As we finished the last of our Japanese lunch, we spoke about double-glazing.
“Maybe it will help,” I suggested.
“Yes, I should it get done before the next Deepavali,” Sam said, more to himself than to me.
He had related to me his annoyance with noise pollution and our public sector’s response. In the weeks leading up to the Hindu festival of Diwali, festival organisers had set up an event in an open field about 150 metres from his flat. The noise was unbearable, he said. “My spleen and bones were vibrating to the music.” This was despite closing all his windows.
“But there are two rows of shophouses between your block and the field,” I recalled. “I may be wrong, but can you even see the field from your window? There’s no direct line of sight, is there? The shophouses’ roofs would be blocking.”
“That tells you how loud the thing was.” It appears I had only agitated him even more. “Every night too.”
He wrote to the police several times. And each time, they wrote back to say that the event organiser had a licence and if they breached the conditions, the police would take action.
“What sort of reply is that? Did they think I was telling them they had no licence? That’s just another way of saying they’re not about to do anything.”
That he had time to write – repeatedly — to the police and the police had time to reply would tell you how long the noise event lasted.
It’s the licence!
The problem, as readers will have figured out, is the licence — both the granting of it and the lax conditions associated with it. This kind of noise pollution is ultimately traceable to government bodies.
I myself have a similar problem. My flat faces an open space too, as do many other Singaporeans’. We like flats with a bit of space in front of our windows, so we catch what little breeze we have and we don’t look directly into someone else’s bedroom or kitchen. However, we quickly discover on moving in that the open space can become an epicentre of noise quakes.
I have the feeling that things have gotten steadily worse over the years. Flats have been built closer together and as population has risen, so has the profitability of events for organisers. Result? They organise them more frequently. Where my friend has the Diwali season to dread, I have the Chinese Ghost Month. But, perhaps one in three of the noise events I see around the area where I live is organised by the government. Stupid things like Family Day and Health and Wellness Day or such like, where on a Sunday morning at 9 a.m. sharp, the speakers blare into life urging residents to come down to join them in never-ending aerobics that go on for the rest of the day, “with prizes to be won”!
The lead story in the Home section of the Straits Times, 16 Nov 2010, (Wanted: Sound ideas to cut traffic noise) says the National Environment Agency (NEA) “plans to hire a consultant in three months’ time to look into reducing noise from existing and future major roads and rail lines.” Apparently, “Past studies here and abroad have yielded few workable solutions for a land-scarce, high-rise city like Singapore.”
Indeed, I’ve often wondered how those who live in flats beside major roads tolerate the constant noise. And for decades, no one in authority seemed to have cared. I say this because the Straits Times’ story itself gives you proof that the problem never got the attention it deserved. Sure, they have taken noise into account in small ways — see list at right — but it is more than obvious that through all these years, no one has asked: Do these measures work? Instead, the planners seem to have used these “measures” as boxes to be checked off as a formality to show that they have done their jobs. (And the NEA has obviously and defensively given the list to the Straits Times to show how it has “cared” about this problem all these years.)
But, as I said, the list itself is proof of officials’ poor lack of attention to the problem:
Take #1 for example: multistorey carparks placed between highways and residential blocks. I’ve always known this is no solution for those whose flats are higher than the carpark. Am I to believe that planners didn’t know that?
Take #2: What is 30 metres worth? Has any planner stood 30 metres from a highway and checked how little noise reduction there is?
Take #3: “Trees are planted to shield homes of psychological relief.” I am laughing. Noise annoyance is not a psychological problem. You either hear it or you don’t. More: “Trees attract birds, whose songs mask traffic noise.” I am rolling on the floor laughing.
Trees are very poor at reducing noise. There is really just one simple consideration when it comes to the effectiveness of a noise barrier: Mass. The more massive (heavier, denser) the material is between your ears and the source of noise, the more effective it is. Concrete is good. Solid lead is good too. A mountain of granite is even better. But don’t forget, sound waves can travel around barriers too.
There is an emerging technology of noise cancellation. You can google it to find out more about the principles involved. In principle, I think the technology should be applicable to traffic noise, since the latter spans a relatively narrow range of wavelengths and has a relative constancy and predictability. But I suspect the technology has never been scaled up to the level needed to deal with kilometres and kilometres of highways.
I will grant that traffic noise management is a difficult problem. On the one had, transportation is lifeblood to the economy. Then there is land scarcity, compelling us to build flats closer and taller.
What I will not grant is the utter inconsideration of Town Councils or whatever bodies in issuing permits for events. They should not only reduce the number of permits issued (by at least half) but also impose much more stringent conditions for noise levels. You don’t need to hire consultants to get this done. You don’t need super duper technology. You just need public officials who listen to residents. Or have they become deaf themselves?