Canada’s cities are vibrant, energetic places with lots to offer, but the one thing they absolutely lack is silence. No one ever said, “I’m moving to Toronto/Vancouver/Calgary to get a little peace and quiet.” Residents live with noise. Sometimes a lot of noise. Often more than they can bear.
Yet the causes and consequences of all that noise have gone largely unaddressed by governments.
In 2019, for instance, Toronto updated its noise bylaw in response to a rising number of complaints. The new rules broadly define noise as, “a sound that a person finds disturbing to their peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience.”
It’s the straight-pipe motorcycle that can startle you out of your sleep from two kilometres away when its driver guns the throttle. It’s the car with the exhaust system modified to make the engine, and the person behind the wheel, sound bigger than they are. It’s the clang and thunk of construction sites, the dog that won’t stop barking at 2 a.m., the loud neighbours, the overnight loading and unloading of commercial vehicles, and that scourge of many people who now work at home, the gas-powered leaf blower.
Toronto’s bylaw bans many of these annoyances overnight, and on weekend and holiday mornings until 9 a.m. It also limits some noise levels, and increases the number of bylaw officers dedicated to noise complaints.
Other cities have also been trying to crack down on noise – even as a small minority of Canadians decided that the COVID-19 pandemic was a good time to amp things up. The decrease in traffic on the roads led to an epidemic of tire-squealing drag-racing in Calgary, for instance. Vancouver saw a rise in noise complaints at the start of the pandemic.
Most Canadians would be happy to see an end to the most obnoxious types of urban noise pollution. It makes no sense to let someone soup up a car so it growls at earsplitting levels, just because it gives them a thrill, or out of the wrongheaded notion that freedom is a license to impose a harm on other people (the same kind of thinking that could derail Canada’s vaccination campaign).
But these annoyances are the low-hanging fruit of urban noise. Even if we could shut up every stunt driver, there would still be a constant background din that most of us swim in, every day.
A 2017 report by Toronto Public Health, prepared in anticipation of the new noise bylaw that came in two years later, found that the average 24-hour level of noise residents were exposed to was 62.9 decibels.
That’s well above the maximum of 55 dB that the World Health Organization says is safe for humans to be constantly subjected to. And even that figure was a compromise from the suggested safest maximum level, which is 42 dB – currently an impossibility in Canadian cities. (By way of reference, an idling motorcycle in Toronto is allowed to be as loud as 98 dB.)
Multiple studies have suggested that constant noise above 42 dB contributes to heart disease, stroke, depression, lack of sleep and cognitive impairment in children.
In other words, Toronto’s ambient noise level, which the Toronto Public Health report says is similar to Vancouver’s and Montreal’s, is bad for your health. Plus, on top of that, there are the bleating annoyances that get all the attention.
At least 60 per cent of the ambient sound in Toronto comes from traffic – engine noise and tire noise, according to Toronto Public Health. Other sources are airplanes and helicopters, construction sites, and leakage from bars and concert venues. But most city folk exposed to high levels of noise, day and night, are getting it from the traffic outside their windows.
The report says this could be mitigated by lowering speed limits, installing pavement that reduces tire noise, and by improving sound insulation in homes and apartment buildings.
But nothing like that was in Toronto’s 2019 noise bylaw, and that’s no surprise. Like noise itself, jurisdiction over it crosses boundaries in Canada – municipal, provincial and federal – and is also distributed across different government departments, such as health, environment and labour.
There is, as a result, no coherent plan to address the health threat of urban noise pollution. Millions of Canadians have in effect been told that if they don’t like the constant din, that’s just their opinion, or a matter of taste. No, it’s a health issue. And it’s time governments took it seriously.
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