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Canadian cities need to start turning down the volume

PUBLISHED JUNE 9, 2019 Noise is a defining feature of city life. The din of traffic. The blaring of sirens. The rumble of industry. This commotion is an accepted state of being. Even the most grating and unnecessary sonic pollution – from motorcycles to leaf blowers – is considered a nuisance rather than something more serious.

The dial is starting to turn. The issue of noise is evolving into a public-health question. Noise has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. It has been shown to affect the ability of children to learn – and adults well know the difficulty of concentration in a noisy office.

“Excessive noise seriously harms human health,” says the European office of the United Nations World Health Organization.

Cities such as Florence, Italy, have made progress. Florence has invested more than $60-million over the past decade to take on noise, including limiting some areas to pedestrians only. The city’s average daytime racket has fallen by more than half.

In Canada, the effort is only beginning. The basic problem remains. Motorcycles on the street rattle city residents but planes overhead coming in for landing don’t. That’s because rules governing the noise aircrafts make – and advancements in technology – have significantly quieted planes over the decades. But motorcycles seem as loud as ever.

Motorcycles and cars coming off the assembly line are supposed to adhere to noise regulations under Canada’s Motor Vehicle Safety Act. For motorcycles, it’s the low-80s decibels range; the 85-decibel mark is where sounds can become harmful.

But there is a subculture that seeks out after-market exhaust products with names such as “Rock-It” and “Thumper” that do the opposite of muffling: They amplify. Some provincial laws include regulations about mufflers to prevent excessive noise and alterations. But the noise on the roads doesn’t stop.

Last year in Edmonton, the city tested noise-monitoring equipment. The technology could eventually function like photo radar for speeders. Over several months, it registered thousands of vehicles that exceeded 85 decibels. The technology is still in testing but in late May a city committee pushed forward a “noise enforcement program.” This summer, officers will be paired with the noise meters, and the aim is to write tickets.

Fines are key, rather than the warnings that are typical in the many places where rules are vague.

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory last year called on the city’s licensing and standards office to combat noise from offending motorcycles and cars. In a letter, he said it is “a widespread problem affecting quality of life for residents and visitors alike … all in the apparent cause of feeding the egos of inconsiderate people.”

The city has been looking at its noise bylaw since 2015. This April, at long last, city council passed amendments that come into force in October. Among the changes is the specific inclusion of motorcycles and a limit of 92 decibels when the engine is idling – the noise from a subway train.

The results of the process are imperfect. Banning leaf blowers, for instance, was deemed “overly restrictive.” Instead, their hours of usage were slightly pared back.

Real progress, however, comes with enforcement.

Police could act against noise – but noise has never been a priority. Toronto has 235 bylaw officers. It’s one thing to have an improved bylaw on the books. It is another to take action. Plus, rules against noise are difficult to enforce. Think about the motorcycle that rips around town. A resident’s complaint to the city or the police accomplishes nothing, since the offender is gone in an instant. Taking noise seriously means clamping down on it.

One prospective but unexplored avenue is specific rules at the provincial level, where noise is usually regulated only in terms of the workplace, occupational health and safety. Provinces set speed limits. Noise limits – written in decibels rather than inexact adjectives like “excessive” – should be set, too. Noise is a health issue. It should not be left to hundreds of individual jurisdictions across the country.

When people live together in crowded places – the city life most of us experience on a daily basis – we share our many pollutions. Amid it all, noise as pollution has long been an afterthought. The efforts in Edmonton and Toronto are a start, but much more can and should be done.

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