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How to gain political and public interest for noise

Mr. Wouter Witteveen1, Mr. Henk Wolfert2


1
Free-lancer
{witteveenwouter@gmail.com}
2
DCMR EPA
{henk.wolfert@dcmr.nl}

Abstract

According to the Environmental Noise Directive EC 2002/49 (END), noise maps and noise
action plans have to be produced for large cities. The results of this process must be
communicated to the public. Unfortunately, the level of ambition expressed by cities in their
action plans is generally rather low. Politicians do not seem to have much interest in applying
noise reducing measures. This is why the Working Group Noise (WGN) of Eurocities
commissioned the Radboud University Nijmegen to study how political interest for noise can
be gained. This paper presents the findings of that study. The public could play an important
role in raising political interest. However, the public response to the topic of noise and to the
consultation process on the noise maps and action plans has been very mediocre. This
paper will also provide some recommendations for improving public awareness.

Keywords: Politicians, Public, Interest, Awareness, END

1. Introduction

An increasing numbers of reports suggest that noise can have an impact on public health
and the publics quality of life. This was also acknowledged by the European Commission in
1996 with its Green Paper on Future Noise Policy []which eventually led to the drafting of EU
directive 2002/49/EC [], better known as the Environmental Noise Directive or END. This is
the first EU document with the aim of reducing environmental noise in general. All earlier EU
and most earlier national regulations are aimed at setting limits for specific sources of noise.
The END introduced three major obligations to be met for major agglomerations of 250.000
or more inhabitants and for large infrastructures such as airports and heavily used roads and
railways.
Firstly, competent authorities are required to draw up strategic noise maps using the
harmonised European noise indicator Lden. These maps need to be used to make an
assessment of the number of people effected by noise throughout Europe. Secondly, these
maps should serve as the basis for the draw up of noise action plans which state the actions
that are to be taken to improve the noise situation in an agglomerations or in the vicinity of a
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large infrastructure. Thirdly, the public should be informed and consulted about the
procedure of drawing up the noise maps and action plans.
Although the END has created some interest in noise, especially with the authorities that
have to fulfil the obligations of the END, the Working Group Noise of Eurocities recognised
that politicians and policy makers do not seem to have much interest in applying noise
reduction measures. This becomes even more clear when considering that the general level
of ambition in the action plans is perceived by some as rather low. This low level of ambition
is possible because the END leaves it up to the authorities responsible for the noise maps
and action plans to define unwanted noise situations and the actions required to deal with
these situations. On top of this, the interest of the public, or at least public knowledge on the
consultation process provided for in the END, seems to be lacking. Attendance of
consultation meetings has been mediocre at best.
In the first three chapters of this paper results from a study commissioned by the Working
Group Noise of Eurocities into the factors that lead to a low priority on the political and policy
agenda for environmental noise will be presented and recommendations for improvement will
be made. In the fourth and final part of this paper the experiences in communicating the
noise maps and action plans to the public so far will be discussed and detailed
recommendations for the improvement of this process will be provided.

2. Reasons for a low priority


The research project into the factors leading to a low priority for environmental noise
consisted of extensive literature research as well as a series of interviews with nearly thirty
experts that deal with noise in their daily work, ranging from among others (former) Members
of European Parliament, scientists and employees of (European) lobby organisations. The
main factors for a low priority for environmental noise uncovered by these interviews can be
classified into two main groups which in turn contain a number of subfactors. The first main
group is: a lack of willingness among policy makers to take action against noise. The second
main group is doubt on the effectiveness of measures against noise (annoyance).

2.1 Lack of willingness to take action

The main reason mentioned by the responds for noise having a low priority on the policy
agenda is that there are other issues that are perceived as more urgent to tackle. These
issues include for example air pollution which has a higher position on the agenda than noise
because of the perception that refraining from tackling it might lead to very negative and
often irreversible consequence for public health. This perception seems to be missing in the
case of noise. Subfactors in this category are: more visual issues are perceived as more
urgent, a lack of trust in the scientific evidence for a link between noise and health problems,
noise is often labelled as subjective, and conflicts with other (economic) interests.

