Not All Noise is Equal

Noisy transportation and your health

When you imagine a busy intersection what do you hear? Many times, this image is accompanied by the loud sounds of tires, car horns, and rumbling trucks. Now imagine adding the sound of a train or subway running next to the intersection and an airplane taking off overhead from a nearby airport. When you add all of these noises together, you might begin to understand how transportation plays a huge role in noise pollution. But why does this matter? After all, a lot of people simply get used to dealing with noisy transportation and may not even perceive it as a threat.

Noise pollution from transportation has a huge impact on people throughout all stages of life. It can cause health issues, stress, and overall decreases in individual and community wellbeing (1). Noise pollution from transportation is specifically connected to an increased risk for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, sleep disturbance, decreases in academic performance, anxiety, and depression (2). Not only are many people unaware of these health effects, but many times they are unable to avoid or control the sources of noise. The loud train by your house that you have forced yourself to get used to may be having a hefty effect on your quality of life and putting your health at risk. Furthermore, you have little control over when and how the train makes loud noises and moving may not be a possibility. Because of this, many people are forced to deal with and ignore the noisy transportation that may be causing long-term impacts on their health. 

Growing up I lived in a low-income area and attended a heavily populated, underfunded, minority high school. Although I didn’t live in the hustle and bustle of a city, there was constant noise in my environment from trains, planes, cars, ambulances, late night parties, and crowded spaces. The house I lived in was shared with multiple families, so there was noise at all times of the day and night. Additionally, the train and airport by my school, constant police sirens, and loud car horns from the incoming traffic from D.C. created sources of noise into the late evening. Looking back, I recall how the noise impacted my ability to do homework at home, sleep well, and generally impacted my downtime. I often felt over-stimulated at my house and school due to the non-stop noise. Knowing the health impacts of noise, I now strive to create spaces of silence for myself and my community, enjoying the rest it gives my body and mind.

Where does equity come in?

So now we know a little more about the health impacts of noise pollution from transportation. But what does this have to do with equity? If noise pollution is bad, isn’t it bad for everyone equally? Well, it isn’t that simple! And there are lots of other factors playing a role. 

Let’s take the example of the train. If you are in this situation, you have much more freedom and control over it if you have the wealth and resources to take action against this source of noise pollution. If you have a stable job and high income, you might have more flexibility in choosing to re-locate and live somewhere slightly more expensive, but without a noisy train. If you have the resources, you might be able to seek medical advice before there is any impact on your hearing and health. These are just a couple of ways in which having higher access to wealth, resources, and networks can lower your exposure to noise pollution, or at least give you more control over the situation. 

The example above is just a hypothetical situation, but these kinds of situations happen all of the time. When I think back of my noisy neighborhood, I also remember being shocked at the difference in noise levels when I went to a wealthier part of town. The silence in these neighborhoods almost made me uncomfortable because it was so different from the constant overstimulation of cars, trains, and overcrowding at my house and school. Many families in the quieter parts of the city were able to afford paying higher rent or mortgages to avoid sending their kids to the noisy and underfunded schools in my district. Instead, they used their resources to live farther from noise sources and closer to quiet and tranquil green spaces. These factors could have contributed to the differences in performance and success rates between my district’s schools and the schools in the wealthier (and quieter) parts of town. If hypotheticals and anecdotes don’t convince you, maybe the data will! There are a lot of study results showing that noise pollution is in fact an issue of equity. We can find various studies that find higher rates of noise pollution in towns, neighborhoods, and schools with higher rates of racial/ethnic minorities and low-income residents (3,4,5).

One study by geographers from the University of Utah specifically focused on transport noise pollution. They looked at the connection between racial/ethnic minorities and high exposure to transport noise. This study found that there is a clear pattern of higher exposure to road and aviation transport noise in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of Hispanic, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other multi-racial residents. They also found that neighborhoods with high concentrations of white residents had more protection from road and aviation transport noise (6). Many times these protections come in the form of policy that is implemented at the community or state level. Higher income neighborhoods may have more funding and resources to implement and enforce policies that protect from noise pollution. For example, they might have the funding to spend on creating natural noise barriers around highways and noisy roads. These situations create disparities between wealthy areas with the time, money, and resources to advocate, create, and implement policy surrounding noise pollution and low-income areas that lack this ability.  

Let’s summarize

We know that transport noise pollution has a negative impact on health. We also know that neighborhoods whose residents are mostly racial/ethnic minorities have higher exposure to transport noise pollution than neighborhoods with mainly white residents. This means that there is an inequitable impact on the health of racial/ethnic minorities due to transport noise pollution. This creates a situation of environmental and health injustice. 

So now what?

Going forward, communities, scientists, and educators must keep equity in mind when dealing with issues of noise pollution. There are many ways to be involved in fighting the inequitable impact of noise pollution. From volunteering in an organization working on a Noise Pollution project, to voting for noise pollution policies and regulations, to just educating those around you about this issue. Whichever way you choose to help can have a positive impact on you and your community! 

Questions to think about

Can you think of any example in your life where you witnessed or lived an instance in which your racial, ethnic, or economic identity increased or decreased your exposure to transport noise?

Does this knowledge change your view of noise and noise pollution? How?

Why is it important to know that transport noise pollution is an issue of equity?

How can communities work together informally to fight against the inequitable impacts of transport noise pollution? 



(2)  Collins, Timothy W., Shawna Nadybal, and Sara E. Grineski. “Sonic injustice: Disparate residential exposures to transport noise from road and aviation sources in the continental United States.” Journal of Transport Geography 82 (2020): 102604.

(3)  Woghiren-Akinnifesi, Efomo L. “Residential proximity to major highways—United States, 2010.” CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report—United States, 2013 62, no. 3 (2013): 46.

(4)  Casey, Joan A., Rachel Morello-Frosch, Daniel J. Mennitt, Kurt Fristrup, Elizabeth L. Ogburn, and Peter James. “Race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, residential segregation, and spatial variation in noise exposure in the contiguous United States.” Environmental health perspectives 125, no. 7 (2017): 077017.

(5)  Collins, Timothy W., Sara E. Grineski, and Shawna Nadybal. “Social disparities in exposure to noise at public schools in the contiguous United States.” Environmental research 175 (2019): 257-265.

(6)  Collins, Timothy W., Shawna Nadybal, and Sara E. Grineski. “Sonic injustice: Disparate residential exposures to transport noise from road and aviation sources in the continental United States.” Journal of Transport Geography 82 (2020): 102604.