What are the biggest noise issues in the UK right now? Soundproofist talks with longtime activist John Stewart about efforts to mitigate traffic noise, airport noise, and more.
What are the biggest noise issues in the UK right now? Soundproofist talks with longtime activist John Stewart about efforts to mitigate traffic noise, airport noise, and more.
Cary: Today we’re going to talk with author and activist John Stewart about noise in the UK. John Stewart has been active in noise, transportation and aviation issues in the UK for over 30 years. He’s been the chair of several organizations including the UK Noise Association. In 2008 he was voted the UK’s most effective environmentalist. He coauthored a book called “Why Noise Matters,” which looks at global noise issues and possible solutions. We had a conversation over Skype about some of the top noise issues in the UK.
Cary: Tell me a little bit about your background — how did you become a noise activist?
John Stewart: Well, I’ve been an activist of one sort or another for a long time. Not immediately on noise. I got involved in activism in the early 1980s on the whole question of poor public transport in London. And I got involved in campaigns to improve the public transport — its reliability and its affordability. In the early 1980s, I then was heavily involved in campaigning against new highways, which were proposed initially for London, and eventually for the whole country. Highways that have destroyed large parts of London, many thousands of homes, green spaces, parks, etcetera. So I actually chaired first of all a London network, and then a national network of about 350 campaign groups from around the country, which were opposing — fairly successfully in the end — these road-building programs. I think I began, it was during that period that I began to understand the impact of noise. In this case, traffic noise on people.
John Stewart: And then I became more involved when I got involved in campaigning against the noise from Heathrow Airport. But what happened in the mid 1990s is that Heathrow — without any consultation — extended its flight paths, brought its planes in to land in a different sort of way, which meant the area where I was living in South London, about 18 miles from Heathrow, not previously affected by the aeroplanes. It suddenly became under the flight paths. We called ourselves the “New Neighbors of Heathrow.” So that’s when I got involved quite heavily in campaigning against noise at Heathrow. And few years later, in the year 2000, a number of the campaign and community organizations regarding noise got together to form the UK Noise Association, which initially was just a network. But it became effectively an NGO — one of the main NGOs on noise in the UK. And I chaired that for over a decade. It’s less active now because ever since really the recession, since the crash in 2008, 2009 — it’s been harder to get money.
Cary: Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes sense. Are you talking about getting government funding or just public funding or what?
John Stewart: It wouldn’t have got government funding. Where we’ve got, we had, it was a membership organization, so we had some money from members, but not all that much that they paid the nations rather than a membership fee. We used to go get money from, and I don’t know how this works in the US, but we used to get money from charitable trusts. So there may be, for example, there was Saintsbury’s which were a big, we’ve got lots of food stores, supermarkets in the UK. They have got a charitable wing and they give them some of their profits to — well, whoever they wish to give it to. And they quite liked what we were doing. So we’ve got some money from them and similar sort of trusts like that. But as I say, after the recession there was — it was much harder to get the money.
Cary: Yes, I can imagine. That’s probably true for a lot of different organizations too. So you wrote your book in, what — 2011 — “Why Noise Matters.” One of the things you said that you didn’t understand — in the beginning — you said, “why hasn’t noise become an issue for the environmental movement?” Since then, has anything changed? Do you feel like the sentiments on the part of the general public, on seeing this, you know, as an environmental issue — has that moved or changed at all?
John Stewart: I think there’s possibly two different audiences there. There’s the environmental movement and there’s the general public. I still don’t believe that the traditional Green movement really sees noise as an issue. They do not. It doesn’t excite them. I don’t think they see, they don’t believe it has any impact on the planet. And it’s unlike air pollution or climate change emissions and therefore it doesn’t excite them. And noise is — I don’t generalize too much — but for the vast majority of the Green movement, for the environmental NGOs, noise is simply not an issue they’re interested in. And I don’t think that’s gotten better. In fact, it might’ve got worse because of the current emphasis on climate change — which I understand — with the current emphasis on climate change, I think means that they are almost single-mindedly focused on climate change. And are willing to countenance solutions if they deal with emissions from climate change even though they may have adverse effects for noise.
