compels us to single-mindedly urge our city officials to design our cities under the ruinous assumption that every trip we make will be by car. This thinking is self-fulfilling, as each effort to make it easier to drive a car is an effort that inevitably makes it harder to travel by walking, cycling, or transit. It is, in other words, a zero-sum game. A downwardly spiraling vicious cycle.

Oh, and there is no turning back, either. Nearly all cities have reached a tipping point. A point of no return.

That is not quite true.

We WILL eventually stop fouling our own nest and return to designing for people instead of cars. But that day remains a long way off. It will only arrive when we bankrupt ourselves in our century-long efforts to make cars happy.

Or face similar crises that force us to regain our sanity.

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The Point of No Return

By Dom Nozzi

We have passed the point of no return.

Nearly all of us aggressively support having all roads and highways (except the road our house is on) widened, and all parking lots expanded. Nearly all of us are forced to demand the ruinous enlargement of roads and parking because our only way of getting anywhere is to use a gigantic metal, motorized box. We are trapped in a vicious cycle — a downward spiral –where we are obligated to demand bigger roads and bigger parking lots because we wrongly think that getting that will ease the infuriating (and inevitable) congestion we get stuck in every day of our stressed, angry lives, which results in an on-going recruitment of more and more advocates for bigger car infrastructure.

Nearly all of us oppose effective ways to reduce the problem. For example, most all of us angrily reject adopting user fees such as a “vehicle miles traveled” fee or parking meters to price parking (both of which introduce a lot more fairness regarding how transportation is paid for).

In other words, nearly all of us despise socialism EXCEPT when it comes to transportation.

It does not matter how educated you are, what your religious beliefs are, what your ethnic status is, or what your income is.

The one slim hope we have to escape this ruinous spiral — which is unlikely in our lifetimes — is to see the cost to widen/maintain/use roads and parking lots become very expensive. Currently and tellingly, almost no road or parking space requires a user fee (ie, no parking meters or tolls). This is one of countless ways our society begs — and therefore obligates — people to drive a car everywhere. The result is inevitable: our cities are overloaded with stroads and massive, nearly unused asphalt parking lots (and almost no narrow streets or woonerfs).

The public realm has become so degraded in our unending efforts to create a paradise for motorists (which translates into a hellscape for people) that huge numbers of us cocoon ourselves with a privatopia inside their exceptionally well-appointed homes.

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Traffic Calming in Greenville SC

By Dom Nozzi

Regarding speed humps…

I am possibly the biggest advocate in South Carolina for using traffic calming devices on streets, as I believe slowing cars is one of the most important things we can do in cities for better safety, quality of life, reduction in low-value motor vehicle trips, and noise reduction.

Speed humps, however, are a very problematic tool for slowing cars. On the list of bad ideas for slowing cars, speed limit signs are at top of the list for being the worst. Stop signs are about as bad. And humps are #3 for being a bad tool.

Here is why humps are a bad idea:

They punish motorists even if the motorist is driving fairly slowly.

They can damage vehicles.

They create noise pollution for neighborhoods.

They create problems for emergency response vehicles.

They are annoying for cyclists.

When spaced improperly, they promote “jackrabbit” driving (ie, frequent slowing and speeding between humps).

An important reason why many cities such as Greenville use (or overuse) humps so often (there are way too many humps in Greenville) is that they are very quick and low-cost to install. Which makes them an easy way for elected officials to satisfy neighbors concerned about speeding vehicles.

However, the best way, by far, to slow motor vehicles is not to use “vertical” interventions such as humps, but to use “horizontal” interventions. Examples of horizontal interventions include:

1.       Road diets, where excessive street lanes are removed. The most common diet is going from 4 lanes to 3.

2.       Landscaped or hard-surface bulb-outs (usually used to frame on-street parking or create a mid-block pedestrian crossing). Many bulb-outs are admirably used on Greenville’s Main Street.

3.       Chicanes, which are a form of bulb-out that obligates motorists to move in a slower, weaving, more attentive pattern.

4.       Traffic circles and roundabouts.

5.       Installing on-street parking on streets without such parking.

6.       Installing formally-aligned street trees abutting the street to create a sense of enclosure and human scale.

Each of these horizontal interventions is much more conducive to bicycling and emergency response vehicles than vertical interventions such as humps. They are also much better at creating a safe environment for walking. As well as created the much-needed human scale and sense of place that is lost when we oversize streets and intersections.

On my list of top priorities for Greenville to become a better city, traffic calming is near the top of the list. But calming needs, again, to be achieved with horizontal rather than vertical interventions.

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The Festive, Convivial Power of Food Courts

By Dom Nozzi

Today we sampled Greenville South Carolina’s “Third Place.” The developer of this food venue assembled a collection of metal shipping container boxes to form a food court offering a wide selection of fun, unusual foods. He named the place “Gather Greenville,” and he seems to have made it that. Very sociable and convivial. We sampled an excellent imperial stout that even my partner – notorious for not liking ANY beer — liked!

Each day the place seems to be full of happy, festive people when we bicycle past this happenin’ place.

I’m very happy (and not surprised) to see a growing number of “food courts” like this being created throughout the nation. They effectively create a convivial sense of community at time when our society has become a nation of loners — isolated from each other by being stuck in metal transportation boxes and privatopia low-density single-family homes. Since humans are hard-wired to be social, I believe a lot of us are craving these sorts of social condensers to replace what we are missing in our isolation from fellow humans. In other words, there is a strong latent demand for more social capital – social capital that is being increasingly delivered by this low-cost food court concept.

