City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


An article in The Economist suggests that electric cars should generate a noise to compensate for the loss of combustion engine noise, as they are so quiet.

Despite noting there is little research (thought I’ll note some later), The Economist says “Some drivers say that when their cars are in electric mode people are more likely to step out in front of them. The solution, many now believe, is to fit electric and hybrid cars with external sound systems.” Their subtitle – “Sound generators will make electric and hybrid cars safer“ – indicates this is their position too.

Where to start?

Let’s quickly deal with the safety issue first. People will adapt easily enough. We’ve adapted to numerous successive modes of transport in the past without the need to artificially increase the noise that mode of transport generates (though the first automobiles required a man with a flag walking in front of them. Is this not the aural equivalent of that, and so equally likely to fade away?)

One of the numerous reasons why bicycles are a more civic mode of transport is that they do not make much noise. Even at the speeds cyclists can get up to, this near-silent mode is apparently still safe enough not to warrant a pedal-powered drone, say. A bell suffices, and after that it’s about taking due care and attention on both sides. As bikes slowly become the dominant mode of personal transport in cities, this shouldn’t change. Cyclists, a few idiots aside, have to rely on individual responsibility to a greater extent than motorists, partly due to their relative fragility. This is not a bad thing necessarily – it forms a thin undulating layer of civic substrate.

This first aspect of The Economist’s article is borne of auto-centric thinking, and so the concomitant desires for speed and freedom … and often irresponsibility. Speed and freedom are not intrinsically problematic, but they can be. Cars moving at speed in urban areas are indeed dangerous – they are responsible for truly horrifying numbers of fatalities and injuries, and it’s a bit rich to suggest the solution to that particular problem is fake engine noise. Presumably, if people had genuinely wanted to solve this problem they’d have tried a little harder before, rather than apparently relying on the side effect of a noisy carburrettor.


A user comment from The Economist article:

“As a Prius owner offended many times daily by excessive noise of motorcycles, trucks, booming car radios, horns, rude cell phone users, etc., I applaud the quiet! I am a responsible person and expect others to be … end of discussion.”

Quite. And another comment, pointing to interesting-sounding research:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held a hearing in Washington DC June 23, 2007 to gather the facts and data. It turns out that in spite of having over 500,000 Prius in the USA starting from 2000, there is no accident data showing an unusual risk to pedestrians. The Prius has the same pedestrian accident rate as ordinary gas vehicles.”

On more general safety, the congestion that cars cause also limits their average speed in cities (currently down to about 30km/h in Sydney at the moment). There’s an argument to make them slower than this. Someone will suggest a GPS-enabled limiter fitted to cars at some point i.e. enforcing a low top speed when the GPS indicates it’s in particularly built-up areas (e.g.). However, the whole point of cars is freedom rather than inhibition, and I'd prefer to see these issues solved through ‘shared space’ strategies, such as those espoused by Hans Monderman. Here, drivers are responsible for negotiating urban space alongside others, with few if any demarcations or regulations of space between cars, pedestrians, bikes etc. It’s been proven to make streets both safer and more effective. In terms of the way streets might feel it’s closer to this film of George Street, Sydney in 1906. (The version I’ve uploaded here allows you to first compare it with the Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy for a pedestrianised, light-railed George Street.)

Without wishing to romanticise aspects of that 1906 film (yer actual bubonic plague had been lurking in that same city a few streets to the north only a few years before that film was shot) it does indicate a more progressive system, based on interdependent real-time responsive actors negotiating space far more fluidly than the averaging effects of mid-20th-century road design, where everyone eventually comes off worse. This is hardly a cityscape without noise, and note how these blurred lines of George Street enable pedestrians, bikes, trams and carts to occupy the same spaces, relying on multi-sensory feedback but essentially with shared responsibility for being aware. Remaining alert and riding the horn might become more relevant than the constant (and therefore less useful) hum of engine noise.


Regarding shared space and horns, a passage in Geoff Dyer’s typically enjoyable latest Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi reminds us that not all urban traffic and noise is the same. "Jeff/Geoff" is in India:

“The din of horns rendered use of the horn simultaneously superfluous and essential. The streets were narrow, potholed, trenched, gashed. There was no pavement, no right of way – no wrong of way – and, naturally, no stopping. The flow was so dense that we were rarely more than an inch from whatever was in front, beside or behind. But we never stopped. Not for a moment. We kept nudging and bustling and bumping our way forward. Given the slightest chance – a yard! – Sanjay went for it. What, in London, would have constituted a near-miss was an opportunity to acknowledge the courtesy of a fellow road-user. There were no such opportunities, of course, and the idea of courtesy made no sense for the simple reason that nothing made any sense except the relentless need to keep going. From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time. So did everyone else. Unlike everything else, this did make sense. Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?“ [From Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer]

Back in 'Western' cities, private car use will likely drop anyway, for reasons which I hope are by now obvious. (I can see that the loss of engine noise might be an issue for blind people, but would look for a specific solution – perhaps a non-visual alert only they can perceive as a car approaches – rather than reduce the quality of the urban experience for everyone (ethically dubious perhaps).

Beyond autocentric, the second aspect of The Economist’s article is borne of what Juhani Pallasmaa would call ocularcentric thinking – an inability to perceive the city, or much at all, in terms of non-visual senses. If the safety issue resolves itself – through fewer cars, and people adapting – and understanding that engine noise is hardly keep the streets safe in the first place, let’s move on to two more interesting implications.

