The Price of Noise

Our river is the color of chocolate milk, with a glint of pale green, like mint streaks in the chocolate. On the opposite bank a concrete wall rises, concealing the hypnotic line of cars heading north and south on I5. The wall conceals the view, and, I’m told by folks who lived here much longer than me, a portion of the noise. Sitting here now, freeway sounds don’t quite drown out a robin alarmed by a crow busy with feeding his or her clutch. Out here, one has to raise one’s voice a tad to be heard of the noise.

And then there’s SeaTac, with its punctuated take-off growls, and sometimes a low sustained rumble floats down the water from the Burlington Northern tracks.

Being a weekend, it’s unlikely we’ll here the startling thunder of a military jet leaving Boeing Field, also known as King County Airport. When those guys take off over our house, whether the Navy from Whidbey Island or the Air Force from Joint Base Lewis McChord, the noise is loud enough to cause much wincing at home, especially if we happen to be outside.

Around my Seattle workplace there is a lot of construction. I park my car many blocks away—where the parking is free—and walk to the building. The first project is the erection and completion of a multi-use dwelling for laboratories, offices and some retail, because biotech is thick around where I work, including my own company. At the start of this project there was much concrete cutting. This is not done by jack-hammer, at least not on this scale, but by heavy machinery loaded onto diesel semis. The noise from these monsters equals that of the the military hot shots. Wincing, again.

Then there is the motorcade of dump trucks and concrete mixers, diggers, and back hoes that moves constantly along our street, engines idling and steel plates banging. Add to this the noise from the pit.

The pit that used to be a parking lot has been dug for the purpose of foundation. Directly next to Lake Union, the pit is littered with soaring pikes and concrete syphons. Massive pile drivers pock the pit’s bottom with holes and the syphons pump concrete into them. The biggest back hoes I’ve ever seen have carved out the pit, so that the pile drivers, taller than our 5 story building, can sink their teeth into the soil.

Likely the foundation around the Lake is rock. There’s no fill here, just a natural glacial lake, like all our lakes. It’s a working lake, and one of my many walking routes, depending on parking availability, passes by two shipyards, where the Coast Guard, ferries and sea-going fishing vessels come for dry dock work. This gets noisy too, and worse, smelly, of oil and scorch.

And above our building, set into a hillside rising up from the Lake, is our constant friend, I5. Traffic hisses along a viaduct above us, and in the area where I sometimes wait for a bus, is a major downtown interchange. Various engine noises of speeding up and slowing down, semis, delivery trucks, and the ever present dump trucks, provide a cacophony that can’t really be drowned out by my ear buds.

Helicopters, sirens, and Japanese motor cycles punctuate the endless rumble and roar.

I read how researchers are evaluating acoustic stress. My little oasis of a neighborhood is in an industrial corridor so I am hearing this daily. Even during my commute, whether by car or by bus, there is the rhythm of my tires or the whine of the bus-engine.

The local poet Steven Jesse Bernstein, long dead from self-destruction, recorded spoken word albums. Our favorite is “More Noise Please”. We are convinced he wrote this poem while staying or maybe living at the Airport Hotel, a seedy brick establishment just north of Boeing field directly under the runway route and one long block away from our endless friend, I5.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The Price of Noise — 7 Comments

  1. In the Netherlands, small and densely populated as it is, noise pollution has been a thing the government tries to mitigate for decades.

    Of course building work, airplanes, trains and traffic still make noise, as do festivals and open-air concerts.
    But there are rules for the maximum amount of decibels things like concert venues, mopeds and motorbikes may produce, as well as for sound isolation in new-built dwellings; there are ‘noise zones’ and ‘ noise corridors’ around airports and under their take-off and landing paths where no houses can be built (and the inverse, where houses are already built and airports cannot expand); and there are noise limits around dwellings – if traffic noise is too loud you either cannot build houses there, or you have to soundproof them really well (including soundproofed ventilation), or the traffic noise has to be diminished to an acceptable level by diminishing or slowing down the traffic, or putting down noise-absorbing asphalt.