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Greenville South Carolina Brought Back by a Road Diet

By Dom Nozzi

Greenville SC — the city we moved to in May 2021 — was brought back to life over the past decades.

Before 1980, Greenville’s oversized main street had led to many abandonments, much crime, a lot of drug and prostitute activity, many vehicle crashes, and an overall flight of citizens away from what had become an awful town center.

Since then, the downtown has seen an incredible rejuvenation — so impressive that the City has won several national awards and those selling property in or near downtown BOAST about the property being near main street. The boasting about being in or near downtown was the opposite of what was happening before the main street rejuvenation. Before the restoration, people were falling all over each other to flee downtown, and the value of downtown property was plummeting.

This, in sum, is the story of how an American city can be brought back to life by reversing its century-long design direction: Designing primarily for people walking and bicycling rather than designing for happy cars. In large part, this meant undoing the century of damage done to the city by the engineers and planners the City had hired — ironically — to “fix” problems.

In 1968, citizens and community leaders commissioned a downtown development plan to help direct efforts to revive a struggling business district. The plan recommended what is now a key element of downtown — making Main Street a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Max Heller, who is known as the “Father of Modern Greenville,” was the 29th mayor of Greenville for almost a decade from 1971-1979. The sidewalk and café-lined downtown enjoyed in Greenville today is a result of Heller’s vision for the city and his European heritage. Under his guidance, Main Street was converted from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane oasis complete with trees, streetlights, flowers, and green spaces.

In 1979, the city narrowed Main Street from four lanes to two (ie, gave their Main Street a “road diet”) and created angled parking. Trees and decorative light fixtures were also added, and sidewalks were widened to 18 feet, providing space for outdoor dining. The streetscape was extended from South Main into the West End and the improvements were completed in 1981.

While the framework for revitalizing downtown was in place, in 1987 community leaders contracted with Land Design/Research, Inc. (LDR) to identify additional development opportunities and create a Downtown Development Strategy. The LDR plan recommended focusing development efforts in three key areas, including the Reedy River Falls area. This was the first time the often ignored Reedy River and Reedy River Falls were identified as significant assets for downtown. The plan further suggested that future developments should open to and engage the riverfront, and removal of the Camperdown Way four-lane highway bridge was mentioned as a way to highlight the distinctive natural feature of the falls.

In the years that followed, these town center design decisions would spark a nationally-recognized rejuvenation of Greenville’s downtown.

The lesson: designing a downtown for happy people rather than happy cars is a powerful, effective way to create a healthy, thriving, lovable downtown.

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Can We Define Walkability?

By Dom Nozzi

In my career, I’ve often thought about whether it is possible to objectively quantify walkability. It seems to me that the question will always be subjective in many important ways.

This does not mean – I would hasten to add — that we should give up on creating plans or land development regs that strive to get us walkable design.

In looking to buy a walkable home in Boulder CO, Asheville NC, and now Greenville SC in recent years, I’ve decided it is essential for me to walk or bicycle the street where the home is located. I need to get subjective “feelings” for the vicinity. Does it FEEL walkable? Will the home offer me a “front-porch” lifestyle?

For me, only by walking down the street will I be able to evaluate how neighborly or convivial or human-scaled a neighborhood happens to be.

I ask myself the following questions when I walk.

How many homes have a well-designed front porch (and a porch that is a conversational distance from the sidewalk)? How many friendly people do I tend to encounter on my walk? Are there any gap-toothed dead zones (vacant lots)? Is the architecture interesting and pleasantly ornamental? How old are the homes? (for me, housing stock newer than about 1940 tends to fail to provide the walkable, charming character I seek) Is the street designed for low-speed car travel? Is there well-used on-street parking? Is the street one-way or two-way? How long is the street block? Is there a tree canopy? How tall are the street lights? Are signal lights mast-arm or post-mounted? What is the ambient noise level? Are there sidewalks on both sides of the street? Are the buildings five stories or less?

Regarding the very important proximity question (distance to regular destinations), the 100-year old cottage we renovated in Asheville NC had a crazy high walkscore (80). But it is debatable whether this home was “walkable.” For example, I have a 15-minute walk to the center of downtown, but I must walk over a large and loud interstate highway to do so. We are just a few steps away from a huge number of cafes, restaurants, bus stops, and large grocery stores, but that is because we are very close to a very noisy, high-speed, dangerous arterial road. And before we bought the house, a number of historic homes across the street from us were demolished and replaced by a large, conventional, ELEVATED shopping center that looms over us when we sit on the front porch.

I believe it is also the case that a “walkable distance” (15 minutes for regular “utilitarian” walks is the conventional rule of thumb for maximum distance) varies depending on the quality of the walk. If I find a lot of quality elements I mention above on my walk, I’m happy to regularly walk for 20-30 minutes. If the nearby elements are unpleasant or dangerous, I’m not going to enjoy regularly walking, say, a 5-minute distance.

Walter Kulash made this point about strip commercial “stroads” (the Chuck Marohn term): Driving down one mile of stroad FEELS like it takes longer than driving down one mile of a convivial, low-speed, tree-canopied street.

The same is true with walking.

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