With a nickname like ‘The City That Never Sleeps’, it’s no wonder that New York City has been culturally stereotyped as bustling, boisterous, and noisy. And it turns out that that stereotype isn’t far from the mark — in 2021, 311 (NYC’s non-emergency reporting line) received up to seventy-five thousand noise complaints every month. That’s a huge number, and it’s not just wild parties or the neighbour’s dog causing them (though they’re definitely still around). Privately-owned helicopters are becoming a public menace. Souped-up cars are facing new waves of fines. Trucking routes are threading through residential areas to reach new warehouses. And, most bizarrely, a huge increase in the percentage of sex-related complaints. Nine out of ten New York adults are exposed to noise levels that the EPA considers harmful every single day. So is NYC addressing these issues? The short answer: yes. But here’s the long answer; and it involves technology.
NYC’s New Tech
Since early 2016, a small group of researchers at New York University have studied New York’s auditory environments. In August that year, they were given a $4.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop, produce, install, and monitor a new network of 100 smart sensors in NYC, launching the SONYC (Sounds Of NYC) Project. Alongside more than 2,800 citizen scientists and volunteers, an evolving machine listening algorithm, and recently the Department of Environmental Protection, SONYC is evolving the way New Yorkers control the city around them. With it, New York is becoming a smarter, more integrated city.
SONYC’s extended monitoring array is installed high up on buildings throughout the city, and captures 10-second snippets of sounds which then need to be identified. Volunteers can then listen and identify the sources of noise in the audio snippets, which trains SONYC’s machine listening algorithm to better identify those sounds automatically. As part of their new partnership with the DEP, they’ve also installed 30 lower-cost sensors in residential neighbourhoods, mounted to the houses of residents who’ve complained about chronic noise issues. These sensors, rather than identifying noise sources, stream data on decibel levels directly to the DEP, which helps them better distribute their resources and leads to quicker response times to public complaints.
Currently, SONYC themselves are not interested in automating the noise reporting process. Instead, they want to collect concrete data to provide to local governments, who can then use that data to inform decisions about regulations and legislation to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Is that working? Are the governments listening to all this noise?
NYC Goes to SLEEP
Following the data of SONYC and other noise researchers, as well as massive increases in 311 calls, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Stop Loud and Excessive Exhaust Pollution (SLEEP) Act into law in October 2021. It will take effect this coming April.
The SLEEP Act directly targets one source of chronic noise complaints: illegally modified vehicles. It raises fines from the former figure of $150 up to $1,000 for any modification of a motor vehicle’s muffler or exhaust system that deliberately causes the car or motorcycle to become noisier. It applies not only to vehicle owners, but also repair shops who make or sell the relevant parts, who can stand to lose their operating licences for up to 18 months after three strikes. While many residents of New York’s residential boroughs praise the new legislation, it has raised a number of concerns from those who are more familiar with the vehicles making the noise — some cars are just loud out of the box, making it a manufacturing issue; many motorcyclists argue that the noise they make helps keep other motorists aware of their presence and keeps them safer on the roads.
While the SLEEP Act has its imperfections, it proves that providing solid, real-world data to governing bodies can vastly improve the lives of everyday citizens through smarter cities and citizen-forward legislation.
New York is just one place striving to improve itself by addressing nuisance noise, and there are increasingly tech-enabled efforts in urban areas across the globe to quieten down. If you’re interested in how we here at NoiseNet are contributing to these efforts, check out https://www.noisenet.com/.