How Loud Is It?

A dog run is no place to go for peace and quiet. When we drop by Washington Square Park in the afternoon, about six dogs are growling and yipping as they wrestle for control of a tennis ball. All of a sudden, Guy, a runty little corgi-mutt mix, races over to join in. He doesn’t look like much—until he opens his oversize mouth and cuts loose with an earsplitting series of yaps.

Even the jaded dog owners look up. By my side, Martin Schiff, an acoustics expert, points a sound-level meter at Guy’s snout. The dog yaps again.

“Wow. It’s 101 decibels,” Schiff says. “That’s impressive.”

Guy, as it turns out, is one of the loudest things we’ve found in all of Manhattan. And we’ve been looking. I took Schiff and his associate Jonathan Lally, both of whom work for the acoustical-consulting firm Cerami & Associates, for a drive around the city to locate its loudest and quietest places. Why? Because when Mayor Bloomberg declared war on noise last month, he turned it into a political issue.

There’s plenty of evidence that noise deserves the attention. It is the top reason behind gripes called into the 311 line, and if Bloomberg’s laws are passed, the police will have bold new powers to issue fines. Dogs are high on the list: If Guy barks for ten minutes during the day or five minutes at night, and his owner, Ed Novicki, doesn’t silence him, the little pup can incur a fine of at least $50.

Novicki knew his dog was loud—but not that loud. “Does this mean my dog is a menace to society?” he jokes. “Seriously, he never barks at home. That was a ‘come play with me’ bark.”

But there’s no sense picking on Guy: We learned that he’s hardly an isolated problem. Schiff and Lally are engineers who make buildings quieter, but they also do detective work, answering calls from enraged tenants who want data on just how loud that new punk club downstairs is. Schiff and Lally’s job, in essence, is to listen to buildings. Their sound meter is a thick wand with a supersensitive microphone head, protected by a grapefruit-size foam sphere; when they work the sidewalk, people think they’re Feds, or perhaps Men in Black.

To understand their statistics, you need some background. Normal conversation, where people sit a few feet apart, is 65 decibels. Every time the level rises 10 decibels, the noise seems twice as loud; cut your distance to the source in half, and the reading goes up 6 decibels. Above 85 decibels, prolonged noise can damage your ears permanently; at 120 decibels, even brief exposure is bad. The quietest place Schiff and Lally have ever been is a recording studio, where the sound-muffling takes things down to 15 decibels. “Sometimes out in the country at night, if there aren’t any insects, it’ll get that quiet,” Schiff adds.

But these are the streets of Manhattan, where, as we discovered, noise generally hovers around the 70-decibel level, roughly the output of a coffee grinder. Many locales were worse, like the island at 72nd Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side. The traffic roaring downtown registered 79 decibels, with car horns spiking as high as 90. In Times Square, it measured 80 decibels by the Army recruitment post, 90 when the cabs surged by like spawning salmon.

Mayor Bloomberg’s home neighborhood, as it turns out, isn’t much better. On 72nd Street near Fifth Avenue, traffic flowing out of the park brings things up to 81 decibels. Even worse, a construction worker across the street was drilling through a big concrete block, producing an 89-decibel racket even at a distance.

When you pay attention, you begin to realize that the city is like an orchestra. Inside the din, there are dozens of sounds, a few preventable, most not. Lally and Schiff have climbed into the strangest pockets of Manhattan, from crawl spaces in City Hall to a ladder behind the Reuters sign in Times Square. “After a while, you’re always noticing stuff,” Lally says drily. “A squeaky part in a fan. A bag rustling in the wind.” “It’s a curse,” says Schiff, laughing.

We jump out of the van at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, where Schiff picks apart the soundscape. “You’ve got the traffic, obviously,” he shouts over the 81-decibel din. “I can hear some squealing—those are brakes on the buses. Up there in the buildings, see all those louvers? Air conditioning is one of the biggest parts of all ambient noise in the city.” Across the street is the Jekyll & Hyde Club restaurant (“Big cooling fans over there”), and the street is dotted with manhole covers that ring like massive coins when the taxis drive over them.

Directly in front of us is a big steel street plate covering a hole. When an MTA bus drives over it, it emits a nasty whap. Schiff whips out the meter: 92 decibels. Worse, it’s pitched around 500 hertz. High-frequency notes like that hit us hard, because our ears are optimized to pick them up (human speech is in the 500-to-2,000-hertz range). Deep notes aren’t as irritating, even when they’re louder. When an SUV drives by with bass that shakes our chests, it’s a healthy 76 decibels. But it’s not as annoying as my cell phone, which is only 73 decibels.