One, if naturally quiet cars should generate a noise, what should that be? And two, if that doesn’t happen, what might increasingly quiet cars do for the urban soundscape?

On the first point, The Economist quotes a Dr. Rosenblum who is researching this area:

“What sort of noise should electric-powered cars make? They could, perhaps, beep as some pedestrian crossings do, or buzz like a power tool. Having worked with blind subjects, Dr Rosenblum is convinced of a different answer: “People want cars to sound like cars.” The sound need not be very loud; just slightly enhancing the noise of an oncoming electric vehicle would be enough to engage the auditory mechanisms that the brain uses to locate approaching sounds, he adds.” ['Electric cars should make a noise', The Economist]

Leaving aside the spurious idea of giving people what they claim to want, reproducing the sound of the internal combustion engine would be ridiculous. It would be a skeuomorph too far – a design feature that nods to an earlier functional incarnation, with absolutely no need to. At some point a function has to replaced, and slowly takes its idioms and by-products with it. The car industry is traditionally loath to do this of course. One of the most exciting features of the MIT CityCar project is that in suggesting a new driving experience. it implicitly indicates how little has changed about interface design of cars – ignition, accelerator, throttle, brake, steering wheel etc; all remain essentially unchanged for decades (save a few brave attempts from Citroën et al). This is not an issue of icon design – as with an old telephone handset representing the function to make a call on the iPhone – but an entirely new functional mode. These are new forms of mobility, potentially, and suffuse with possibility -  unnecessarily tying them to vestiges of the previous mode may prevent them realising their potential.


Doing this with sound would generate aural externalities that simply don’t warrant that level of intrusion. A floppy disk icon still meaning ‘Save’ in Windows 7 is anachronistic and doesn’t augur well for the Microsoft brand, but it hardly changes the essence of the immediate urban area.

Electric or hybrid cars do make a sound of course. It’s just a different noise to the combustion engine. It's a whine, a hum, a whoosh. Even the ugly Prius is a joy to hear in comparison, if not to see, noiselessly reversing out of a drive. As one of the comments on The Economist article brilliantly points out, there is potential for a rather more progressive sound choice here:

“My vote is for a somewhat high-pitched humming noise ala the Jetsons. After all, when I was a kid, this is what I expected 21st century vehicles would sound like”

(I’m imagining that as the vehicles in Woody Allen’s magnificently silly Sleeper. This too is a form of nostalgic projection, though.)


Yet if electric cars do have to make a specifically designed, generated noise, let’s at least explore that a little. Brian Eno once suggested that horns in cars should have a little more variation in their noises – that they could play a variety of audio signatures, depending on context. The car is the same. Just as the lovely Honda Puyo concept car suggested its bodywork could glow different colours to indicate different states, so the audio signature of the car could be malleable and responsive. Akin to an instant messaging status indicator, the car’s noise would indicate modes or states that the user wishes to convey, or change in tone as it passes the phone of a friend in the street (admittedly, a feature that would need an off button, for sure.)

This is akin to the ‘I Crossed Your Path’ Facebook app from MIT’s SmartBiking, but in real-time. Perhaps the sound is a filtered rendition of the music playing in the car – RJDJ externalised rather than internalised – or is simply the music playing directly across the bodywork (one of the more appealing sounds associated with cars in cities is that of a crunching, throbbing sub-bass so impossibly distracting that one looks across and notices that the back seats have been surgically removed to create a giant bass-bin, with the entire chassis becoming a sound-generating devices. These cars also often have a glowing UV light under their skirts, and thus we can only assume the drivers are clearly amongst the most safety-conscious on the streets, announcing their imminent arrival to the blind and deaf alike.) Whether the sound of the streets is improved or further diminished by more clearly hearing this collective cacophony will depend on the musical literacy of your city.

While most signals are necessary for the driver only – battery life indicators, personal messages etc. – and so best directed inwards, there may be some possibility in cars as broadcasters of something rather more enriching than the dull roar of internal combustion.

As these cars will be located, addressable and responsive (sooner or later) there’s possibility of creating an interplay between their sounds and the urban environment. Cars could communicate with each other in real-time, as they pass, and so shift their sounds in response to each other to create discordant atonalities or shimmering consonant harmonies. As you drive across 110th Street in Harlem, your car cheesily fades up into the bassline from ‘Across 110th Street’, with a passing Fiat joining in on percussion while two Nissans emulate the horns and electric guitar. (Pedestrians hanging on the corner are destined to suffer the most annoyingly intermittent cover version imaginable). An array of pipa and guan strike up as you drive through Chinatown, sounds commissioned by the local tourist board. Kyoto’s pedestrian crossings are scored with the engaging knock-knock of doppler’d shishi-odoshi.

