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traffic noise pollution in Oxford

Motor traffic noise pollution is really two separate problems. The first is local spikes in noise from individual vehicles, sometimes deliberately driven - and even modified - to make noise. The second is high levels of ambient noise from motor traffic generally.

Noise pollution is one of the "invisible problems", often neglected in comparison to the other harms created by motor traffic. Oxford City Council's noise pollution information, for example, only covers noise from venues, private parties, building works, etc. and doesn't even mention traffic noise. The County Council gets noise complaints logged to FixMyStreet, but appears to have no general information about traffic noise nor any plan or guidelines for addressing it. And noise pollution doesn't feature in the Low Traffic Future campaign.

Deliberate noise creation is basically a form of vandalism, but is transient and so given less attention than (say) flytipping, even though its effects may be worse, given the consequences of disturbed sleep, loss of concentration and so forth. Mopeds and motorcycles are a particular problem, being louder than cars, but the worst offenders are vehicles modified or driven to deliberately create noise. Unwarranted use of horns also falls into this category. A single revved-up motorcycle going down Broad St can disturb hundreds of people and interrupt scores of conversations ("a jacked-up motorcycle in the middle of the night can easily wake up 10,000 Parisians").


this map, from the England Noise and Air Quality Viewer only covers A roads and was produced in 2017, so doesn't reflect housing built since then (e.g. Barton Park) or speed changes (e.g. most of Iffley Rd becoming 20mph)

High levels of ambient noise can be significant over large areas — the noise from Oxford's ring road reaches for kilometres — and though the impacts are less obvious (people are less likely to be woken up) the health effects are significant. Noise levels depend on traffic speed and volume and on distance, with intervening physical barriers (in most cases other housing) providing effective buffering.

There's no shortage of studies showing health problems from noise pollution, but two recent ones give a flavour: A 2023 study (from a group based in Oxford, using UK Biobank data) found "an increasing dose-response relationship between road traffic noise and incident primary hypertension" (high blood pressure) and "road traffic noise and air pollution may have synergistic effects". A 2022 study found significant effects on child working memory and attention spans. And there's a lot more. Noise also inhibits conversation and the social connections that come with that.

This video is a good introduction to noise pollution.

Traffic removal/reduction will obviously help, and reduced noise pollution will be one positive effect from the Central Oxfordshire Travel Plan and its broader measures to reduce motor traffic. There may be some gains from shifting traffic away from narrower streets to wider main roads with larger setbacks to homes.

The other obvious approach is to reduce tyre and aerodynamic noise through speed reduction, dropping Oxford's main roads to 20mph and its ring road to 40mph. The 20mph changes will help with noise as well as road danger (in Lausanne, noise reduction was a significant part of the health gains from 30kmh/20mph speeds) and 40mph on the ring-road would have a dramatic effect, especially if enforced by average speed cameras. Using sound barriers may be appropriate in some places (as along the A34 past Botley) and "quiet asphalt" could be an option on roads with noise concerns and no other possible ameliorations (the B480/Oxford Rd?). Where necessary, sound-proofing individual buildings should be integrated into schemes to improve insulation and heating.

Electric vehicles are much quieter than petrol or diesel vehicles at low speeds (to the point where there are concerns about that being unsafe), but "at higher speeds, both types of vehicles become equally loud, mainly due to the tire noise"

Addressing noise spikes from individual vehicles is harder. The county has already consulted on eight cameras to stop mopeds transiting pedestrian areas of the city centre, and now has the powers to put those in, but there is no information on if or when those will be implemented. My hope is that, as well as reducing noise pollution in the inner city, this will induce a lot of delivery drivers to shift from mopeds to e-bikes, reducing noise across the city (even if some of the e-bikes are illegally powered and actually unregistered electric mopeds). ANPR cameras could also be used to enforce restrictions elsewhere (for example, augmenting the bollards on Divinity and Southfield Rds) to help drive that shift. I don't think noise cameras would help much, as they would only protect short stretches of individual streets and roads, but more regular police enforcement would.


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