Home View from Underground The noisy, noisy subways

The noisy, noisy subways

by Benjamin Kabak

Every day, my morning commute exposes me to countless noises. According to a recent study, those noises could be very damaging to everyone’s ears.

My commute starts out at 7th Ave. on the BMT Brighton Line in Brooklyn. If I have to wait, inevitably a Coney Island- or Bright Beach-bound train will idle in the station with its air conditioner humming. When my ride arrives, the brakes squeal as the train pulls into the station. As the train heads north to Manhattan, it rumbles through tunnels at various speeds, and after leaving Atlantic Ave., the train curves its way to De Kalb Ave. with metal-on-metal screeching through the tunnel.

This noise doesn’t even count the various on-car noises. The PA systems on the B train are in a terrible state. Constant high-pitched feedback has become the norm, and on-board announcements run the gamut from inaudible to deafening. Personally, I don’t listen to my iPod in the morning, but plenty of people do. I know this because I can hear the loud, loud music leaking out through shoddy headphones. In the end, that’s a lot of noise.

Just to drive home the point, though, a bunch of academics have verified that, yes, the subways are very loud. A survey conducted last month by a bunch of students at the University of Washington and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health founds that subway rides expose us all to “high enough to potentially increase the risk of noise induced hearing loss.”

The release about the study had more:

Using sensitive noise dosimeters, the team of researchers…conducted hundreds of measurements of noise levels at platforms and stations, as well as inside of vehicles on New York City subways (MTA and PATH), buses (MTA), ferries (Staten Island), commuter railways (LIRR, SIRR and Metro North), and the Roosevelt Island tramway.

The scientists found that on average, the MTA subways had the highest noise levels, at 80.4 decibels (dBA), followed by the Path trains, at 79.4 dBA, and the tram, at 77.0 dBA. The lowest average levels measured, 74.9 dBA and 75.1 dBA, were obtained from the LIRR and Metro-North trains, respectively. The very highest levels measured in the study were found on an MTA subway platform (102.1dBA) and at a bus stop (101.6 dBA).

In contrast, the noise level of a whisper is 30 dBA, normal conversation is 60 to 70 dBA, a chainsaw is 100 dBA, and gunfire is 140 dBA.

In general, noise levels were significantly higher at platforms compared to inside vehicles for all forms of mass transit, except for ferries and the tram. The borough with the highest mass transit noise levels was Manhattan, followed by Queens and the Bronx. Major hubs were noisier than local stops and underground trains and stations were significantly louder than those aboveground.

The researchers warned that their findings were alarming. “At some of the highest noise levels we obtained, 102.1 dBA on the subway platforms, as little as two minutes of exposure per day would be expected to cause hearing loss in some people with frequent ridership, based upon the International Organization for Standardization models for predicting hearing impairment from noise,” Robyn Gershon, a Columbia scientists, said.

Experts have urged New Yorkers to use ear muffs and ear plugs, but the vast majority of commuters do not. As the MTA replaces its rolling stock, the more modern cars are quieter with better brake technology. As the ancient track beds are modernized, the MTA is trying to implement infrastructure that will dampen the noise.

Still, though, are commutes are loud. As we wait for trains in the morning and bury ourselves in newspapers, books and iPods, the trains fade into the backgrounds. But the truth remains: That is one very loud background.

You may also like


Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines July 20, 2009 - 9:05 am

[…] Yes, Subway Noise Can Be Deafening (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Harlan July 20, 2009 - 10:34 am

Hell yes. My closed-ear earphones for my MP3 player (www.shure.com) are worth every penny. I can keep the volume of my music and podcasts at a moderate level, the quality is great, and as they’re basically earplugs with speakers, they drop ambient noise by at least 10 dB, particularly the really obnoxious high-end squeals. A decent pair costs as much as a monthly Metrocard. Get them.

Adam B. July 20, 2009 - 11:18 am

One bad thing about have your ears plugged up in a station is not being able to hear announcements.

nathan_h July 20, 2009 - 1:56 pm

Even when the PA is working loudly and clearly as designed it’s generally producing noise, like warning people not to ride outside the train car because—yes, of course!—teenagers planning a stunt will be discouraged by a recorded old dude telling them not to. Perhaps they should add an announcement saying not to kill anyone, to solve that whole murder problem society has been dealing with since forever.

If the MTA tested each announcement’s effectiveness by playing them only on certain lines and times and comparing outcomes, I doubt many of their limp injunctions and platitudes would earn the right to invade our senses every trip to and from work. But the collection of lawyers and concern-ocrats that came up with the messages would never allow their work to face such barbaric objectivity.

Andrew July 20, 2009 - 9:14 pm

I agree that most of the (irritating) public safety announcements serve no actual safety function.