Better, some urban areas commission sound designers to ‘prime’ their streets with latent compositions, which are then performed by passing cars. SND score Sheffield as a series of pulsing, jittery staccato tones; cars pausing at a stop-light in Ginza are suddenly part of a DJ Signify tune; Steve Roden pins up a series of aleatoric triggers across Echo Park; Janek Schaefer creates fields of static and broadcast fragments aurally hung across car park exits throughout West London in homage to JG Ballard, marking up the Westway and its concrete islands, whereas Burial positions a layered series of sub-bass tones along Hackney Road; Steve Reich re-scores City Life – and most of his work for that matter – for city streets, cars chattering back and forth to each other in fragments of conversation, strings and piano; Filastine sees cars as an intercontinental echo chamber between Barcelona, Kyushu and Marseilles, bodywork rippling with live feeds from distant city streets; Juana Molina plants her sinuous sounds across Buenos Aries, activated as cars drive through her invisible urban space. Drivers begin to follow the threaded patterns through the streets, attempting to stay ‘in tune’ …

Sound is so affecting – often far more distracting than visual interrupts – that its use and abuse should be of primary concern. It is certainly another arena of urban informatics that could be mishandled by a pervasive surveillance culture, even one trying to affect behavioural change ‘for the better’. (The pitch of the car’s electric whine shifts depending on the collective energy or water consumption of the area it’s driving through, and so residents receive constant, nagging aural reminders of their performance. The nuances in local crime levels are played out, a form of Oakland Crimespotting with cars generating aural heatmaps, incidentally increasing the nervousness of all within earshot. Perhaps the noise of the car changes if the driver is talking on their mobile, the driver’s speech patterns triggering exact echoes in the car’s hum (so you can tell an Italian driver from a New York driver from an Indian driver ..) Perhaps the car’s whine increases in pitch if the driver has had a drink or two. Russell Davies appears in my thoughts, with respect to urban spam …)


I actually think that, given half a chance, we won’t miss the noise of cars (as we know it) in our cities at all. When we (Arup) design new cities, and are able to design without private car use, our city models and simulations indicate noise levels that are far more appealing. I don’t mean quiet, as cities are always noisy – as people are, and this is one of the glorious things about both – but that it was possible to hear more, in more detail, and over a wider range.

When Geoff Manaugh interviewed Arup’s Neill Woodger (in Dwell, June 2008) about new cities and the SoundLab aural modelling tool, Woodger said, “These cities are an opportunity to think about a new urban sound experience, including the ability to bring sounds back into cities. People haven’t really known that they can change the sounds of a city …” Masdar, outside Abu Dhabi and predicated on light rail, personal rapid transit and no private cars, affords the same possibilities as the  Dongtan design. (I’ve previously speculated about the kind of urban SoundLab approach.)

Cities should not be quiet, or only replete with so-called ‘natural’ sounds – whatever that means post-nature, and post-industrialisation – but the urban soundscape is something that could use a little more room for manouevre, dynamically. To be clear, I'm not averse to cars or car noise. Some car noises are hugely appealing. It’s just best experienced as a distinct note and timbre in a richer, more dynamic city symphony, as opposed to the pervasive ambient roar of thousands of combustion engines. This latter has a totalising suppressing effect on urban sound, akin to the scourge of overusing the compressor in contemporary music production. If everything is loud, nothing is.


Buses – the public transport mode that car-based cities tend towards – are often the worst offenders. Sydney buses are particularly egregious, amongst the loudest I’ve heard in any city. As I’m that way inclined, I’ve taken to sporadically measuring the decibel level on city streets using the promising but currently flawed iPhone app WideNoise (see also NoiseTube), and find levels well over 100dB when a bus or two roar by, even on an open street corner. This is akin to standing in a sheet metal workshop, and you can watch people actually grimace, subconsciously feeling how unpleasant it is. It leads to iPod users turning the volume up further as a form of aural arms race (a lose:lose scenario). More importantly, it flattens the possibility of varied urban sounds. (That people have started to cover their ears for the last few years, denoted by white headphones, may be telling in itself.)


That buses are allowed to be this way is due to an endemic lack of understanding of sound – it simply isn’t valued by many policy-makers and so rarely measured. In the case of public transport planning and procurement, travel times is seen as far more important than experience. Again, this is the outcome of an ocularcentric culture to some degree, but also a culture that suffers from a paucity of understanding of the urban experience in general. City and state government officials need not be conversant with the works of John Cage, but basic qualitative probes into the urban experience are surely important.

(Programmes like the London Ambient Noise Strategy are unusual, yet even when they do exist they are usually about noise abatement rather than ‘positive soundscapes’.)

When Jan Gehl's team were focused on Sydney's CBD, with predictable results, they also came to the conclusion that the city was particularly noisy, and due to the combination of buses and urban form (tight canyons). In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald's glossy (sydney) magazine last year focusing on noise, Gehl said "Sydney has tremendous noise levels in most streets and squares … The main cause is the buses that create a tremendous roar when they accelerate and a shrieking sound when they brake." The Herald measurd decibel levels in several places in Sydney's CBD and also managed to record over 100 decibels outside the Queen Victoria Boulevard, noting "any exposure to noise above 85dB can permanently damage your hearing – any exposure above 120dB, however brief, can have far greater consequences. High noise levels are also associated with hypertension, stress, heart damage and depression."

Oh joy. However, this focus on volume (and decibels) as a measure of sound is a little crude, leading naturally to noise abatement rather than a more expansive palette of sound. How high and low frequencies might interact, or more qualitative, descriptive aspects of sound, are rarely discussed or devised.

So with heavily car-scaled cities like Sydney, or Los Angeles say, it's almost impossible to imagine how different these streets might sound without cars.

Los Angeles by Benny Chan

Amazing photographs of road infrastructure in Los Angeles, by Benny Chan (Good Magazine)

With a new suburb like Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which has been planned to effectively function sans autos, the aural possibilities should be fascinating. Typically, this New York Times article on Vauban makes very little reference to how different it might sound. There is only the tantalising line: "When I had a car I was always tense. I’m much happier this way,” said Heidrun Walter, a media trainer and mother of two, as she walked verdant streets where the swish of bicycles and the chatter of wandering children drown out the occasional distant motor."