2.1.1 More visual issues are perceived as more urgent

In the interviews, several respondents point out the invisible character of noise. In a?
literary sense noise cant be seen but can only be heard. At best, the noise source can be
seen. Furthermore, the majority of effects that are attributed to noise are invisible or are at
least not recognised by non-experts as being caused by noise. In a figurative sense, it is
difficult to imagine that noise can be damaging. Noise does not provoke strong mental

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images and therefore can hardly compete with an issue such as air pollution which for
example provokes strong images of smoking chimneys.

2.1.2 Lack of trust in scientific evidence

Hearing loss is probably the most visible health effect of noise and can be said to be
scientifically undisputed. However, the decibel levels of environmental noise are not likely to
cause hearing loss. This does not mean that environmental noise cant cause health
damage. A number of scientific reports do indeed associate environmental noise with health
effects. These effects are primarily indirect and long term and will therefore only become
clear after longer periods of exposure. Such long term effects are for example:
cardiovascular diseases [], hypertension [], and sleep disturbance []. Environmental noise is
also said to interfere with daily performance [] and the learning ability of children [].
Unfortunately, the respondents acknowledged an apparent lack of trust in the scientific
evidence on the link between noise and health problems. There seem to be three factors that
are the cause of this lack of trust. Firstly, there is a perception among some that the results in
different reports are sometimes contradictory are at least not that convincing. Secondly, the
total number of reports on the link between noise and health problems is not very extensive,
at least not in comparison to the number of reports on a topic such as the link between air
pollution and health problems. Thirdly, noise leads to similar health problems as air pollution.
It is therefore difficult to be able to attribute health problems to noise, for example with people
living next to a busy road. These health problems might for the largest part be caused by air
pollution or even more likely by a synergy between different aspects.

2.1.3 The subjective label

Apart from the invisible long term effects, noise also has some short term effects that are
much easier to visualise and understand. Noise annoyance is by far the most prominent.
People can be annoyed by for example the noise produced by traffic in their streets or by
construction noise. Because the aspect of annoyance is so prominent, it is often the main
focus in discussions and research on noise. For the priority of noise, this is positive and
negative at the same time. On the one hand it leads to pressure from citizens on local
government to amend certain adverse noise situations. On the other hand this poses a
problem for policy. The effect of technical measures on the level of noise annoyance is at
best hard to measure. This is due to the fact that noise annoyance is not dependent on
acoustical variables but instead on a number of non-acoustical variables such as the time of
day, the frequency of a noise event, the persons relation to the source, and a feeling of
helplessness. So noise annoyance is determined by emotional reactions instead of by the
actual level of sound. According to a large number of the respondents this enables policy
makers to label noise as a subjective problem and therefore not a problem that needs to be
dealt with by policy makers.

2.1.4 Conflict with other (economic) interests

Due to the difficulties mentioned in the previous paragraphs and because not everybody is
effected equally by noise, it is not surprising that some authorities choose to pursue other,
often economic interests. Some measures that reduce the noise levels drastically, such as
closing a road or reducing the number of airplanes at an airport, are not always acceptable to
(local) authorities because they conflict with other interests that might be perceived as

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economically important. In such a case, benefits to the majority get priority over the
disadvantages of the few.

2.2 The effectiveness of measures

As has already been discussed in the previous section it is generally unclear which
measures are effective against noise annoyance. On top of this, as we will see in this
section, technical measures also have not always been successful in reducing the total level
of environmental noise. Subfactors in this category are: technical measures have sometimes
been countered by other factors (such as the increase in individual noise sources), a lack of
real clarity on a suitable unit for the expression of the effects of noise, the lack of an
accepted legal limit value for noise.

