Thursday, June 02, 2011

Beluid In Amsterdam - Noise In Amsterdam

Though it is much denser than most American cities, Amsterdam is quieter than most American cities. Here are some sources of noise that are common in America and absent in Amsterdam:

Gardening Noise: Houses in Amsterdam are allowed to have a strip of land only 30 centimeters (about one foot) deep in front of them for planting. Many have beautiful plantings, as shown in the picture below; most have simpler plantings such as rose vines; in any event, the space is so small that the plantings need only a bit of hand-trimming. There is none of the noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other gardening machinery that you always hear in America.

Beepers on Trucks: Trucks in Amsterdam do not beep when they back up - a minor nuisance but one we constantly face in America. The federal government requires these beepers as a safety measure, but their absence does not seem to cause accidents in Amsterdam. This is undoubtedly because Amsterdam drivers are used to being surrounded by people and bicyclists and so are very cautious, while American drivers are used to barreling along with few pedestrians around them.

Sidewalk Repairs: Jackhammers breaking up concrete sidewalks are not heard all that frequently in America, but they are extremely loud and annoying when they are used. In central Amsterdam, the sidewalks are paved with bricks, and repairs involve pulling up and putting down bricks by hand, which makes little or no noise. This undoubtedly requires more maintenance expense than our concrete sidewalks, but because Amsterdam is much denser, there is much less sidewalk area per capita than in American cities, so it is plausible that sidewalk maintenance costs less per capita.

Traffic Noise: Cars are the number one source of noise in American cities, and people in Amsterdam drive much less than in America. In central Amsterdam, most streets have only one traffic lane, shared by cars and bicycles, so the cars drive slowly, reducing the amount of noise they make. The difference is very clear on residential streets: where I live in Berkeley, I cannot stand outside of my house for more than two minutes without a car pulling in or out; but where I am staying in Amsterdam, there are fewer cars, even though the street is about four times as dense as my street in Berkeley.

But there is one source of traffic noise that often disrupts the quiet of Amsterdam, the bromfietsen (motorcycles and motorscooters). I guess that there are about 5% to 10% as many bromfietsen as fietsen (bicycles) in Amsterdam. When you walk down the street, it is usually very quiet for a couple of minutes, with only pedestrians, bicycles, and s few low-speed cars going by, and then very noisy for 15 seconds or so, as a motorscooter or motorcycle roars by.

The bromfietsers ride on the bicycle paths, and because they go faster than bicycles, they weave between them dangerously. On major streets, bike paths are right next to the sidewalk, and when you are walking on the sidewalk, it is alarming to have a heavy, noisy, high-speed vehicle right next to you; they are more polluting than cars, and you can smell their fumes after they pass. They often park blocking the sidewalk, because they cannot be leaned against buildings and fences like bicycles. They tend to be aggressive: sometimes they barrel through a street filled with pedestrians, honking their horns and roaring their engines to get people out of their way.

If half the bicyclists in Amsterdam shifted to motorscooters, it would be a much noisier, more dangerous, and less livable city. The 5% or 10% who have shifted to motorscooters save themselves a bit of time at the expense of making the city less livable for everyone. They are just the opposite of the people who give a gift to the public realm by planting in front of their houses: they degrade the public realm to benefit themselves.

On the balance, I think that the benefit to the individual of the time the motorscooters save is not as great as the cost to the public of the noise and danger that the motorscooters cause. If it were up to me, I would simply ban them - with an exception, of course, for people who have health problems that prevent them from bicycling.

Then Amsterdam would prove to the world that it is possible for a city to be dense and urban and at the same time to be beautiful and very quiet. It certainly is beautiful, but its quiet is under attack.


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