Our noisy city
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - March 8, 2003 - 12:00am
Like New York, Manila is a city that never sleeps. This is not so much because our city is as vibrant and activity-friendly as the Big Apple. No, we can neither sleep nor find any rest because of all the noise! No matter where you live or work in this metropolis, there is no escaping the steady drone of construction equipment, the screeching and braking of buses and cars, the harurot of jeeps and tricycles and the endless chatter, blaring music and ring tones that Filipinos love to surround themselves and inflict others with.

Last week, we talked about the visual pollution that was threatening to turn our streets and highways into an unending landscape of billboards. It is hard enough to see through the thickening toxic smog. When we are lucky enough to be able to do so, we end up with views blackened by utility cables and overwhelmed by gigantically garish enticements – to buy things we don’t really need, with money we don’t really have, to impress people who don’t really care.

But what we all care about is our sanity. Yet, visual blight and polluted air are not all we have to face in our so-called modern lives. We are bombarded with the additional evil of noise pollution. This completes the triangle of sensual terrors we are all helplessly exposed to, namely, foul smells, foul views and foul sounds.

I remember writing in this column, a few years ago, about how fowl sounds – like the crowing of roosters which kept me awake in the subdivision I used to live in. The roosters are gone and I’ve moved to a condominium unit eight stories above road level. I thought I would at least escape the noise of vehicles and people. I was wrong. You cannot imagine how far the grating sound of an accelerating tricycle can go. Believe you me, the decibel level of the city will go down five-fold if tricycles disappeared tomorrow.

OK, so people feel they need tricycles – despite their pollutive two-stroke engines – to get from point A to point B in this city of infinite subdivisions. What did we do less than a generation ago when motorcycles were limited to cops and hippie types? We walked. Of course, we had sidewalks to walk on then . . . but I digress.

Can’t we muffle motorcycle noise? Now that’s a thought – mufflers. I understand that the technology of running exhaust through a pipe with honeycombed filters can drastically reduce noise from these monsters – hopefully to less than the jet-engine decibel level they are now. Sadly, it seems that most tricycle and jeepney operators believe that mufflers are just nickel-plated embellishments meant to make the machines look better.

I figured that I couldn’t solve the tricycle noise problem by moving to a higher floor. I also cannot afford to move to those few upper-class "villages" that do ban them (places where even the help have "service" cars). So I bought earplugs to help me get to sleep. No dice – all I got was an ear infection that made everything sound like I was underwater for the two days it took my hearing to clear up.

I just had to psyche myself like a monk, to block out noise at night. Of course, it does not help that I live next to a barangay center where basketball is played till two o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, I still manage to sleep by 3 a.m. Groggy in the mornings, I used to get myself down to the friendly neighborhood Tapa King to have breakfast ...that is until the young "crew" got permission from their management to blare Pinoy rap music at eardrum-breaking levels at seven in the morning. There ought to be a law. Isn’t it in our Constitution that we are all entitled to peace and quiet …at least while trying to enjoy over-preserved meat and bad coffee?

The playing of loud music in fast food places is prevalent. Maybe it makes people eat faster. Everyone seems oblivious to it. Of course, the practice is not limited to burger joints. Buses and jeepneys are moving discos and karaoke parlors. Malls and supermarkets are a mix of top-10 music, hawker spiels, arcade pings, and promotional event noise. People are so used to noise in malls that Masses, which normally are held in quiet spaces (you know, like churches), are a Sunday regular feature.

Noise is a regular feature of our lives, not just on Sundays. Maybe we could have an odd-even scheme for noise-making vehicles? Or no honking or harurut days. A good idea would be to test vehicles for acceptable noise levels during registration. We could also set up noise-free zones in certain districts – preferably residential districts. Our residential areas could and should be free of noise, smoke, smog, billboard, crime and politics. (Of course, politics and crime are the same thing with the same victims – us.)

Maybe it would be a good idea to ask the government to look at (or listen to) noise pollution, since its effects are detrimental to citizens’ health. Studies abound on the correlation of noise to levels of stress at work, while commuting and while trying to sleep. A good source would be to look at records of EENT specialists in the country. No doubt the results will indicate that noise is a major contributor to urban morbidity levels.

On the morbid side, we are raising children with higher and higher thresholds of noise acceptance. Our kids today are permanently wired to disc players, radios or cell phones. How can they manage to concentrate on study or anything else amid...well, all this noise? No wonder, they don’t respond when you call them. We are raising a generation of hearing-impaired children.

Our cities could be quieter. Zoning is a way of containing noise-generating activities. Residential areas should not be located near facilities like airports (or the airports should be relocated farther away). Hospitals should be buffered from highways and intersections. (Honking and sirens in the Philippines are permanently wired to car brakes and clutches.) The use of sirens and wang-wangs should be limited to emergency vehicles only (and not to politicos and all their relatives).

It is a difficult task, to rid our city of noise, but it is one which we must pursue along with the eradication of air pollution, visual blight and crimes against citizens. The first step would be to acknowledge that we do have all these problems. We cannot shut them out with air-conditioning, ear plugs, or tinted windows. We cannot escape the fact that it is time to mend our ways, to use alternative fuels and engines, to fight pervasive consumerism, and to tone down the infuriating noise of too much politics.

Only then can we get a good night’s sleep.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at: citysensephilstar@hotmail.com.

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