John Stewart: And perhaps the clearest example of that is wind farms and wind turbines, which clearly are renewable energy. So they would work in terms of climate. But as it’s been proved time and again, if they’re built in the wrong place, if they go too near people’s homes, they produce real noise problems. So I think in some ways the environmental movement has become less interested in noise than it was perhaps a decade ago, because of the emphasis on climate change. On the second bit of your remarks about the public, the public are in different categories. They, the public are interested in noise when it affects them. And that’s why we can see local campaigns on say, a traffic noise in a particular area, campaigns around airports, campaigns about wind farms, campaigns about noisy neighbors. But there is a very local level. And what I think is fascinating is that on environmental issues, although the public will fight locally about noise, they’re not campaigners, they’re not activists as such. Once the noise is solved, they go away. And therefore it’s very hard. And so far I think it’s been impossible to build up a really big national, far less international movement on issues of noise.
Cary: Hmm. Yeah, that’s a very good point. And definitely I think you are right. People only react to these things or take action on noise issues if it affects them. I mean, why? Why would they be concerned about someone else’s noise problem if they don’t hear it? And I’m not saying that that’s a good thing, but that has been, you know, certainly in my experience too, if you can’t find a common ground, you just seem like a curmudgeon, you know?
John Stewart: I think that’s absolutely right. And I think if you compare some of the young climate change campaigners for example, they’re driven by an issue, by a cause and so therefore they’re willing to, even though it may not directly affect them. I think with people who experience a noise problem, they’re driven by very simple fact. They want to get rid of that noise problem and campaign to get rid of that noise problem. It’s not a cause. It’s kind of an interruption to their lives. Once the noise problem is dealt with — if it is dealt with — then they fairly understandably go back to living their normal lives.
Cary: Right. That makes sense. Sure. It’s potentially viewed as what we call NIMBY, you know, not in my backyard types.
John Stewart: Yeah. I mean I think it ’tis not in my backyard. It’s not that people are saying “put the noise to somebody else,” although that occasionally might happen. But it’s very much what they’re saying is “take the noise away from me, and once it’s taken away from my backyard, I will be happy.”
Cary: Yes. I’m probably guilty of that as well because certainly you know, what you do is you’re responding to this thing in your environment. It’s impacting you in a negative way on a regular basis. But yeah, someone else across town isn’t having that. They’re dealing with something else. And so I think when you have something that’s affecting a lot of people, for example, you mentioned Heathrow, that would impact large numbers of people. Or even restaurant noise. It affects everyone who wants to go to that restaurant or has been in that restaurant and so on. Or had a similar experience in a different one.
John Stewart: I think that’s right. And it is interesting that there’s an organization in the UK called …with a wonderful name called “Pipe Down,” and Pipe Down campaigns against unwanted noise in restaurants and elsewhere as well. You know, there’s background music and noise in public places and they are able to draw people from a wide range who can make common cause. They’ve had some success. I’ve got to say, not huge amounts of success, but some success. And I think they are, what you’re saying is absolutely right — that they bring people together who can identify with noisy restaurants in other parts of the country because they’ve got one in their own town. And then someone like Heathrow, which I’m still quite heavily involved with, we’re able to build up a large campaign there on noise issues simply because as you say, of the huge number of people who are affected. So noise can become a major campaign if a lot of people are affected, but otherwise it tends to be very localized.
Cary: With density, you have more noise issues. As you point out in your book it’s not even just density. There are other issues going on like what’s going on in the oceans with ships and equipment that’s affecting and impacting marine life and so on. And there no one to really take up that cause.
John Stewart: No, there’s not. What is interesting is that even with very clear evidence that noise affects the oceans and the jungle and everything else. Even then, noise is still not something which grabs the traditional Green movement. It’s absolutely fascinating because there are very few people, if there are one or two specialist organizations, but very few people talking about noise, how it affects the oceans, how it affects the mammals and so on. I said there are one or two organizations who are concerned about mammals and therefore they’re concerned about noise, but that the environmental movement as a whole, it’s just not something that grabs them.
Cary: Right. Interesting. It could also be the times that we live in right now, aside from the fact that yes, I can see why it’s not a concern to them. It’s not as visible as seeing a dead whale washing up. Although the cause of the death of that whale could very well have something to do with … that’s traced back to ocean noise. What we’re dealing with right now, I think what environmentalists are dealing with, certainly what we are as a planet dealing with is this tremendous step backwards that’s been taken. I won’t mention any names, but you know there are certain leaders who have taken office who have been rolling back environmental regulations and things that are going to impact us in a very negative very quickly. And I think everyone’s focus as you mentioned, is kind of on that right now.
John Stewart: I think that’s right. And I can’t possibly think who could it be.
Cary: Who could it be? [laughs] You have someone who’s sort of his junior in your country right now, though nothing nearly as dramatic as what we’re doing.
