Streetcar Serenity

If light rail and streetcar systems are 'too quiet,' it would be an awfully nice problem to have

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A light rail tram in Geneva. (Flickr user trams aux fils, licensed under Creative Commons)

Among the many benefits that modern streetcars and many forms of light rail offer to the city environment is an exceptionally quiet ride compared to conventional buses or heavy rail systems. I have had the good fortune of traveling to Geneva a number of times over the past decade, and have never failed to be impressed by the quality of its transit system, including greatly reduced noise pollution from its light rail component.

That is welcome relief: the street noise in a city can be over 90 decibels, loud enough to cause hearing loss through long exposure. In fact, that’s as loud as a Boeing 737 taking off when heard from a short distance away (85 db), and almost as loud as a power mower (100 db). Vehicles running on electricity produce less noise than diesel or other conventional fuel-burning buses, and much less noise than the equivalent volume of automobile traffic.

In fact, in some places streetcar and light rail opponents have now shifted their argument from complaining that the new transit vehicles will be too noisy to complaining that they will be too quiet. I say that’s a nice problem to have, and the public will quickly adjust and learn to look for approaching quieter vehicles, as they have all over the world. The fact that the routes will be fixed will help accustom pedestrians’ expectations. Additional crossing alerts and operator training can make the mode at least as safe as buses and far safer than the number of automobiles required to move the same passenger volume. In the case of systems that use tracks, smooth modern rails and vibration-absorbing fasteners can further reduce noise.

Ken Archer writes on the D.C.-based site Greater Greater Washington:

“An overlooked benefit of streetcars is the reduction in noise pollution associated with bus and car traffic. In fact, some pedestrians in Prague say the newest streetcars from Skoda are too quiet!

An article from iDnes, a Czech news portal, describes the experiences of operators of the new 15T streetcars built by Skoda for the Czech capital's tram system. Operators of the new streetcars have to be alert to pedestrians who may not hear them approach . . .

“Buses are the source of DC residents' particularly frequent traffic noise complaints. As streetcars being operation in DC and replacing buses on the busiest routes, the benefit to the quality of our daily lives and the enjoyability of our urban spaces will be significant.”

D.C.’s first streetcars (still awaiting deployment) were also built by Skoda.

Compare the two short videos below. The first (only one minute) measures the noise level on a busy city street. The second (in Czech) shows the streetcars running smoothly and quietly:

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.