That’s why kids’ screams pierce your brain with such ferocity: Evolution has spent millennia fine-tuning the sound into an ice pick. Patricia Scanlon, a Cerami associate, tells me that she once measured the volume of a child in mid-tantrum. It was 81 decibels at five feet away, and sounded worse. “I was pretty alarmed,” she says. “I’m not a mother. I didn’t know how bad it can get.”

Granted, our perception of noise is partly psychological. If a noise is even and sustained, we soon learn to tune it out, even if it’s quite loud. It’s ambience rather than annoyance, and in a sense, it’s why we live here at all—for the companionship, for the hubbub. We know that it’s a sign of urban health, that the city and its economy are humming. When the streets of Manhattan are silent, that’s not comforting. That’s The Day After Tomorrow.

Guy the Dog101
Astor Place Subway65
Upper West Side Traffic78
St. Patrick’s Cathedral54
Central Park

When Schiff and Lally and I visit Balthazar at 5 p.m., we discover that the noise inside (78 decibels) is louder than the street outside (72). But who cares? The whole point of going to Balthazar is for the amiable chaos. The same goes for Pastis, its chattery sister bistro in the meatpacking district, which clocks in at 81 decibels. I’ve got friends who brunch there because if their 1-year-old daughter starts to cry, nobody cares. When we visit Grand Central Terminal at 3 p.m., it’s 71 decibels, but since you’re expecting a crowd, it feels quiet.

No, the worst noise is not the background rumble of daily life. “You can drown out any regular noise, anything with a regular rhythm,” Schiff says. “But when you hear something irregular, it demands your attention. You can’t ignore it. And that’s the stuff that really gets people complaining.” That’s why street traffic, with its jazzlike bursts of screeching, shreds your nerves. Proximity, of course, also matters: When we stand in front of our minivan while the driver honks the horn, it’s a skull-quivering 101 decibels. Age also affects things: As you get older, your ears begin to lose high-frequency sensitivity, making it harder to pick out conversation from background noise. Weirdly, some pregnant women become more sensitive to sound.

A city-by-city comparison of noise decibel levels.
A city-by-city comparison of decibel levels.Photo: McKibillo

Noise, ultimately, is subjective—which is why the new laws may cause problems. Previously, if police officers wanted to issue a fine for a car alarm or a dog, they needed a meter. Under the new law, they can merely judge with their ears. Air conditioners will face new scrutiny, too. Right now, each unit is allowed to emit 45 decibels, but several in a row poking out of a building can cumulatively go much higher. The new rules measure the total output—and if it’s higher than 50 decibels, the owners will have to figure out how to reduce it by 5 decibels.

Bloomberg’s new laws also go after a source of surprisingly vehement complaints: Mister Softee ice-cream trucks, with their creepy little psycho-clown jingle. Precisely how loud are they? At 43rd and Madison, we spot one and swoop in. The operator, probably figuring he’s enough of a target already, refuses to switch on the music. But, as Lally points out, the tune isn’t the whole story: The refrigeration unit in the back of the truck clocks a rip-roaring 83 decibels from five feet away. As we’re measuring, a Whole Foods delivery truck zooms by, and Lally points at it: “Just as bad,” he says. “The refrigeration unit is up high, so the noise really spreads out.” And there are some parts of the city where horrific din is an unavoidable fact of life—such as the subway. We ducked into the Astor Place station, where the No. 4 train blows by at full speed around a bend. It produces a truly apocalyptic bouquet of noise: a deep roar with a shrieking metal-on-metal overtone. It’s 101 decibels, and because it lasts for several seconds, it’s easily the most grating thing we’ve heard.

If you’ve got money, of course, you can hide from noise. Schiff and Lally’s firm is often hired to figure out how to muffle apartments (including Jerry Seinfeld’s), hotels, and other buildings. It can involve elaborate constructions, like floors on shock-absorbing springs. And if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s worth the cost of living on a calm side street, the answer is: Yes. When we checked the levels on a low-traffic stretch of Waverly Place, off Washington Square Park, it was a relatively peaceful 61 decibels.

But say you just want an hour of peace. St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue seems reverentially hushed—yet between shuffling feet and reverberant marble, it registered 57 decibels, the same noise level we recorded inside our minivan as we drove through heavy traffic. The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library, at 55 decibels, beat out the cathedral. If you want a quiet drink, try Temple Bar on Lafayette at 5:30 p.m., before the evening rush. Almost empty, it was only 57 decibels, even with the No. 6 train rumbling below.

But for true urban bliss, there’s one classic destination: Central Park. We entered at Strawberry Fields and then ducked down a path to a clearing in the trees. We could hear little but birdsong and rustling leaves. On the meter, it was the lowest we’d seen all day: 54 decibels. In Manhattan, that’s the sound of silence.

How Loud Is It?