Home View from Underground The sounds of anything but silence

The sounds of anything but silence

by Benjamin Kabak

In 2005, iPod ads were everyone in the subway. Today, bleeding headphones have become ubiquitous. (Photo by flickr user t_a_i_s)

I found myself on Monday evening awaiting a downtown 4 train on the IRT platform at Union Square. As the downtown 6 pulled out and an express idled on the uptown tracks, it was loud. The automated PA voice kept warning me to stand back from the moving platform; the downtown trains screeched around the sharp curve into the station; and the heated system on the idling uptown express hummed.

It is little wonder then that the noisiest spot in New York City is at a subway station. According to a recent study by Hear the World, the noisiest spot in the city with trains roaring by is the B/D/F/V stop at 42nd St./Bryant Park. The noise levels reach 93 decibels at the subway system’s 18th busiest stop.

According to hearing experts, that level of screech is enough to cause permanent hearing damage, and Craig Kasper, a Columbia doctor who works with Hear the World, urged people to be mindful of the noise. “Once you reach anything over 85 decibels, you are really at risk,” he said. “If you hear a loud noise, just put fingers in your ears.”

Outside of Bryant Park, subways in general were the fourth most noisiest part of New York City, behind the West Side Highway and the bus lanes on 42nd St. east of Fifth Ave. A typical subway ride exposes a straphanger to 80 decibels of sound. Although the new R160s are designed to reduce noise levels both as trains ride the rails and as they brake, there’s only so much engineering can accomplish, and sounds are aplenty underground.

Interestingly, 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 braking through twisted sections of track. If only we could go back in time to fix those errors of original engineering over 100 years ago.

Noise on the subways, meanwhile, is not a new phenomenon. As Bill Bahng Boyer, one of my guest columnists over the summer, explained in August, New Yorkers have been complaining about the noise since October 29, 1904, one day after the IRT opened for business. What is a new problem however is headphone bleed. Have you tried to take a relatively silent ride lately? It’s impossible.

Once upon a time, boom boxes were the scourge of New York City subway riders. Those with their noises in magazines would dread the arrival of a gang of youths with a loud radio on for all to hear. It was the ultimate in obtrusive noise pollution, and eventually the combination of a crackdown and the onset of personal audio devices saw boom boxes become a relic of another era.

Today, though, we are subjected to subpar headphone earbuds. Brought about by the iPod revolution, nearly everyone is now satisfied with tinny headphones that leak sound all over the place. Some riders listen at volumes that are death to the ears, and nothing is worse than hearing the strains of something from 15 away in a a half-empty subway cars. Others simply don’t know how bad their headphones are. One day, I imagine, New York City may see an increase in the number of people suffering hearing damage, and the iPod earbuds will be to blame.

For now, we should be mindful of the noise. Obviously, the subways are noisy, and those sounds can impact our life. We tend to tune out the sounds of metal-on-metal, the sounds of air conditioner drones, the screech of brakes. But it’s there, hurting our ears decibel after decibel.

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23 comments

Andrew January 5, 2010 - 6:44 am

If the R160s are designed to reduce noise levels, then they fail miserably. They’re much louder than their predecessors (aside, of course, from their IRT cousins).

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Kid Twist January 5, 2010 - 11:11 am

My unscientific observation is that the R-46s are probably the quietest cars, but even the 160s are an improvement over the cars of the past. Back in the day, most of the fleet lacked a/c, so everything ran with the windows open. You want loud? Try an R-10 roaring along the CPW express tracks … with flat spots on the wheels.

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herenthere January 5, 2010 - 2:40 pm

I agree, R46 trumps all in the quiet operation category, both inside and outside of the train, even over the R160. I think the R160’s shell is made of thinner material than the R46, hence the increase in noise inside.

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Older and Wiser January 5, 2010 - 4:35 pm

Don’t know my R46s from my R160’s. What I do know is that while most of the cars intoduced in the last 15 or so years do a pretty good job of attenuating clikety-clak exterior noise, the interiors seem to have been designed specifically to amplify the human voice to megaphone decibles. Never in my life expected to have to cover my ears to protect them from hearty laughter or the cry of a baby.

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Andrew January 11, 2010 - 11:01 pm

I’m not concerned so much with the noise inside – all of the cars have reasonably good sound insulation, and with air conditioning, the windows and storm doors are generally kept closed. If anything, the loud announcements on the newer cars is a strike against them in the noise category.

It’s the noise outside, for people waiting on the platform, that I’m referring to. Are the newer cars heavier than the older ones? They make much more noise going around curves, and the ventilation systems are also very noisy.

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Craig Kasper January 5, 2010 - 7:26 am

Thank you for picking up on the NY Post noise article. Unfortunately, the Post reporter did not correctly print my current affiliation. Although I did work at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center (almost 12 years ago) I am currently the Chief Audiology Officer of Audio Help Associates of Manhattan, a private audiology group. I would greatly appreciate it if you would correct this in your piece. Thank you in advance!

