Sunday, May 3, 2009

On Maintaining Silence

I don't do a lot of deep thinking while I'm riding. Some people use riding time to think about other things, but I find it enough just to experience the physical sensations of moving through space on a bicycle. I also think about the street ahead of me, traffic, the route I'm taking, the scenery (if I can look away from traffic), and I'm always tuned-in to my bicycle. This last is especially important for me, since all of my bikes are older than I am, and tend to develop little eccentricities. It's good to know which noises are okay, and which are new and potentially alarming.

So far, my "new" daily ride, which is almost 55 years old, is a super-star. He's quiet, smooth, and comfortable. So quiet, in fact (knock wood), that I've started thinking about the noise levels around me, instead of worrying about the noise levels beneath me. What I noticed, more than anything, is how bloody loud our auto culture is. Car alarms, horns, bad transmissions, brakes, squealing tires, car stereos, and just regular engine noise comprise a huge percentage of the daily noise we encounter as we travel about.

A friend of mine recently posted a video of film footage from Barcelona circa 1908. The camera was mounted on a streetcar and recorded its progress through the city. There are a lot of bicycles, a lot more pedestrians, as well as some horse-drawn carts. While there is no audio with the clip, we can imagine that the primary noise, aside from the streetcar itself, was human-generated. Conversation, music, laughter, shouting, even arguments, would have risen above the noise of horses' hooves, and the clanging of the streetcar. The reason there would have been so much human noise is two-fold: first, the people were actually in the streets, instead of inside cars; and two, there was no roar of traffic to drown them out.

Now, unlike a lot of bike bloggers, I'm not anti-car. We have a car. I'm not going to get into the relative virtues or evils of driving vs. bicycling, I think it's a waste of time; but I will say that this question of noise -- or rather, silence -- is the one thing that turns me off the most about cars. A silent form of transportation, or nearly silent, which actually places human bodies in the open, frees up a vast amount of aural space in the world. Imagine how we might connect to each other, to our communities, to ourselves, if we didn't feel like it was all we could do just to keep our heads above the noise.

By the way, except in rare cases, I'm going to try to keep my posts here as link-free as possible. If you want the link to the Barcelona video, just ask, and I'll provide it in the comments.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 16 May 1897


  1. It's funny you wrote about this, because I was thinking of starting a campaign called "bring noisy back."

    I agree that there are a lot of noises that are completely thoughts are that the only thing you need to be doing when driving is...driving. The cell phone, music, and other entertainment can be left at home. But I'm not anyone that anyone pays attention to...

    I think cars have gotten far too quiet lately and with the popularity of hybrids, it scares me even more. I've had so many close calls since these quiet cars seemingly sneak up on me despite me keeping an eye on my mirror at all times. I rely on noise a lot when I'm riding in addition to sight, so I want to "bring noisy back!"

  2. @ Beany: I do believe we are at odds on this one, since my campaign is going to be called, "Everybody Just Hush."

    Actually, more human-generated noise would be okay with me--it's the auto noise that gets to me. I've never had a problem with stealth hybrids, but I don't ride as much as you do. And I certainly agree with the distraction-while-driving thing. I mean seriously, who thought it would be a good idea to make it possible to watch DVDs *in your car?*


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