John Stewart: Yes, he’s much more aware of environmental and noise issues because you know, for eight years he was mayor of London. And if you’re mayor of London, you’ve got to be aware of noise issues and actually was, has been consistently opposed to building a third runway at Heathrow. So our Junior has gotten environmental awareness.
Cary: Oh, that’s encouraging. That’s one thing that’s done right.
John Stewart: But I can see exactly what you’re saying there, particularly in the States that you know, I know some countries like Brazil, there’s this rolling back of all these rules and regulations. And naturally, that is where, that’s where the battle is right now to try and stop that happening.
Cary: I think so. Yeah. It’s going to be an interesting few years. Maybe “interesting” isn’t really what I mean. But it is definitely, it’s a shift in focus. I do feel a little sometimes with focusing on noise issues that I’m dealing with a first-world problem, but it’s actually not at all a first-world problem. Because as you say again in your book, there are other cities in other countries where noises, you know, the populations are even denser… in India and different countries with really dense populations, even worse noise problems than the irritation of hearing your neighbor’s leaf blower here in, you know, our countries.
John Stewart: No, no that’s absolutely right. I mean the more…you know when I was doing the research for the book, this was one thing that came across to me big time. You know obviously I know the situation in the UK, I know the situation in parts of Europe because I’ve been there. But when I was looking at and reading about the situation in India, Pakistan and so on, the noise levels tend to be greater and the people are more exposed to them because they live beside the busy roads or they simply don’t…. the fabric of their homes is such that, you know, it doesn’t keep out noise in the way that they perhaps do in America or Western Europe.
Cary: Although you say that things are changing and perhaps what you could speak to the most is — what are, right now in the UK, it sounds like Heathrow’s obviously one of them — what are the top noise issues? And, what do you think are some of the things that have been done about it or are being proposed to do about it?
John Stewart: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, yeah, Heathrow is one of the big issues. And what is quite interesting about Heathrow is, as you may know there was… Heathrow airport tried to get a third runway 10 years ago and that was successfully opposed. And this time round they may get a third runway. But in doing so they’ve had, there are very strict noise conditions which wouldn’t have been around 10 years ago. So for example, there’ll be obliged by law to bring in fewer night flights. They’ve committed to giving everybody under a flight path some break during each day from the noise if a third runway is built. So no community would get all-day flying. And that is a significant breakthrough. So I think what’s interesting is that although they’re building this runway, which will, you know, overfly a lot more people will bring a lot more noise to London. In order to get it, they’ve had to make significant concessions on night flights, on all-day flying, on measuring noise in a more meaningful way. And my hope is that those sort of concessions will not just stay with Heathrow but will be right across the rest of the country at different airports. So yes, so Heathrow’s a big issue, aviation noise for people around airports is a big issue. But as you said before, most people in the country don’t live near airports. So it is a big issue I think. I think the other key noise issues, the most prevalent noise, the most ubiquitous noise is traffic noise. But there are fewer campaigns around traffic noise. I think there are maybe two reasons for this. One is that perhaps people living with the noise have grown up with it and it’s just part of their lives.
John Stewart: But I think the second thing is that in the UK it tends to be lower-income communities which experienced the worst of the traffic noise because they disproportionately live beside the busy main roads. And if you’re away from the main roads, there’s a lot of work done on traffic, calming and so on. So that traffic is reduced away from the main roads was more traffic pushed onto the main roads and low-income communities traditionally have complained less. They don’t have the time the wherewithal or what have you. So traffic noise is ubiquitous, but there are fewer campaigns against it. The third area where there is growing concern is the whole question of onshore wind turbines. The last Labor government gave a lot of subsidies to people who wanted to build wind turbines. I mean for very understandable reasons. They wanted to give renewable energy a shot in the arm.
John Stewart: But as a result of these subsidies, cowboys moved in. And it was easy to get money to build a turbine just about anywhere you wanted to, and what the result is that many of these wind turbines are built far too close to people’s homes and there is a real and now acknowledged — for a long time unacknowledged — but now acknowledged problem. So off the top of my head, I would say that there’s one other, perhaps not necessarily in this order, but aircraft noise is a problem. Traffic noise is ubiquitous. Wind farm noise, wind turbine noise is a real problem for people living close to the wind turbines. There may be two other noises which are problematic. I think there’s the whole question of very loud music being played by your neighbor. Particularly with the strength of the stereo systems we’ve got now and the large amount of low frequency there is in those stereo systems. That can just be dreadful, particularly if your local authorities not prepared to deal with it. And the fifth area which is more, it’s more general is what you hinted at earlier on. It’s the noise in the restaurants, it’s the loud announcements on the underground. It’s just this kind of noise as you go about your day-to-day business, which has gotten worse and certainly wasn’t present, you know, 30-40 years ago.
