What? WHAT?

I took my daughter to New York City for the first time when she was about 8 years old. We stepped out of the train station into the street, and the first thing she did was clamp her hands over her ears.

In 2008, I had coffee with a friend of mine at an outdoor cafe in the heart of downtown Helsinki. We carried on a normal conversation in normal tones of voice.

Sitting there enjoying the coffee and conversation I was reminded of my daughter’s first reaction to New York. The relative quiet of Helsinki was stunning.

I’ve noticed this in other cities — most recently in Nottingham, England. What Helsinki and Nottingham have in common is urban centers with few cars. Both cities have effective public transit. So it seems there’s less need to bring a car into the city. In Nottingham, it appeared to me that bringing cars into the city center was discouraged. I saw only one parking garage. And the only street parking I saw was reserved for cabs.

Are American cities too loud? Or perhaps a better question to ask: Is cutting noise another good  reason (besides danger, pollution, congestion) to limit automobile access to the center city?

That’s a picture of the city center of Nottingham, vast areas of which are closed to motorized traffic (except commercial vehicles). People arrive by bus, tram, cab, and, to a disappointingly lesser extent, by bicycle.

This is not a cherry-picked scene. I was there for a week, including a Sunday. Downtown was packed with people everyday. Nottingham is an excellent example of the kind of livable urban area you get when you keep things centralized and discourage the use of cars. Are these people suffering for it. Looks like exactly the opposite to me.

And you can hear yourself think.

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Comments 4

  1. RANTWICK wrote:

    I’m a big fan of silence, or at least reasonable noise levels. I think you’re bang on with this one.

    Posted 09 Aug 2012 at 8:22 am
  2. Steve A wrote:

    Unfortunately that works well with a “pre-auto” urban core, but not so well in most places in the US. The one-mile solution and Nottingham go together like a horse and carriage.

    Posted 09 Aug 2012 at 11:06 am
  3. Kevin Love wrote:

    Yes, compared to English cities like Oxford, Nottingham has a disappointing cycle mode share. Gone are the days of the large Raleigh factory with almost all of its workers cycling to work.

    Toronto’s car-free zone has a much higher cycle mode share. Note that Toronto has the largest urban car-free zone in North America.

    Here is a video of some intersections in comparable parts of the car-free zone in Utrecht. What makes this video particularly fascinating is that it shows both aerial and ground views of the same places.

    Posted 09 Aug 2012 at 6:51 pm
  4. John Schubert wrote:

    This post touches on several issues. I will mention one: the noise level in New York.
    It isn’t just the motor traffic. It’s everything. New Yorkers tolerate a stunning amount of white noise from air handler units on their buildings. Everything that can make noise, does. They’re so inured to noise in public spaces that they forgot to care. Actually, it’s more than that. They THRIVE on the manic nature of their public spaces. It’s what they expect. It excites them.
    I think it’s absurd. Public spaces in other parts of the world, as you observe, can be refreshingly quiet. The New Yorkers have to want that before it will happen.

    Posted 13 Aug 2012 at 4:46 pm