2.2.1 Technical measures have been countered

An obvious approach in tackling the noise problem is to reduce noise levels at the source.
This is of course a very sensible course of action. However, due to changes in test conditions
it is debatable whether or not this has effectively led to quieter cars, trains, airplanes, etc.
What is clear is that improvements that have been made at the source have for a significant
part been countered by rebound factors such as the increase in traffic volume. And it is likely
that traffic volumes will continue to increase in the coming years.
Furthermore, noise reduction measures such as quieter engine and quiet tyres are not
consistently advertised. This will mean that people will not actively include them in their
decision to buy a new automobile. Factors such as cost and performance will probably be
deciding factors.
And finally, technical measures that focus on the propagation or the point of application of
noise generally tend to be quite expensive in construction and maintenance. And sound
barriers are often seen as an intrusive element in the landscape making this a negatively
perceived measure. Sound insulation seems to be the most effective measure against noise
annoyance because the measure itself does not provoke negative associations and is a
more visible measure than measures taken at the source.

2.2.2 Lack of clarity on a suitable unit for the effects of noise

It is very hard to determine the effect of a single measure on noise annoyance because the
annoyance aspect is not dependent on the actual sound level. Therefore, decibels are not
suitable unit for the expression of these effects. Another unit that is frequently used is the
DALY (Disability Adjusted Life Year) which indicated the number of healthy life years that are
lost due to some adverse effect. In the case of noise, this unit will only be workable when it is
generally accepted that noise can lead to the loss of healthy life years. At the moment this is
not universally the case. Alternatively, noise could be expressed in terms of cost. However, it
is unclear how noise should be monetarised. The lack of a standardised method to
calculate the cost of noise makes it easy for policy to discard a certain calculation done via
an unsupported method of calculation. On top of this, the lack of a calculation method makes
it hard to determine the cost-benefit relations of measures against noise. Importantly, it is
probably impossible to get a unit for the effects of noise accepted when the effects of noise
itself are still generally not accepted.

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2.2.3 Lack of a clear limit value

One of the major issues that was mentioned by the respondents was the lack of a clear legal
limit value for noise. Indeed, this lack is what distinguishes the Environmental Noise Directive
from other EU environmental directives. Opinions on the need for a limit value for noise are
divided. Some believe that one limit value for the whole of the EU would not be strict enough
in order to make it reasonably achievable for Eastern European member states to comply. In
the other hand, a number of respondents that a limit value, no matter how strict or not it will
be, is an incentive to act upon noise and a tool to make noise more visible. Perhaps a
target value or a limit value that is tightened periodically is a satisfactory compromise.

3. Suggestions
In order to obtain a higher position for noise on the policy and political agenda, we propose to
make a number of connections between different aspects of noise, between different
agendas and between different levels of policy. This will lead to a three dimensional way of
thinking where the first dimension contains different stakeholders in the field of noise, the
second dimension contains noise in relation to other environmental issues, and the third
dimension contains the various levels of policy. Such three-dimensional thinking might lead
to a paradigm shift from the current situation of thinking about noise as a stand alone issue
towards thinking of noise as part of concepts like quality of life and sustainable transport.
The connections we need to make are:
- Between noise annoyance and health: a connection with the visibility of noise
annoyance and the less accepted health effects
- Between noise and other environmental issues: stressing the combined effects of for
example noise and air pollution, in essence benefiting from the priority of another
environmental issue
- With the media: scientists and other noise experts need to increase their visibility and
the attention for noise in the media by also publishing outside of scientific journals in
for example health magazines and ladies magazines. A successful story was the
publication of a story on the effects of noise in a Swedish womens magazine.
- Between public and policy: making people aware that noise maps and action plans
exist. This connection will be discussed further in Chapter 4.
- Between different levels of policy: in the majority of member states the local level has
been made responsible for complying with the obligations of the END. However, this
level does not always have the means to optimally carry out this task. Assistance
from higher levels of policy would be helpful.
Furthermore the visibility of noise measures needs to be increased. Informing the public
more extensively about applied measures might already help. Due to the non-acoustical
factors that influence noise annoyance, people might for example not be less annoyed about
noise after the application of quieter road surfaces unless the public is actively informed
about this. Informing the public will discussed more extensively in the next chapter.

