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City That Never Sleeps Aims to Curb Noise Pollution


New Yorkers have become increasingly frustrated by the amount of noise in the city that never sleeps. According to city data, noise complaints skyrocketed by one hundred and six percent at the start of the pandemic. So last summer, the city quietly began a year-long pilot program of sound meters that can catch noisy drivers and issue tickets. Our tech reporter Sarah Yokubaitis has more.


Sanford Kessler just wants to get a good night’s sleep. He lives in one of New York City’s loudest neighborhoods, Washington Heights. According to the most recent city data, the neighborhood accounts for the highest number of 311 complaints about noise.

SANFORD KESSLER: Last night was just awful. I mean, it was like living next to a runway in an airport.

YOKUBAITIS: Kessler is a member of the Washington Heights-Inwood Task Force on Noise. He says that as the weather improves, the noise level is turned up. Washington Heights is located near the George Washington Bridge and Henry Hudson Parkway, making it a prime drag racing spot for souped-up motorcycles and loud modified mufflers. Kessler says seeing the recent West Side Story movie gave him insight into the situation.

KESSLER: It's a turf thing. I mean, these young men feel that they want to control the streets. And, you know, by and large, they're doing it.

YOKUBAITIS: The city’s new sound meters cost twenty-five thousand dollars each. Kessler is ambivalent that the devices will solve anything. He’d rather see the NYPD step up enforcement of existing noise laws before speeding that kind of money.

So what exactly are these devices? Well, they’re kind of like red-light cameras, but for sound. They’re currently in undisclosed locations throughout the city.

Here’s how it works: When noise gets past 85 decibels, a camera takes a photo of the driver’s license plate. Offenders are sent a ticket in the mail and have to bring their car to a city testing site for inspection.

YOKUBAITIS: Arline Bronzaft has studied noise in New York City for over four decades. She’s enthusiastic about the new devices.

ARLINE BRONZAFT: You don't even have to put a camera on every single street in the city of New York, because the message will get out there

YOKUBAITIS 6: Bronzaft is the go-to expert on NYC noise. She helped revise the city noise code in 2007, and has worked with the past five mayors of New York, all the way back to Ed Koch.

BRONZAFT: People will not know where the next cameras will be. And since they will believe cameras may be coming to our neighborhoods, this could serve as a deterrent too.

YOKUBAITIS: The roadside devices are triggered when sound measures above 85 decibels, which is the point where hearing can become damaged. That’s as loud as a police siren.

Of course, emergency services vehicles like ambulances and cop cars won’t be ticketed for their sirens.

Bronzaft says this kind of noise puts stress on the body and impacts health.

BRONZAFT: If sustained, it can break down systems, it can affect your heart, it can affect your blood vessels. So that now they have studies that show the people who live near airports subjected to aviation noise, increase risk for admissions to hospitals for cardiovascular disorders.

YOKUBAITIS: As for Sanford Kessler, he’s not confident that the devices will turn down the volume in Washington Heights. In a statement, the Department of Environmental Protection said the new program is being evaluated for its effectiveness and fairness. The pilot will wrap up at the end of June.

Sarah Yokubaitis, Columbia Radio News

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