Subway Noise RevisitedBy
Hi everyone. While Ben is out of town on a well deserved break, Jeremy and I will do our best to keep the website in service over the next week. Let’s see if it’s still up and running when he returns.
Over the past year I’ve spent considerable time in the archives of the MTA Transit Museum poring over records, newspaper clippings, and correspondences between Transit Authority officials and members of the public. I’m doing this for the sake of reconstructing a historical soundscape of the subways, as part of my doctoral research at NYU. Over the months I’ve found quite a bit of information, although it’s not readily accessible due to the fact that “sound” isn’t something that the collection catalogs index. I tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than going against the organizational grain in an archive and coming up with something that otherwise would be lost to time.
As was covered here earlier, a new report coming out of the University of Washington and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health later this month addresses the dangerously high noise levels present throughout the subway system. While the results of this survey will no doubt have an impact on the relationship between the MTA and the public in the next few years, it’s hardly the first time that the noisiness of the train has come under scrutiny. In fact, on October 29, 1904, the day after the subway opened, a J.R. Sedden wrote to the New York Times editor warning of “Auritis – A Subway Disease.” He predicted that it would become a fad among New York doctors over the next year. Although hearing loss has been a serious concern for passengers and transit workers ever since, the name never stuck. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing.
By the early 1970s, noise pollution had entered the public sphere as a serious issue. Around the same time that Mayor Lindsey was pushing for new noise-control codes to regulate the level of sound throughout New York, a series of reports on the noise levels of the subway were released, including one organized Columbia professor Cyril M. Harris and another from the Environmental Protection Agency.
One of the most interesting things that I found in my archival visits was the scant mention of an MTA public hearing held on December 11, 1974, concerning the noise levels of the subways. According to the MTA annual report from that year, the MTA board expected the public to be receptive to recently begun renovations of subway stations, including the installation of noise-canceling wall covers and other echo-deterring materials. Instead, the public overwhelmingly pressured the MTA that the more pressing issue was the elimination of wheel and brake noise. Apparently, the MTA took the public’s protests to heart and sunk several millions of dollars into maintenance efforts, including wheel-trueing and track welding, in order to reduce train noise.
Sadly, the MTA has no other record of this public hearing, so it’s hard to venture past speculation in recreating this little chunk of subway history. I’d love to read any press coverage or speak to someone who was in attendance. If you have any leads, please let me know!