Cary: Yeah, I think that’s true. And of course we’ve seen a number of articles about why restaurants are acoustically getting worse. I think that’s true of — there’s sort of two different things happening. One is that a lot of malls and housing and everything gets slapped up quickly without any thought architecturally to what kind of a noise environment this will create afterwards, or acoustic environment. And then you have another group of people who are slowly becoming aware of noise issues. So they’re starting to create more building materials. If you have the money and you hire the right architect and plan that in, where you have, you know, porous wall coverings or different architectural angles and things that will create less reverb inside an environment. And especially with the open office spaces, I see it as there’s some awareness not enough…And for the most part I think, we just have noisy buildings. You know, we didn’t build our buildings to be noisy. We built them to meet other building requirements. But nobody thought about what is this going to be like when it’s actually inhabited by a number of people and when there’s noise coming in from the street that’s bouncing back and forth. I think another issue, but I don’t know if it’s true in the UK, so I’m wondering about this… I know in some European countries their noise levels have gone up because of the tourism. There are more people coming to party on their streets then there was maybe 10, 20 years ago.
John Stewart: It’s a bit of an issue, there’s sort of more tourists. It’s a bit of an issue in tourist hotspots, but I suspect it’s more of an issue in Southern Europe, you know, where the weather is warmer, people are outside. Perhaps we’ve got to thank the variable British climate for the fact when tourists come,..we thank them for the clouds and the rain when tourists come across. You know, they’re obviously outside some of the time. But a lot of the time if they were partying or going to events, they’d probably be indoors much more so than in somewhere like, you know, Spain, Portugal, Italy, you know, perhaps parts of Southern France and Germany. So you’re absolutely right it’s an issue in certain European countries I suspect a little bit less so in the UK.
Cary: Yeah. And another thing I was wondering about in terms of traffic noise, I don’t know if this is true in the UK, but has the presence of Uber cars increased the amount of traffic and thus the amount of noise in certain areas?
John Stewart: It has, yes. What is interesting is that in central London for some years now we’ve had a road pricing scheme, so that if people drive into central London in the weekdays, they have to pay quite a bit. But taxis, including Uber, have been exempt from that scheme. So what happened was when it was introduced — which was maybe 20-odd years ago, maybe a bit more — traffic levels in central London fell dramatically. But since Uber and their fellow travelers have emerged on the scene, traffic levels are now almost as high as they were before the congestion charge zone was introduced. So yes, in certain areas Uber is having a really quite a marked effect on traffic levels.
Cary: Yeah, I would expect that. I think every city may deal with it differently. Some have tried to put restrictions on it. Certainly where I live in San Francisco, I think we’re getting like tens of thousands of Ubers and Lyfts coming into the city every day that wouldn’t have been on the streets otherwise. And it’s also sort of diverting people away from public transit. And that’s a problem.
John Stewart: That’s exactly what’s happening. To some extent, it may be people using Uber rather than their cars, but I’m not sure. Longterm studies haven't been done on that yet in the UK. But certainly anecdotally, what seems to be happening is that people who would have been using buses in particular, or maybe the underground are now using Uber because it’s so cheap.
Cary: It’s cheap. It takes them directly to where they want to go without having to stop elsewhere. They can avoid the types of people who they might encounter on a lot of public transit. At least here we have a lot of homeless people on there. And this is a way that, you know, people moving to the city now avoid dealing with all of that.
John Stewart: No, I think that’s absolutely right. And particularly at night and actually probably particularly for women at night, they will for these sorts of reasons, choose Uber because Uber can take you…you know, door to door, and if you’re out, if there’s two or three of you out for an evening in central London, and you’re going to go back home to the suburbs, it’s safer and it’s cheaper.
Cary: Yeah. Unfortunately. One of the things you also mentioned in your book was that maybe people are starting to become — to a point — more tolerant of noise because we live in a consumer society with a lot of gadgets that make a lot of noise. And you mentioned also the piped-in music. We’re just accustomed to now — you know — you go out to eat, and you’re going to be shouting over noise or you’re always going to have background noise playing wherever you go. Or you’re going to have all these powered gadgets doing things that used to be done by hand. And also I think the loudness of music in general has gone up, even in the recording quality. And also open office space. So when you said people to some extent might fear quiet, how do you get past that?
