Noise Pollution in Shanghai

December 14, 2010  |  China

On a warm autumn Friday morning, Tiger Woods lines up his par putt on the 9th hole.  The green is in beautiful condition despite being early November.  The perfect condition of the course could be attributed to the world-class skill of its grounds’ crew.  Without their tremendous efforts, the golf course would have been unable to attract the who’s who of PGA golf: Tiger, Mickelson, Ells, and more.  The most extravagant European-styled mansions and a luscious green forest decorate the outside of the playing field.   The entire view from the enormous gallery of people following the famed golfers is absolutely breathtaking.  Onlookers watch Tiger approach his ball, which lies about 15 feet from the hole.  He steps up to the ball, getting ready to take the short putt.  What makes this real life scenario exceptional is not its visual imagery, but instead the constant clamor of ambient noise missing from the appearance.  In a game necessitating such complete concentration as golf, honking car horns and droning sounds of motors are completely out of place. If it were not for the distracting clamor, Tiger might have made his putt and I could have fooled you into thinking this golf tournament could happen anywhere in the world.  However, the scene could only take  place in Shanghai, China.

Throughout my three months stay in China, the one thing that has always remained constant is road noise.  Even at 2 am from my 10th floor apartment two blocks from the street, I can hear the faint sounds of motors, horns, and cars whooshing by in the distance.  When I first arrived in China, the sound constant noise annoyed me greatly.  Throughout my tenure, however, I have become numb to the racket.

The source of this noise is in large part due to the way Chinese motorists drive. While drivers seem to follow driving conventions in order to travel efficiently in the US, drivers in China are more likely to break convention.  I witness a great deal of starting, stopping, passing, swerving, and cutting on roads around Shanghai.  In this way, driving becomes much more reactionary, and the horn is of vital importance and utility for Shanghai drivers.  Standing on Wudong Lu outside of my apartment during the day, I counted how many times I heard a car horn.  In a single minute, I counted five different honks.  Under normal conditions in a similar-type of neighborhood in the US, I would expect to hear at most one honk in the same timeframe.  When I spent a week in Taipei, Taiwan midway through the school semester, the first thing I noticed was nothing at all.  The first observation I made was the lack of road noise.  Despite a comparable quantity of cars, Taipei was a fairly quiet city.  Drivers tended to drive less reactionary and more conventionally in Taipei, leading to less use of the car horn.

A 2008 study of Shanghai living conditions published in the Shanghai Daily cited road noise to be an average of 71.9 decibels during the day and 65.9 decibels at night.  According to the article, this decibel range is considered to be well within the accepted scale of noise pollution.  Another study published by the United States Environmental Protection agency in 1974 defines noise pollution at levels about 55 decibels outdoors and 45 decibels indoors.  Environmental sounds in this range permit spoken conversation, sleeping, working, and recreation which are all staples of daily life.

Assuming that noise levels are the same or higher now than they were in 2008, I wonder what effects such constant noise has on Shanghai citizens.  I am in a lucky position spending most of my time in Shanghai isolated from the traffic noise.  The sounds of the city come to me muffled by the brick walls of my apartment or school buildings.  But I am unsure of what effects the city’s soundtrack has on those that spend most of their days working outside or living in housing without sufficient blocking of noise.  I have to think that many Shanghainese lose sleep during the night because of loud automobile noises.  I wonder how many conversations have been interrupted by the loud cleaning road-cleaning trucks that play songs as they drive by.  Because of this inescapable noise, I wonder what long term stress and health effects this noise has on the citizens of Shanghai.