07/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Symphony of Sirens

New Bike Paths and Pedestrian Zones are Swell, Mr. Mayor, but Free Bose Headphones Would Get My Vote

The other day I tried a little experiment. Between my trumpet playing neighbor practicing his scales and the drilling being done to the exterior my building, I was feeling the need for a brief respite from the noise. I didn't want to travel too far, so I decided to check out the new pedestrian area at Times Square, just three short blocks from my Hell's Kitchen home. Armed with a newspaper, my iPod and a takeout coffee, I was looking forward to trying out one of the lawn chairs scattered across the newly traffic-free blocks and soaking up the scenery of neon lights and snap happy tourists. I found a green plastic chair near the Nasdaq that still looked relatively intact, dragged it away from a clump of smokers, flicked on Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and plonked myself down for a "quiet" read.

Who did I think I was kidding?

Not even the Ramones turned up full-blast could drown out the sirens, car alarms, car horns, idling buses and trucks, traffic cop whistles and frenetic New Yorkers shouting to be heard above the din. Add to that cacophony the competing soundtracks blasting from various storefronts and restaurants and my "fight or flight" instincts soon kicked in. I just couldn't settle down. I was paranoid that, any minute, some crazed cab driver (or a random stunt car from a movie set) was going to come careening past the traffic cones to knock me off my perch. I lasted all of five minutes.

I'm not trying to suggest that my expectations were in any way realistic. This is New York, after all, and Times Square lies at the very heart of the hubbub. But Mayor Bloomberg's highly commendable efforts to improve the environment of the city and quality of life for its residents are missing a big piece. Moves like establishing small pedestrian zones at Times Square and extending the traffic islands at Herald Square and in the Flat Iron district are great for the tourists who want to take better pictures without getting run over, but they are hardly creating oases of calm for the rest of us. Noise pollution is negating so many of these well-intentioned efforts by the Mayor's office.

And unless you seal yourself inside the sound booth of a recording studio, there's nowhere on this island to escape from the relentless racket. Not even Central Park. I live on the 32nd floor and I still need ear plugs to stay asleep. Before I moved to Midtown I lived in Washington Heights, in a hospital zone, and the car alarms were a constant. It breaks my heart to think that the last sound heard by some of the frail residents of the nursing home next door would be the piercing beep that trucks emit when they're reversing. Not only are those warning signals totally useless, NOBODY needs to hear that you are about to back up your vehicle from a 50-block radius! There oughtta be a law.

I'm not totally against a little ambient urban noise. In my eight years living as a New Yorker I've grown accustomed to the sounds of the city - to a degree. In fact, when I visit my family in Kincardine, Ontario (population 12,000 if you include the surrounding 300 square miles of farmland), I get a little spooked by the quiet. My mother is convinced I am losing my hearing, because I reflexively crank up the volume of the television. I have trouble catching everything my more genteel, soft-spoken relatives are saying. By contrast, I've noticed I have become loud compared to my fellow Canadians. When we go to a restaurant, my normal speaking voice turns heads. I fear my tone has gone up a few decibels because I can't quite hear myself. Either that or it's the influence my full-blooded Italian-American New Yorker boyfriend. His booming voice can always be heard above the tumult.

Yes, a little noise can be a good thing. We live in a vibrant city and there's something reassuring about the everyday soundtrack of urban life. But does it have to be so extreme?

I've considered creating my own bubble of peace in the city by purchasing a set of Bose headphones and plugging them into an iPod downloaded with a constantly looping track of soothing white noise. It would be the next best thing to silence. The only drawback is that it would put dents in my hair.

A better solution would be to actually enforce the recently overhauled Noise Code that everyone seems to be ignoring. Impose massive fines on the most egregious noise polluters - the meatheads with the car alarms, the horn honkers, and the truck and bus drivers who leave their engines on idle even in school zones (with no regard to asthmatic children).

Mike Bloomberg is still trying. But there's only one real solution: the Mayor's enlightened proposal in 2007 to introduce congestion tax and thus reduce the flow of traffic into the city. Such a measure would have had a huge impact on noise pollution, as it did in Stockholm, Singapore, and Ken Livingstone's London. Fewer cars would have meant fewer car horns and alarms and a reduction in noise in general. That, in turn, might have reduced the necessity of blaring sirens to open traffic lanes, and had the ripple effect of shaming the worst culprits to turn it down. Of course, that highly progressive initiative hit multiple roadblocks of competing interests.

For the sake of the future of my hearing, I can only hope that Mayor Bloomberg gets another shot at muffling the mayhem in his third term.