It would be interesting to explore how a city’s sound might be articulated, either naturally or by design, without the presence of pervasive engine noise. If conversation is as loud as, say, 55db, should an electric car be about the same? Or should a car's engine be effectively silent, so our streets become defined more by the sound of an espresso being made, the grind and whirr of contemporary industrial machinery, chatter, whistling, a parakeet, trees in the breeze, lapping water in the harbour, chimes of ringtones, the rumble of trains and the foghorns of distant ships, a record shop or a violinist tuning up, a pub argument and sundry art installations, the bells of a clocktower, prayer calls etc.?

The Positive Soundscapes project indicates the range of noises that people may find appealing is actually far broader than this – "car tyres on wet, bumpy asphalt, the distant roar of a motorway flyover, the rumble of an overground train and the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub, a baby laughing, skateboarders practising in underground car parks and orchestras tuning up." And though I note “the distant roar of the flyover in that list”, I’d rather hear more about the results of their research than Dr. Rosenblum’s.


I don’t think we’ll miss the noise of cars much, apart as something special. And cars can be something special in the urban environment (as I hope my decision to illustrate this piece with snippets of Sisek make clear). Cars are essentially about freedom not transit. Cars are for fun, not for the daily grind. They may increasingly be seen as out of place in a busy city on a Tuesday morning at 0830. The idea of them as mass transit, for most people, given ever-increasing urbanisation, is faintly ludicrous. Instead, they're for casual use, for the sheer enjoyment of the driving experience. Something for the weekend, if you like.

In that respect, their sounds can be considered as something special too. We can more fully appreciate the throaty purr of a 1969 Ferrari Daytona or the brawny roar of a 3.5 litre 1978 Ford Capri or the lawnmower rattle of a 2CV or the saucy throb of an old DS, lifting skirts and all, just as we’ll always appreciate the sizzle and hiss of tyres on wet road.


The corollary of this is that we won't particularly miss the sound of a 2002 Mazda 323 or a 2007 Honda Jazz or a 2004 Holden Barina or 1998 VW Golf. These kind of cars are, after all, by far the most prevalent on our roads.

Peter Cusack’s Your Favourite London Sounds – a favourite indeed – also lists a few traffic noises (”16th floor up, London roar from the top of a tower block, Holloway Road, on a damp evening”; ”Taxis waiting at Euston Station, squeaky black taxi brakes”; ”Under the flyover, Hackney Wick”). But they’re by far in the minority. (Have a listen to the archive; see also Beijing and Chicago.) Removing cars would enable the other sounds to be picked out more clearly, also accentuating urban difference, in that cars tend to be a somewhat homogeneous globalising force – due to their high production costs, they are essentially the same across the world; the platform for a VW Golf not only services the Golf, but the Skoda Octavia, Seat Leon and Audi A3.

Other sounds are also global in provenance of course, but many more sounds are local. Note how Cusack picks this out in his thoughts on his Favourite Beijing project:

“So what does the city sound like? The answer is that it’s amazing. Central Beijing has an astounding soundscape. Its shear (sic) scale envelopes you immediately and its variety constantly surprises. This may not last. The older uniquely traditional sounds are fast disappearing, as newer, more globally familiar, ones take their place. Peak traffic is already at high volume. But at the moment the old and new co-exist. Amongst the loud and brash, there are still places of the utmost quiet, where a breath of air touching a dead leaf will catch your ear. Elsewhere people talk, hum and sing loudly, not minding who listens. Music, live and recorded, plays anywhere. It is a city of sound loops. Ubiquitous loud hailers blast out advertising slogans that endlessly repeat in or out of sync with music from the shop next door. Pigeons fitted with bamboo whistles create eerie chords above your head when they fly. Buses screech, shop assistants yell and clap their hands, taximeters talk and woks sizzle. Street cries are commonplace. And in the parks older people sing revolutionary songs in choirs hundreds strong, while others engage in caged-bird singing contests, ballroom dance or practice t’ai chi.” [Favourite Beijing, Peter Cusack]

Toyotas are largely the same in each city; pigeon whistles are not. Yet rather than position this as old (local) versus new (global), it may be that the ‘electric car as noise generator’ discussed above provides an opportunity to create new local sounds.


Scoring the city is an interesting idea, whether via discrete car-based sounds or taking advantage of the absence of car-based sounds. Strong urban places already have their own signature, through their behaviour, a point made by William H. Whyte in his 1980 book Social Life of Small Urban Places, when he and his team rendered the patterns of movement through the plaza at Seagram's in New York as a form of graph. 

Seagram's Plaza chart by William H. Whyte

He noted that this could be perceived as "music of sorts":

"Since the Seagram's chart looked so like a player-piano roll, I wondered what the sound would be if all the dots and dashes could be played. A composer friend was fascinated: with the right tonal scale, he said, the roll could be orchestrated and it would be music. I hope one day it will be: A Day in the Life of the North Front Ledge at Seagram's, Adagio." [from William H. Whyte's Social Life of Small Urban Places. Note: I immediately thought of opening up a music app and making this. Haven't done it yet – if someone wants to do that, turn to pages 70-71 in Whyte and go for it.]