    A lot of the highways/freeways/motorways, and many of the smaller roads, are paved with this very open asphalt, which is slightly less durable but absorbs rain and lessens tirenoise a lot better: the extra maintenance is considered worthwhile to achieve this. Whenever a highway or large road passes any houses close enough that noise pollution might become an issue they have a sound wall or screen or dike, like you describe for your I5 (

    There are a few nature reserves that have been designated as silent zones, where no noise polluting activities are allowed in the surrounding area that might impact on the reserve’s silence, but those are few and far from the big cities. It’s good to know there are a few spots where one can get away from all human noise, but they don’t really impact people’s daily lives.

    What does make a big difference in towns and cities is that 25-60% of all trips (depending on the town) are made by bicycle instead of car. Over this past year I’ve seen quite a few comments from foreigners visiting the Netherlands remarking on how quiet out city centers are, being able to hear the birds singing and people talking as they walk or cycle past: no motor noise, no tire noise, no car horns and a lot less sirens.
    I’d not thought about this before, as we consider it normal; but it’s true that the few nights I’ve spent in a hotel in an American town on holidays I couldn’t sleep for the incessant noise, and wondered how the locals managed.

    Here are a few short videos on Twitter from a recent visitor who was amazed by the quiet city center he stayed in:
    – ‘s Hertogenbosch at night near the railway & (electric) bus station
    – in the town center on Pentecost Monday morning (a holiday) when the shops are closed
    – and later that day, in Utrecht’s semi-pedestrianised shopping center (cycling mostly allowed, vans for stocking up only between 06:00-08:00), once the shops are open, and
    – in the traffic-calmed heart of Utrecht (the 4th largest city in the Netherlands, with half a million inhabitants) around the shopping center //

    Making cities (as well as small towns) safe and nice for pedestrians and cyclists both makes for much more livable and definitely less noisy cities!

    Pedestrians and very good & frequent & non-polluting public transport works too, as Paris demonstrates, but you need something in addition to walking, for the distances that are too far to walk.
    If your city is less dense than Paris, using cycling to feed into the public transport hubs can make the public transport a lot more cost-effective and attractive – each (suburban) bus stop or train station with a good safe bike storage rack and safe bike lanes to reach it has a larger catchment area, so you need less stops, and the bus can take a faster and more direct route. That way people who live too far away to bike into a city still don’t need to drive their cars into town. That’s the way the Netherlands does it.

    • Having been to Amsterdam several times, I have a very high opinion of how civilized The Netherlands is. Thanks for sharing!

  2. We moved to a manufactured home community on Mt Hood with Rules and Regulations about noise. No kids bouncing basket balls, no dogs barking until 3 AM, no leaving cars endlessly running while “working” on them. When the wind is from the north we can hear Hwy 26 1/2 mile away, but it’s no where near as bad as I 5. I can imagine that noise is a rushing creek or the wind in the trees. Lots and lots of trees around here.

    But that brings me to inside appliance noise. Our houses are so close together when the windows are open we can hear each others phone ringing. Imagine at dinner time when we are all cooking and running the fans over the stove. The frequency of the fans are just wrong, and jangle against my nerves. I can’t wait to finish preparing the meal so I can turn the bloody thing off. I sag with relief. This is proof to me that noise can add to nervous breakdowns. I’m surprise the urban populations haven’t started shooting each other out of sheer desperation.

    Oh wait, they have. Has anyone done a study on the relationship between noise pollution and mass shootings?

  3. Jill, my sympathies! There are numerous studies showing how destructive such noise is to our health. Yet communities seem unable to address it in any meaningful way. *sigh* Best wishes!!

  4. There are noises I tolerate because I live in a very urban neighborhood. We gotta have garbage trucks. Sometimes they really do need to jackhammer the street to get at the pipes below it.

    But I cannot express in mere words how much I hate leaf blowers. No one around here has a large yard; a rake and broom would clear debris just as quickly without destroying the peace of the neighborhood.

    And then there’s the person who starts their motorcycle and then goes back into their house and leaves in running, I assume to “warm up.” I cannot figure out why one needs to warm up an internal combustion engine in a place where it almost never drops below 50 degrees F. One of these days I’m going to go over there and turn off the key.

  5. Yes, leaf blowers should be assigned to lowest depths of hell, along with their owners! Also power washers on compressors used on weekends for hours to clean driveways, etc…. How about some good old-fashioned elbow grease? Maybe even get some healthy exercise? Or give a gardening job to someone who needs it?