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.