The opportunity to genuinely explore the sound of the city without this blanket of private cars is compelling, whether through sculpting sound through active intervention or simply through enjoying a level aural playing field for the everyday sounds that already conjure the city.

At first glance, taking The Economist to task for suffering from a severe lack of creative imagination might seem a little like admonishing Cristiano Ronaldo for not spending his Sundays reading Žižek. But let’s at least discuss how sound and the city should best intersect given the emergence of this new mode. We can slowly fade down the volume on that wall of noise – what might we want to hear its stead?

What lies beneath? What might we hear on streets without the sound of combustion engines? An old man and his battered stereo, playing distorted easy listening to the street (Bondi Junction, Sydney, May 2009)

The sound of silence [The Economist]


24 responses to “Journal: Cars b/w Are Friends Electric”

  1. Steve Avatar

    Great article.. although you’ve clearly never experienced the pain and horror of being hit by a silent cyclist!


  2. lauren Avatar

    Dan – this article could not have come at a more appropriate time. My whole masters project is on public sound vs private sound – so well highlighted in your mercedes engine bus vs ipod earbud scenario. i’ve been ‘drawing’ the sounds of the city with an online sound-based drawing tool, with some interesting results.
    based in melbourne, where the metal scrape and clunk of the tram is a subliminal soundtrack, some of the surprisingly “noisier” places so far have been those without cars. fed square on a sunday – with its resonating canyons and loads of people moving, talking, bars clunking, etc is surprisingly noisier than the traffic hum outside spring street. these visual ‘data drawings’, coupled with widenoise have become another way to view the city. not to mention what happens when you start to pay attention to your local urban soundtrack.
    i’m also looking at the role of headphones in the urban soundscape – both as noise cancelling (or lose:lose, depending on the quality) and also as a social code for ‘give me some space, dammit’.
    in terms of aural perception of the city, given that we’re using headphones more and more, the codes of car noise (as a spatial compass) are becoming less and less relevant, especially in a biking city like melbourne, of which swanston street strangely resembles 1906 george st.
    thanks for the many links in this article – much, much needed. and would love to chat with you further about it next time you’re south of the border..
    oh, and i LOVE the term ‘civic substrate’.


  3. heat press Avatar

    Well if, big if, electric vehicles become the norm I would welcome the relative silence. One becomes immune to traffic noise and therefore accidents happen all the time and in a less noisy environment this would be no different. We adapt and road noise in itself would be sufficient together with ongoing road-sense education in children. Away with noise pollution.


  4. John Verity Avatar
    John Verity

    In early 2007, stories appeared in the press about how blind advocacy organizations were calling on makers of hybrid vehicles to make their machines more noisy just for the safety of those who can’t see but still must cross streets full of these energy-intensive moving objects. One example:
    I briefly visited China in 1980, and I will never forget the din of bicycle bells I heard at a large intersection or traffic circle – hundreds of bikers flowing into and out of this location, all wanging away on their bells. I assume that this was for the sake of those directly in front of them, each person signaling their approach and providing a clue to their distance. To be silent would have been quite risky, I imagine.
    Great article! So glad to have discovered your blog, via Harper’s today.


  5. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Steve. And no, I’ve never been hit by a cyclist, silent or otherwise. It feels a more progressive mode to me due to that more responsive and interdependent relationship with other people on the streets, though of course that can be abused too (I picked my language carefully above!).


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Lauren, much appreciated. Would love to hear more about your work – sounds like it’s going in really interesting directions. We’ll catch up next time I’m in town, for sure. (And stop rubbing it in RE Swanston Street.)
    I’d be interested in your thoughts beyond ‘noise’ as such – or the difference with sound, say (noise, as a term, seen as a negative, to be abated, usually). So the qualitative aspects of those spaces i.e. Fed Square, with the cafes etc, could be intriguing. It strikes me as a pleasing soundscape, potentially, so although noisier than Spring St, perhaps a better aural space. This is what those Positive Soundscapes people are getting at, I suppose.


  7. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks John, much appreciated. That’s a great memory of China, and perhaps sad now that many (all?) of those bikes are being replaced with private cars. There was an opportunity for a ‘leapfrog’ there (skipping the private car phase of urban development) which I hope we can still take advantage of, before it’s too late. The soundscape of bikes’ bells echoes that of Dyer’s note on Varanasi’s horns I quoted.


  8. Birdseed Avatar

    Very nice article, with a lot of angles covered.
    One interesting possibility would be letting people pick the sound themselves, as a self-expressive capitalist thing. How many would go quiet, pick a traditional car sound, pick music, perhaps ambient music?