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Harlan January 5, 2010 - 7:30 am

Get a good pair of in-ear monitors, like whatever you can afford from the Shure brand. They’re basically a pair of earphones built inside a pair of earplugs. They drop ambiant noise by 10 or 20 dB, especially at the most painful high frequencies (squeaky subway wheels!), and they sound great. You can listen to music at a much lower loudness that you could with cheap iPod buds.

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Benjamin Kabak January 5, 2010 - 10:03 am

The earbuds I use are the opposite of cheap, but I rarely listen to the iPod on the subway. People turn up the volume very high to drown out the sounds of the subway and end of damaging their ears. People probably shouldn’t be listening to headphones on the subway in the first place.

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Blue January 7, 2010 - 5:42 pm

I agree with Harlan, in ear noise canceling or noise isolating headphones would help avoid the hearing damage from the platform and track noises. The Shures in particular come with foam earplugs that expand to fill the ear canal, keeping music in and screeching train brake noise out. Maybe everyone should invest in a pair of noise isolating headphones for their iPod, then we won’t have to worry about ambient noise pollution. Its the cheap, in box iPod headphones that leak the most noise and sound awful.

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Streetsblog New York City » Sprawl Is Not an Endangered Species January 5, 2010 - 10:24 am

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Streetsblog Capitol Hill » Sprawl Is Not an Endangered Species January 5, 2010 - 10:57 am

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Streetsblog Los Angeles » Sprawl Is Not an Endangered Species January 5, 2010 - 11:28 am

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Streetsblog San Francisco » Sprawl Is Not an Endangered Species January 5, 2010 - 11:58 am

[…] if you don't want to. But wouldn't it be nice to have the choice? More from around the network: Second Avenue Sagas on the subway's din. Smart Growth Around America on how public transit creates more jobs for the […]

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SEAN January 5, 2010 - 12:47 pm

WHAT DID YOU SAY! EXCUSE ME! Oh never mind it was just another train passing through 42nd Street Briant Park. LOL

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Mike HC January 5, 2010 - 1:00 pm

Really enjoyed this one. I am big into the ipod whenever I go anywhere in the city, but am always mindful that I don’t want to damage my hearing. Only time will tell if I am successful.

My father always listened to his music extremely loud throughout his life, and now has a low level buzzing, and damaged hearing. I have to watch out.

And the loudest places in nyc are surely some of the louder bar, lounges and clubs. It should really be illegal how loud they bump some of the speakers. It is as inhospitable of an atmosphere as can possibly be.

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Jordan January 5, 2010 - 2:21 pm

YES. I haven’t read the post yet, but I have been eagerly anticipating this. Okay, I’ll go read now, haha.

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Jordan January 5, 2010 - 2:26 pm

If people want to damage their ears, so be it. That’s their choice. But remember you are on public transportation. Not everyone needs to hear “Empire State of Mind” for the 4th time that day via someone else’s earbuds.

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AK January 5, 2010 - 4:53 pm

But Jordan, these streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you! Who WOULDN’T want to hear that on repeat on a crowded train in rush hour!

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rhywun January 5, 2010 - 11:57 pm

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, or if there’s a serious lapse of quality control on the in-car speakers, but lately I’ve been physically impacted by the announcements on a regular basis. As in, the conductor shrieks “36TH STREET!!” and I’m jumping like six inches out of my seat.

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Claire January 6, 2010 - 3:30 am

I’m sure there is going to be a lot more people suffering from tinnitus in the years to come. It’s not just the super dB scream that comes from the tracks when the trains come round the curve. So many people use iPods but to be able to hear any music at all they have to crank up the volume to the maximum.

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rhywun January 6, 2010 - 8:51 pm

I think the R160’s have quieter “track noise” from inside, but outside you just notice the engines are a lot “whinier” than the older trains. Today I noticed for the first time that the R46’s–which I take every day–DO have remarkably quiet engines, but from the inside the track noise seems louder than the newer trains. Overall, it’s hard for me to call one as “quieter” than the other.

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Kai B January 7, 2010 - 11:16 am

It’s the traction motors – all new trains have them, including the M7s on the LIRR. While producing noise, I don’t think it’s over 85 decibels.

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Todd January 12, 2010 - 2:21 pm

What about the damaged caused by the alarmed Emergency Exit gates to go off incessantly at most every station? No one, not the MTA or the police, will take responsibilty for this problem. It’s illegal for people to use the gates in a non-emergency, but I don’t care about that, what I care about is the disruptive, damaging noise. Also I wonder what damage is being to to the children in the strollers whose parent use the gates.

The M.T.A. needs to do one of three things; enforce the gate rules, turn off the alarms since no one is paying attention to them (they are supposed to alert a nearby policemen so they can respond to the “emergency”), or lock the gates.

Also, in the past week I’ve come across at least three people playing music via their device’s speaker instead of using headphones.

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