Posted by: VPSN | January 20, 2011

What’s the ruckus? Checking in on the City’s efforts around noise control

A city’s acoustic environment plays a key role in affecting the overall health and well-being of residents, as well as the general enjoyment of urban spaces.  Life in an overly noisy environment can lead to elevated stress levels, headaches, and a host of other problems.  And too much noise can take its toll on the social life of a city as well – just try having a conversation in your yard when someone’s wielding a leaf-blower nearby… or check your blood pressure after a summertime visit to the neighbourhood patio is punctuated by one too many loud motor-bikes.

For these reasons and more, we were keen to review a report on the City’s Efforts and Impact on Noise Control.  It’s an interesting look at noise in the city, how it’s regulated, and the sorts of exemptions City staff will allow when dealing with its production.

The report recommends that the City streamline its process for dealing with noise permitting, approve Noise Bylaw amendments that define certain nuisance noises and the fines associated with them (e.g construction noise outside permitted time, operating a leaf-blower outside of permitted hours, etc).  The report also recommends that City staff be directed to look at ways to reduce the noise caused by back-up alarms.  All things that could help improve the Vancouver soundscape.

Noise is an important topic in city living, and it’s interesting that the present report hasn’t received a whole lot of traction in the media.  Daniel Fontaine at City Caucus noted that he thought the report was largely about a “tax grab” – which surprised us.  There’s more to the report than that, and the tenor of the piece is not out of keeping with some of the concerns expressed by past Mayor Sam Sullivan (Fontaine’s former boss) when he tried to do something about the use of emergency sirens at night.

Our beef with the report is a bit different.  We feel that it falls short by not addressing the larger issue of vehicle noise – particularly the kind that is created by modified tailpipes.  In addressing the “efforts and impacts on noise control” this strikes us as a particularly key omission.  Perhaps by coincidence, it also happens to be an issue that is proving particularly challenging to deal with.

With all that in mind, we took the opportunity to address these concerns in a letter to City Council.  As per our practice, we’ve excerpted it here for your reading pleasure:

[The VPSN] advocates for the noise levels in the City to be such that vibrant activities in the public realm are promoted and nuisance noise is avoided.

To that end, we are supportive of the intent of the proposed staff recommendation to revise the Noise Control Bylaw such that nuisance noises which have a net negative effect on the public realm become ticketable offences.  We also support the City’s notion of encouraging broadband backup alarms on vehicles to reduce vehicular noise.  Both of these initiatives will contribute to a healthier, more pleasant acoustic environment.

Our support here comes with a caveat:  we question why the report fails to address the greater issue of vehicular noise, particularly the excessive (and purposeful) noise created by modified tailpipes on cars and motorcycles.  We understand that this matter is covered under a separate bylaw (the City’s Motor Vehicle Noise and Abatement Bylaw); however, we feel that the present report affords an important opportunity to attend to this issue in a more comprehensive fashion.

Under the City’s Motor Vehicle Noise and Abatement Bylaw, enforcement officers have the ability to issue $50 tickets to vehicles making noise such that is liable to  “disturb the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort, or convenience of individuals or the public” (which includes modified tail pipes or idling vehicles).  However, enforcement of such highly invasive nuisance noises appears woefully inadequate.  In our investigations into the issue we have been informed by representatives of the police that such matters are not considered to be an item of concern for them. Thus, with the exception of the occasional one-day blitz, there is little or no deterrent in place to deal with the ear-splitting roar of vehicles whose exhaust systems have been modified specifically to disturb the peace.

At the same time, we frequently hear from the public that such noise is a substantial issue – particularly in the summertime, when people crowd our streets, beaches, parks and patios.

As such, we would ask that Council request that staff develop a more robust strategy to reduce vehicular noise, and that new (and effective) enforcement mechanisms be developed to attend to the problem of modified tailpipes.  We believe that reducing unnecessary vehicular noise could make an important contribution in meeting the overall intent of the more general Noise Control Bylaw, as well as City objectives around quality of life, well-being and urban health.

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