  9. Peter Avatar

    As a cycling commuter (40km/day), I must say that I hadn’t realized how much I rely upon my hearing to navigate the roads until a couple of years ago when I tried using headphones to listen to the radio during my commutes. I gave it up after a month as I noticed a measurable increase in the number of surprises I was encountering in my interactions with the rest of traffic. I also felt disconnected with my environment.
    The other day I had a run-in with a Prius that passed me and, using one of the classic attacks, began a right turn as it pulled parallel to me. The driver obviously had not noticed me or misjudged my speed. An experienced cyclist anticipates and expects this kind of encounter. The “fingerprint” for this is the sound of a car approaching from behind at slower than usual speed and then the absence of the sound of acceleration as the car passes. That’s our cue to beware that the driver is contemplating something other than continuing on ahead. With the Prius, I was looking to the right when it overtook me and did not hear it. I was taken by suprise when it attacked. An accident was avoided, but it again highlighted to me how sound cues are integrated into my early-warning system.
    I had mentioned to a friend, before seeing the article in the Economist, that it might be prudent for the new breed of vehicles to generate a little bit of otherwise superfluous sound. It could be that a major part of the problem is that they make so much less noise than other vehicles that the sound they do make is drowned out by other traffic. Maybe once a threshold is reached I will be able to sense these cars as well as I do the current noise-generators.
    I would also say that analogy that silent cyclists pose little danger should not extend to vehicles. Cyclists have so little momentum compared to vehicles, and even the fastest of us seldom ride at over 40km/hr on the roads. The slower speeds affords greater reaction time, and a cyclist can be very nimble compared to a car. As you correctly point out, a bell is all that a cyclist needs to alert others to their presence. But the conclusion should be that a car needs something more. Until recently, engine noise sufficed. A law requiring cars to use a horn when overtaking a pedestrian or cyclist would be soundly ignored. I hope cyclists are able to adapt as I doubt having artificially generated sounds is feasible. I do not think the danger of silent vehicles should be dismissed outright. The statistics on accident rates that you quote give me some hope, but I doubt the type of accidents that I fear occur with enough frequency to appear with statistical significance in the current data set. It may be that cyclists, who move at closer-to-vehicle speeds than pedestrians, and have relied on auditory cues to sense the behaviour of other traffic (unlike a pedestrian, it isn’t wise for cyclist to be turning their head to fully survey their environment), will be the ones who have the most trouble adapting to a quieter world.


  10. lauren Avatar

    the old ‘noise’ vs ‘sound’ debate is one which i’m pointedly skirting around for the moment, although i have to say, as i have been sitting and listening to the city, i can’t help but wonder about it every now and again.
    i’ve also been thinking about ‘pleasing’ aural spaces. obviously other design/ethnological factors come into the fed square vs spring st equation, i’ve noticed there’s something about places that sonically resonate which socially resonate with people. and a diversity of sound frequency also seems to correspond with places that people enjoy frequenting. (apologies for the gratuitous alliteration there)
    i’m also interested to see how we are developing biologically in response to increased sound levels and our portable music generation. we are ‘listening’ all the time now and i wonder whether that is reflecting on a physiological level. do we need cars to have a sound now because our ears/brains have developed the need to hear that sound as part of an urban soundtrack?


  11. Oskar Avatar

    Thank you for a great article!
    Some of my best memories from cities around the world are not visual but aural. The bikes on a street in Antwerp, the quietness of the backstreets of Tokyo, the waves against the harbour edge in Copenhagen or the sound trough an open window of someone singing opera in Venice. The one thing combining all these memories other than that they are sounds, are that they all are from places where ther was virtually no cars. I can but wonder how many aural memories i have missed because of noise from traffic.
    /oskar (london)


  12. Ben Avatar

    Regarding the noises modern cars make, from the drivers perspective, most cars these days are so well insulated inside that people are totally unaware of the noise their car makes anyway. People you see with modern cars with shiny exhausts have generally made their car louder not better sounding.
    Funny thing, as they figured out ways to make the interior of a car quieter, new noises became apparent. After they got rid of the loud general noises like intake noise and exhaust noise, wind noise became a problem, then the hum of tyres of different road surfaces (Australia uses a very coarse chip surface, apparently, which interacts in a very noisy way with some tread patterns on tyres that are very quiet in
    Europe or Japan). And then specific noises became a problem, like a whistle of wind around the wing mirrors, or on the trailing edge of the door frame where it meets the glass. Some BMWs have that sort of golf-ball pattern on the mirrors and some of modern cars will have little nubbins on the leading edge of the window frame to disrupt the airflow enough to avoid creating vortices in specific locations.


  13. paul morgan Avatar
    paul morgan

    I remember reading about Lotus and Harman doing some research into this – press release reproduced here:
    I like the idea of people being able to choose the sound of their car and having a tiny two-seater city car that sounds like a Dodge Charger. Interesting to note that the Tesla electric sports car doesn’t make an artificial noise though – I guess they’ve done their market research or maybe they just think it’s silly.
    My view would be that in an urban environment some noise would be helpful for pedestrians and cyclists so maybe the noise generator should be location-specific (none needed on the motorway).