But if they manage to reduce the chances of NYCT losing injry lawsuits, I’m willing to tolerate them.

Generally, I’ve found that if an announcement is automated, it’s probably of little interest; if it begins with “This is an important message,” it’s certainly of little interest; and if it’s quietly mumbled and I can’t hear it over the chatting tourists at the other end of the car, it’s something I might have actually wanted to know.

Can you hear me now? July 20, 2009 - 7:09 pm

[…] officially discovered that the subways have the highest noise level at 80.4 decibels.  Some platforms were over 100.  Just for reference, a chainsaw runs at about 100 […]

Andrew July 20, 2009 - 9:06 pm

The more modern cars are quieter? Really?

They make more noise while in motion than most of the older cars, especially going around curves. The automatic announcements are loud (not so much the un-automated ones, which is kind of unfortunate, since those are the announcements that people actually need to hear). The fans are obnoxiously loud (and I’m not sure why, since the air conditioning is just as effective on the older cars). And many of the trains still screech to a stop.

Ever been to Grand Central or Union Square when four trains pull in at once, shouting their announcements in unison so that nobody can understand anything, blowing their obnoxious fans with such force that the station ceiling nearly pops out? (OK, slight hyperbole there. But only slight.) Not a pleasant experience. My eardrums much prefer the older cars.

herenthere July 22, 2009 - 12:03 am

Seriously, those newer cars are already making screeching sounds when they brake at stations…and their fans at stations are deafening.

I doubt that spending a mere two minutes taking the subway each day will cause hearing loss…if that were the case then police officers assigned to stations for longer periods would’ve probably sued someone already (unknock on wood).

Maybe if someone came along and sponsored the addition of Platform Screen Doors for lines with newer rolling stocks, that might help cut out most of the noise while waiting on platforms.

nathan_h July 21, 2009 - 1:33 pm

“But if they manage to reduce the chances of NYCT losing injry lawsuits, I’m willing to tolerate them.”

I have to agree with that, but it would be interesting to test that assumption as well. 🙂 Even if jurors are influenced by this nonsense, I worry it simply raises ‘safety’ expectations and sets up the authority to lose in cases where it can’t be shown that the announcement was played. American civil courts have earned the right to be treated as a science experiment and I think we should hold off on feel-good and easy (with hidden costs) ‘safety’ measure until it is established that there is some positive benefit, in real life or in the courtroom. (And with the play money evaporating before our eyes, I hope we may find a more effective way to close the litigious lottery!)

Adirondacker July 21, 2009 - 5:35 pm

The MTA should do what it can to make things quieter. Besides protection your hearing it makes the bus or the train more pleasant.

I’m getting old…. You should have been on the subway before there was air conditioning. Imagine going through a tunnel with the windows open.

I’m getting old… I hadn’t taken the subway in years mostly because I hadn’t been in NY for years. Well my flight was delayed because of rain. I knew the Belt Parkway would literally be a parking lot so I decided to take the A train into Manhattan. Spent most of the trip through Brooklyn eavesdropping on a conversation about telephone costs. When to use the cell phone instead of the landline for those toll calls to the relatives in Suffolk county etc. I then realized I was eavesdropping. Something you couldn’t do before the 70s for two reasons. The trains were so noisy you couldn’t eavesdrop. And the trains were so noisy people couldn’t have conversations to eavesdrop on…. I’m getting old….

Brmnyc July 22, 2009 - 1:52 am

Everyone concerned about noise levels in subway stations (including one would hope some managers at the MTA) should pay a visit to the 49th Street Station on the Broadway line (N, R, W). When this station was renovated in the 1970’s (notable for the garish, red tiles), they also added panels into the ceiling over the tracks and
in between tracks. These seem to be there to absorb sound, and in stark contrast to other stations in the system, the noise levels seem greatly reduced. When trains pull into and out of stations (or the Q express rolls through), the noise seems reduced to a relative whisper. Why didn’t the MTA continue installing these as they’ve renovated other stations since?

Mike HC July 23, 2009 - 12:14 pm

You have now given me a built in excuse for taking a cab to work and school every now and then without feeling so guilty and broke. At least I will be able to hear when I’m 50!!

Subway Noise Revisited :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 3, 2009 - 3:34 pm

[…] 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 […]

Noisy subways | City life & art August 21, 2009 - 11:06 pm

[…] Story via Via 2nd Ave. Sagas […]

The sounds of anything but silence :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog January 5, 2010 - 1:27 am

[…] this survey seems to reduce the noise levels found this summer when one group warned of 100+ decibel exposure at some subway stations. Those built around curves are the loudest as trains make more noises […]


Leave a Comment