John Stewart: Well, it’s going to be hard because I think, I suppose my generation didn’t grow up with this level of noise or this level and constancy of noise. There might’ve been some things that were very noisy when I was growing up. You know, for example, factories were a lot noisier perhaps than they are today. So some things are noisier, but we didn’t live with this constant noise. And it’s interesting. I’ve got a niece and nephew who are in their mid twenties, and they’ve grown up accustomed to this noise. They didn’t grow up in a particularly noisy home, but they grew up with all the noises you described — the music in the restaurant …and so they… it’s part of their life. They tolerate it. And I find it amazing sometimes when I go into, you know, into a cafe, whether it’s a Starbucks or some similar sort of cafe, and they’re playing very loud music. And I think to myself, I want to just, I want to get out as quickly as possible. Yet there are a lot of students there because it’s comfortable seats and it’s warm and it’s free. They sit there all morning doing their studying. To the background of this music, so either they enjoy the music or they zoned out of it. But I think it’s a very different attitude towards the music. Attitude towards the noise as it were, that somebody from my generation might have. I think one of the reasons why we’re not seeing the levels of activism against noise that you would expect, as the world is getting… as the day-to-day lived experience is getting noisier. I think people are used to the noise, zone out the noise…and if you’re used to it, and it’s always there, almost by extension… when the noise is suddenly not there, when at four o’clock in the morning it’s dead silent and you’re trying to sleep. I suspect some people therefore get frightened: “where’s my usual noise?”
Cary: Yeah. I remember having some noise issues going on that were disrupting my sleep in the early morning here. So I got foam earplugs, really good ones that were like 33 decibel or whatever. So you’re supposed to wear those when you’re working in a woodshop or something. And the first time I tried to sleep with those in, I could hear and feel my own heartbeat and that was really, like ah, what’s this…this is distracting. Now I’m used to it, but yeah, it was really very startling. At the same time though, a lot of people don’t meditate or do other quiet activities. It’s always the stimuli. And I think another thing is because cell phones are so ubiquitous. I mean, I bring mine with me everywhere, but the thing is that most of the time I’m texting or quietly doing something on my phone. But that’s not true for everyone. There are plenty of people who will get on a crowded bus and have no qualms whatsoever about sitting down next to you and having a loud personal conversation on their phone. While you’re just trapped there listening.
John Stewart: And also so many people play their music through their iPods, or what have you. They play going to work and will play it at work, but there’s this constant noise in the background and I think it just becomes part and parcel of life for many people.
Cary: Yeah. And I think sometimes it could actually be coming from being annoyed by other sounds and wanting to create your own acoustic environment. So you know that you work in an open office space and you’re going to hear all these conversations and it irritates you. So you put on your favorite tracks, crank up your music streaming app, and create your own environment.
John Stewart: I’m sure. I’m sure that’s right. And after that happens for awhile, you know, you’re possibly just not aware of how much noise you’re subjecting yourself to all day long.
Cary: Right. And I think you also become tolerant of everything else because your solution is to create your own noise. So that could also factor into why aren’t people more active. And yet if you ask just about anyone if they’re bothered by restaurant noise, the answer is yes. And that could also be a part of …this is an environment where you cannot control your own noise. You cannot control what you’re going to hear. You’re going to hear what the restaurant is playing in the background. You’re going to hear everyone else’s conversations and you can’t really put on an apparatus that will mask that out because you’re probably with someone else, and you need to be able to hear that person. You can’t just put in earplugs because what’s the point?
John Stewart: I think that’s absolutely right. Apart from not eating there, there’s not much you can do. I think that’s a very interesting one, restaurant noise, because it’s coming up on the agenda in the UK, and I think from what you’re saying, it’s up on the agenda in the US as well. And I just wonder whether there will start to be pressures on the restaurants and the cafes to do something about it, to moderate it in some way or another. I mean the ultimate pressure will be obviously if people start to go elsewhere to eat. My sense is — but there’s no more than that — my sense is that because a lot of people are concerned about it and maybe not quite concerned enough to go somewhere else to eat, but a lot of people are concerned about it. That it will get through to the restaurants and the cafes and actually — in order to improve the customer experience — they might have to turn down the noise, but we’ll see. I’ve no statistical evidence for that.
Cary: I’d like to thank John Stewart for chatting with me on the Soundproofist podcast and for his leadership on noise issues. If you’re interested in reading his book, “Why Noise Matters,” you can find some copies on Amazon… though they’re not inexpensive …or as an ebook from Routledge.com or check with your local library. You can also follow John on Twitter, check the Soundproofist blog for more links. And thanks for listening.