  14. Wandering Author Avatar
    Wandering Author

    Like many theories, your ideas sound impressive – until you consider their real effects. I am not totally blind, but I am visually impaired. I can walk along the sidewalk safely enough, but I can’t cross a street safely without listening to cars. Now, up to a point, your ideas aren’t that bad.
    Cars do not have to be as loud as they are – it would actually be safer if they were somewhat quieter. It would even work fairly well if new cars emitted a different sound from internal combustion engined vechicles – as long as that sound was predictable.
    But signals only the blind can detect? How do we manage that? By forcing the blind to carry special devices to pick up those signals? Perhaps the devices could be yellow Stars of David – marking us out as another population was marked out, for eventual destruction. (The Nazis killed blind people, too, by the way.)
    I suppose quiet cars would do the job well without requiring anyone to take actual responsiblity. “He didn’t get out of the way, officer. I couldn’t help running him down.” Yes, in the quiet countryside, I’d hear the crunch of tires – in the city, with the industrial equipment whose sounds you have no problem with (judging from your comments, those are fine, unlike the car engines that keep me from being killed), I’m lucky to hear an internal combustion engine.
    And sounds that vary by the location, or any other of the absurd variables you mention? That suggests you want to torture us before you kill us. You see, for people who depend on sound as a way of actually learning crucial facts about their environment in order to survive, we depend on quickly and easily being able to identify each sound for what it is. I have no idea how well we might adapt – but the very thought of “moving car” resulting in a multitude of different possible sounds raised my stress level. And the stress would never go away; the more sounds in an environment, the more work is required to pick them out, and dealing with shifting sounds for one basic cue would multiply that difficulty.
    I can only speak for people who rely on sound as a sense as vital to their function as sight is to you. (Just try walking through a city wearing glasses that have been thickly smeared with vaseline. That would simulate the extra difficulty you’d impose on me under the best possible interpretation of your irresponsible suggestions.) Since you failed to even think, except for a cruel throwaway line, about us, somehow I suspect there are other groups whose lives you’d make miserable with your theories.
    Oh, but I forget. You don’t believe in giving people what they want – after all, you the great theorist know what’s best for them. Yes, I’m bitter. For some artsy-fartsy theoretical moonshine you suggest making cities and towns even more living hells to navigate than they are now – if anyone imposed on you that way, no doubt you’d feel a touch of bitterness as well. If you want your theories to have real value, without generating bitterness, perhaps you ought to think through all the aspects of how they’d affect everyone, not just your own daydreams.


  15. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks for the reply, ‘Wandering Author’
    – much appreciated.
    I’m not proposing any detailed design solution here, simply speculation. If I was to do the former, I’d do it in rather more considered fashion. This is a space for speculation and discussion, not solutions, and I value your contribution to that hugely (though some aspects of your contribution are a little unkind, particularly the allusion to Nazis). I’m essentially proposing that the sound of the city is ever more important – in fact, that’s what my blog has been about for 8 years or so. For sighted, non-sighted and all points in-between.
    So I was hoping to shift the conversation in more interesting directions about what sound could be, qualitatively not quantitatively. I don’t see why car engine noise should necessarily persist, that’s all. It doesn’t mean that warning sounds shouldn’t, and I’d like to explore other ways of doing that. But I obviously see how it read to you, and I apologise for that. Maybe we can find a way to constructively imagine what sounds would work for all concerned? I’d be interested in that, and your perspective in particular. Comment away. I don’t agree that it’s “artsy-fartsy moonshine” to imagine what those other sounds could be, and I’d guess if you genuinely are an author, you might have something extremely useful and interesting to say there. We all rely on sound as a sense to navigate the city – some more than others, and again, I’d be interested if you’d take the time to constructively speculate as to how we could improve things for all.
    (As for “not giving people what they want”, that’s not what I meant. I said what they claim to want. Figuring out what people need, desire is far more complex than asking them, as people usually can’t articulate what they need or desire. I don’t mean that this is then the province of the ‘great theorist’ knowing what’s best for them – in fact, it was Dr Rosenblum claiming to do just that that I reacted to – if you’d look through the archives you’d see much discussion of alternative approaches, such as the use of behavioural/ethnographic approaches in design, vernacular/adaptive strategies which foreground the user as designer etc. etc.)
    Anyway, thanks for the comment. Good to get some disagreement and critique on here, after all.


  16. tyler Avatar

    I bike commute as well. Only took one try for me to give up riding with ear buds in. I quickly realized I was far less aware of my surroundings with them in. I also realized how much I cherished being unplugged from everything.


  17. Jarrett at Avatar
    Jarrett at

    Dan. Great post. Actually, it’s about seven great posts.
    Broad agreement with what you say here, at least until you start speculating about new kinds of artificial sounds that cars could make. A system in which the driver’s emotions could be rendered by colours and sounds coming from the car sounds like the ultimate in personal liberation and civic hell, designed to transform pub brawls and office vendettas into five-ambulance smash-ups. (It’s almost as toxic to urbanism as flying cars would be.) Information about the emotions of the other drivers on the road can only trigger my emotions in ways that impair me as a driver. What technology would need to be invented for cyclists to give them “emotional visibility” on a road where every motorist is visibly offended or aroused?
    Note too that the whole debate about whether a vehicle can be too quiet has already been had around light rail. In the early days of LRT in America there were complaints that light rail was too quiet.* LRT and trams often have to use bells and horns in pedestrian zones, of course, but fortunately there’s been no move to insist they emit the recorded sounds of buses just to provide the aural retro-iconography that you justly revile.
    Re buses, you’re right about noise, but let’s acknowledge each generation is quieter than the last. Next time you are in San Francisco or Wellington or Vancouver or Seattle, listen closely to an electric trolleybus climbing a hill. It’s definitely an electric sound, a gentle whoosh and whirr punctuated with a gentle click now and then. I could live in a city full of that. I’d even be able to think as I walk down the street.
    (Do you notice that when you step into a noisy environment, your own inner chatter gets louder? Mine does, and this can’t be healthy.)
    Thanks! Jarrett at (link on my name above not working.)
    * As I recall, we tended to hear this “light rail is too quiet” line from motorists more than pedestrians, which goes to the perennial point about how many intentional urban sounds such as sirens are scaled to reach into cars and prevail over their stereo systems, and are thus deafening to the exposed pedestrian or cyclist. I look forward to strolling one of your carless cities of the future, and noticing how quiet the sirens are.


