Monday, April 14, 2008

Noisy Cairo

Is noise pollution in cities an important costly externality? Rich country cities' aren't very noisy. I do admit that 2am garbage pickup in Rome did wake me up but we did not have air conditioning at our apartment and in the summer our windows were open. New York City has really high fines for honking horns. I haven't seen any evidence that they enforce these laws. I argue in my Green Cities book that economic development helps to solve the noise externality problem in cities.

I have never been to Cairo but this sounds annoying. this is a textbook case of scale overwhelming the commons without improvements in technology or the rule of law reiging in the "polluters". Is this an equilibrium? Will some Egyptian Mayorial version of Rudi Giuliani figure out a way to solve the noise problem?


New York Times
April 14, 2008
Cairo Journal
A City Where You Can’t Hear Yourself Scream
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — Egyptians in this capital city say it is harder and harder to be heard and to have a voice, but they are not talking politics. Well, not only politics.

What they are talking about, or rather yelling about, is noise, the incredible background noise of a city crammed with 18 million people, and millions of drivers who always have one hand on the horn and a rules-free way of thinking.

“Whenever I talk to people, they always say, ‘Why are you screaming?’ ” said Salah Abdul Hamid, 56, a barber whose two-chair shop is on the corner of a busy street on the north side.

Mr. Hamid was, of course, screaming.

It was 4 p.m. in Rhode al Farag, a typical Cairo neighborhood teeming with people and shops and cars and trucks and buses and horse-drawn carts. From his shop, the landscape of sound revealed a chorus of people struggling to make a living, trying to assert themselves in a city, and in a country, where they often feel invisible.

Noise — outrageous, unceasing, pounding noise — is the unnerving backdrop to a tense time in Egypt, as inflation and low wages have people worried about basic survival, prompting strikes and protests. We’re not just talking typical city noise, but what scientists here say is more like living inside a factory.

“It’s not enough to make you crazy, but it is very tiring,” said Essam Muhammad Hussein, as he sat in a cracked plastic chair outside the corner food shop his family has owned for 50 years. He was shouting as he talked about the noise, though he did not seem to realize it.

“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Where is the way out?”

This is not like London or New York, or even Tehran, another car-clogged Middle Eastern capital. It is literally like living day in and day out with a lawn mower running next to your head, according to scientists with the National Research Center. They spent five years studying noise levels across the city and concluded in a report issued this year that the average noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away, said Mustafa el Sayyid, an engineer who helped carry out the study.

But that 85 decibels, while “clearly unacceptable,” is only the average across the day and across the city. At other locations, it is far worse, he said. In Tahrir Square, or Ramsis Square, or the road leading to the pyramids, the noise often reaches 95 decibels, he said, which is only slightly quieter than standing next to a jackhammer.

“All of greater Cairo is in the range of unacceptable noise levels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Mr. Sayyid said.

By comparison, normal conversation ranges from 45 to 60 decibels, a chain saw registers 100 decibels and a gunshot 140. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic, every 10 decibels equals a tenfold increase in intensity.

Noise at the levels commonly found in Cairo affects the body. It can cause elevated blood pressure and other stress-related diseases. It can interfere with sleep, which almost always makes people more irritable. “People need a chance to sleep, to have a chance to think, in quiet,” said Dr. Nagat Amer, a physician and researcher with the national center.

But quiet is in short supply, especially in densely packed neighborhoods like Rhode al Farag, where the streets are alive 24 hours a day with people struggling with one another to eke out a living. In the last six weeks, 11 people have been killed in fights in lines to buy some of the cheap subsidized bread many rely on to feed their families.

While noise is never cited as a reason for the spasms of violence, it is a silent enemy that makes the pressures of life that much harder to cope with, people on the streets here said.

“The noise bothers me and I know it bothers people,” said Abdel Khaleq, driver of a battered black and white taxi, as he paused from honking his horn to stop for passengers.

“So why do you do it?” he was asked.

“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”

And then he drove off, honking.

In general terms, the noise is a symptom of an increasingly unmanageable city, crowded far beyond its original capacity, officials at the National Research Center said. The main culprit is the two million cars, and drivers who jam the city roads every day.

But Egyptians also like to live loud, preferring community to private space, mourning a death and celebrating a wedding with a good dose of noise. Muezzins’ calls to prayer wail from loudspeakers in the minarets of thousands of mosques in the city. The problem is there are more people now, more cars, more competition for a sale, more jockeying for a spot on the road. And with that much more, there is less consideration for the person behind or next door, social commentators said.

“We like to live our life with people around us — there is no privacy,” said Ahmed El-Kholei, a professor of urban planning at Monufiya University in the Nile Delta north of the city. “This is not a bad thing in itself, but the way it is expressed is wrong. Before, when someone held a funeral, the neighbors would postpone a wedding out of consideration. Today, you see the funeral and the wedding all howling in the microphones at the same time.”

Still, Egyptians do not, as a rule, complain about noise.

“What noise?” asked Madbouly Omran, who has run a small nut stand on Rhode al Farag Street since 1970.

The trucks rumbled by. A pickup truck hit its air horn. Taxis honked.

Moustafa Abdel Aleem, who works in the booth with Mr. Omran, said, “The noise is not something I want, but I can’t do anything about it; it’s forced on me.” So he turned on the radio in search of a song he liked, and of course, turned the volume up.

In a nation where about 40 percent of the population survives on about $2 a day, people understand the struggle to feed a family. In Rhode al Farag, men worked on cars in the street, butchered meat in the street, blasted radios and turned up television sets. Like shellshocked war veterans, residents sat out on the street, sipping tea, oblivious to the cacophony.

Even when it came to the shop run by Mahmoud Faheem, people did not complain. Mr. Faheem rents out concert-sized speakers, and he displayed his speakers on the street, offering the entire block a never ending thump-thump of dance music. “Let him eat bread,” said Atef Ali, 45, the owner of a food shop next door, using an Arabic phrase to explain why he did not complain, even while he detested the music.

And so the people shout, and shrug.

They shout to be heard, and shrug because they say there is nothing they can do but join in, honking, banging, screaming, whatever they need to do to make it through the day — or the intersection. The noise is the cause and the reaction, they say.

“Life is like this,” said Ahmed Muhammad, 23, who makes his living delivering metal tanks of propane to homes. He hangs four tanks off the back of a rusted bicycle, then rides with one hand on the handlebars, the other slamming a wrench into one of the tanks to announce his arrival to the neighborhood. “Making money is like this,” he said. “What am I going to do? This is how it is.”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

1 comment :

Fritz said...

While the din isn't as loud as the article describes about Cairo, the noise levels found in typical American cities is enough to cause physical stress for its inhabitants. Like Egypt, much of this noise is for traffic. And Congress is currently considering legislation to require noisemakers are quiet hybrid automobiles :-(