Friday, 16 December 2011

Cacophonous Rosemount

As the oppressive noise level generated by motor traffic in Aberdeen increases in direct correspondence with the oil price, trying to undertake psychogeographical studies of the town and its socio-geographical relationships becomes more and more frustrating and our field reports run the risk of becoming increasingly one-dimensional. More than once, these pages have featured our bitter complaints about the growing cacophonous overburden of discordance on our town's streets and the impact of this noisy intrusion upon our quality of life. And when we visit an area of study, by chance dérive or purposeful expedition, it takes an engaged effort of the will to try to screen out the harsh racket which destroys the unity of the urban experience - that which our psychogeography seeks.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, we walked up and down Rosemount Place - host to a subsidiary commercial district of Aberdeen, about a kilometre from the town centre, and so fitting nicely the the multi-node-model of urbanisation. The Rosemount area is full of artefacts and arrangements of great psychogeographical interest. From ancient boundary stones to boutique cheese-vendors; from mid-century Viennese-style art deco apartment blocks to Georgian manor houses hidden behind Victorian tenements, accessible up long dark pends; from independent cosmopolitan cafés to cipher-embazoned granite pediments and gables - Rosemount is fascinating. Tree-lined avenues and traditional green-lane rights-of-way criss-cross the area. Rosemount would be a nice place to linger, to dawdle, to stroll and maybe even do some grocery shopping; to stop in a cafe and read a newspaper, to live life at a human scale and pace. But unfortunately, through-traffic roars up and down Rosemount Place, rat-running at maximum possible speed between the northwest of the town and the central business district. The noise generated by the continual high-speed flow of traffic makes Rosemount Place an unpleasant and oppressive zone. Not at all a nice place to linger.

We had intended to stay, to look at stuff, to think and reflect, to discuss what we were experiencing. But it was impossible. We couldn't dally, because we had to shout to each other in order to be heard. It just was not possible to stand on the pavement or stroll and maintain a conversation. Once again we were subjected to that most British of outcomes - the confusion that exists between streets and roads. In pre-mid 20th century urbanism, roads connected locations and streets connected people. A road's main function was transportation, while streets enabled public interaction. Today, in Aberdeen, even the streets are roads, and public interaction is marginalised in favour of noisy high-speed motor-traffic 'flow'.

According to the World Health Organisation document "Burden of disease from environmental noise" (pdf):
The health impacts of environmental noise are a growing concern. At least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western part of Europe.
Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health.
Excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.
So, what is to be done? We're pleased to note that the Scottish Government is obliged by European Union legislation to address environmental noise via Noise Action Plans covering Noise Management Areas (pdf). Unfortunately, we're less pleased to note that local greenwash boilerplate issuing quango NESTRANS (North East Scotland Transport) is the local body responsible for dealing with transport noise in Aberdeen.

The NESTRANS "Health and Transport Action Plan" (HTAP) document is difficult to find, particularly as NESTRANS appear not to have updated the document index on their website since 2008, but a bit of knowledge of how to conduct advanced Google searches delivers up the goods.
It's disappointing to note that the "Noise Control" section of the report is practically identical to that published in the NESTRANS HTAP last year, the only change in the form of words being those necessary to report that no action has yet been taken, not even to identify problem areas. We'll save them the time and effort: the whole of Aberdeen is now a problem area for traffic noise.
It was a fairly pleasant surprise to see that our local advertising free-sheet "The Aberdeen Citizen" (BEST free newspaper in Scotland) covered this story with a front-page splash last week: "EU COULD TELL ABERDEEN TO CUT DOWN THE NOISE" - they thundered. We were delighted. But then we read the article. The reporter who wrote it asked a local haulage magnate to comment. The transport tycoon in question responded by calling for road resurfacing:
"Drive past noise varies on the road surface ... it can be loud and intimidating. The only way to lower that is to improve the road surface."
(Our emphasis)

The reporter also sought a quote from a NESTRANS spokeswoman who said:
"As technological advances reduce noise levels from vehicles, it is possible that improvements will occur anyway."
Astonishing. This spokeswoman believes that "technological advances" will come to the rescue; presumably those advances being in the form of electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles which will emit negligible engine-noise. But, engine noise is already only detectable in today's motor cars at speeds lower than 20mph. Above that speed, it is the rolling tyre rumble and aerodynamic effects which produce the noise which so blights our urban environment and is of such great concern to the World Health Organisation. So the NESTRANS spokeswoman is happy to tell us that she is just crossing her fingers and hoping that the problem will go away, and the haulage magnate wants road surface 'improvements'. Neither of these quoted sources countenance measures (such as modal-shift away from use of private motor vehicles towards sustainable, active and/or public transport modes) which could reduce traffic volumes or speeds. They have not considered this obvious, low-cost and minimum intervention solution, because so entrenched has their motor-centric world-view become that they cannot see the bleedingly obvious fact that motor-traffic is the source of motor-traffic noise. To paraphrase the splendid "At War With The Motorist" blog:
The cause of traffic noise is traffic. Too much of if, driving too fast. We like to pretend that it’s bad engineering, because we can always fix engineering by replacing it with some different engineering. And we like to pretend that it’s not the volume and speed of traffic and the behaviour of drivers, because acknowledging this would mean giving up hope that one day the traffic noise will magically be solved. But that’s the way it is: too many cars, driven too fast.

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