  18. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Jarrett, great comment.
    I should point out I don’t think I ever speculated about “a system in which the driver’s emotions could be rendered by colours and sounds coming from the car.” I was more concerned with exploring a civic-scale or located system played out on the car’s exterior, thereby the individuals are part of a networked civic/urban scale/environment (a constant theme in my thinking, I guess). I’d agree that a system directly translating individual emotions to the exterior could indeed lead to “the ultimate in personal liberation and civic hell”. My paragraph on the abuses of such a thing extends that idea a bit too. We have to be very careful and sensitive here, though it’s worth reflecting how much current choice in car styling and engine noise are an evocation of individual sensibilities anyway (he says, as a modded car with the silencer largely removed roars past.)
    The Honda Puyo concept car did suggest playing out ‘internal’ messages on the exterior, but these were possibly more about the status of the car itself, or some broader signal. Not clear.
    And thanks RE that point on the sound of light rail. Fascinating. I didn’t know that, and it’s very instructive. As for buses, I still don’t like ’em, but I can imagine there are far quieter versions in the cities you describe (there are also numerous offensive physical/spatial issues around buses and the urban environment, for cyclists and pedestrians, and as compared to light rail/trams, but that’s another post I guess.)


  19. dogpossum Avatar

    I have been living on a very busy road for the past year and have found the noise really difficult to deal with. At first it was a matter of learning to sleep with constant noise at night. But it’s also a matter of sleeping through random loud noises (which is much trickier). The first few months were really difficult – going to bed was stressful, especially when I was teaching at a new university and had to be up and ‘clever’ in the morning. But then I began to get used to the noise. After about eight months, though I began to resent the noise again.
    I’m also a cyclist – I don’t own a car (because, living in an inner Sydney suburb, I simply don’t need or want one), but I do use public transport occasionally. I already resent cars (for their pollution, for the danger they present to me every time I ride my bike), but loathing them for their noise was new.
    I rely on my hearing when cycling (for safety’s sake), but I’m used to listening for the newer, quieter trams in Melbourne (or for fellow cyclists on busy bike lanes/paths), so I don’t think I’d need extra sound added to cars for safety. I also resent the idea that I should be responsible for keeping an eye out for dangerous drivers; I’d much rather drivers learnt to share the road.
    Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of living on a loud road was dealing with the continuous background noise. It’s wearing. It’s tiring. It’s stressful. I’m also a DJ, and I found that the continuous noise of the road made it difficult to really listen to music and plan my sets. I found that I was turning up the volume on DVDs, on the radio, on my music. So, generally, I was bombarding my ears with a greater level of sound. As a DJ I’m very conscious of sound volume (and of the relative volume of different pitches in general background noise), and it’s been maddening living in such a loud location.
    One of the more surprising side-effects of living on a loud road was not being so aurally aware of my home. I can’t hear if someone’s walking up the front path, I can’t hear if it begins to rain (and my laundry’s out), I can’t hear the birds in the trees, or even the wind in the trees. The traffic noise overwhelms your ears. It also affects the way my partner and I communicate in the house – we can’t hold a conversation outside. This made doing things like gardening or wandering about in the garden unpleasant, and not at all conducive to quiet conversation. We’re also less likely to talk in the noisier rooms in the house.
    I’m against adding noise to cars. I think that if more people walked or rode on roads, hearing their cars from the outside, shared world (rather than from inside a sealed little bubble of privacy) they’d be a little less keen to add noise.


  20. Mags Avatar

    I’m mostly a pedestrain (cycling only for relaxation) but never listen to music whilst on the streets precisely because I can’t stand the lack of aural cues to the way others are acting around me. That covers car engines clueing me in on how they are about to behave at a junction (many drivers not believing in using their indicators to warn pedestrians they are turning) and the swish of someone riding a bike up behind me on the pavement. Or drunken footsteps following me down the street at night. I rely on the audio cues to adjust my own responses to ensure my safety. I have nearly stepped in front of a quiet car (that was also grey in colour so hard to see clearly in an urban landscape) and it is not a very pleasant experience.
    I can see the appeal of different soundscapes created through a change in traffic noise levels but I do think there would need to be a critical mass before pedestrians and cyclists could adjust to hushed motor vehicles. Maybe a stage where the hybrids make a noise and, as time goes on and the use of them increases, the noise is turned down/off?


  21. Jack Avatar

    “The HALOsonic electric car sound system
    Electric cars have a potentially deadly silence about them, but a new device hopes to combat all that – spaceship sound effects optional”


  22. center muffler Avatar

    I also agree that electric cars should have a little noise as possible because it is for our social adaptability. Aside from that, I have also read that those who belongs to the blind society is requesting the electric car manufacturers to make their autos a little bit noisy.


  23. Los Angeles Honda Avatar

    Electric cars really are quiet.. Prius isn’t even an electric but hybrid but I was in a parking lot the other day and could barely hear it. It was very bizarre. However, it wasn’t completely silent; I could hear something but it wasn’t the regular motor sound. I am sure that it would not be audible at all for someone heard of hearing though…


  24. Car Insurance for Women Avatar

    Very nice article, with a lot of angles covered. One interesting possibility would be letting people pick the sound themselves, as a self-expressive capitalist thing. How many would go quiet, pick a traditional car sound, pick music, perhaps ambient music?


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