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4. Informing the public and affecting politicians by public


The recommendation of publishing about noise in ladies and health magazines seems an
easy one. By doing this politicians and policy makers can be reached and hopefully
convinced indirectly. Its assumed that by informing the public the knowledge about noise
and the effects of noise shall rise. However, it is not easy to attract public attention for a
while and certainly not for a long time. Interesting the public in such a way that they are
willing to act towards politicians and policy makers is even more difficult. It means that a lot
of obstacles must be overcome. Some of these are:

1. The public tends to distrust government


2. Governmental information isn't understandable and accessible
3. Identifying target groups and their expectations
4. Obstacles to be found in public
5. Use of the right communication instruments
6. Information doesn't automatically lead to a change of attitude and behaviour

4.1 Public confidence in government

Civil society doesnt have a great trust in public government or politicians according to a
Dutch report [1] that was published recently. In 2003 around 38% of the Dutch people trusted
the government and this percentage has grown to 69%. In other European countries such as
Belgium, Italy, France and even in the United Kingdom and Denmark the scores are
remarkable lower. [2]. According to [3] the public doesnt have much confidence in the way
governments are dealing with their environmental tasks. In the Netherlands around 60% of
the people think that governments are not doing their environmental tasks very well. So why
doesnt the public act? Politicians and policy makers are resilient and the public thinks that
they cannot be trusted. A lot of people are not convinced that governments take up signals
sent by the public. Only when using the media, there is some belief to succeed. So most
people remain inactive. Informing the public can be successful. However, it can be
unsuccessful as well, especially when it comes to changing public behaviour. It is estimated
that approximately 40 % of public campaigns fail in their objective. An example of an
successful campaign in the Netherlands was the so called BOB campaign. BOB stands for a
person who doesnt drink alcohol on a night out to be able to safely drive home his friends.
According to Swankhuisen et al [4] the reasons its success were:

1. nice and funny commercial


2. easy to understand message
3. rather positive context
4. believable situation / recognizable
5. sympathetic actors are casted

These elements are potentially crucial in informing and communicating to the public.

4.2 From belief to disbelief

A large portion of the public was affected by the messages of the ambassadors Bill Clinton
and Al Gore. With the Clinton Climate Initiative and the movie 'An Inconvenient Truth' they

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both convinced a lot of people that global warming is threatening human life. This made
climate change visible and imaginable for a lot of people. In contrast the total percentage
of people that believe that climate change is real is decreasing. The percentage of the Dutch
public who believe that humans are responsible has dropped from 80 to 60 %. In the USA
this is 55 %. [5] So it's hard to make people belief permanently in climate change and
probably harder to let them belief that noise is harmful for human health.

4.3 Understandable and accessible governmental information

A lot of information provided by the government is hard to understand. It often contains too
much information, difficult sentences and jargon. Furthermore, it is often one sided, biased
and not tuned towards target groups. During the public presentations of the Noise Maps and
Noise Action Plans it became clear that people could understand the Noise Maps with much
effort. The colours and the legend used make them easy to understand. However, what the
noise levels expressed in LDEN and LNIGHT really mend for them personally was not at all clear.
The same goes for health effects and monetary issues such as the devaluation of their
houses due to noise. If government wants people to understand these maps they should
inform people in laymans terms about noise, its effects and the reasoning behind the noise
maps and action plans. Why, for example do the maps only take into account noise produced
by industry, traffic, rail and aviation? Other sources of noise, produced by, for example
neighbours, loading and unloading trucks or scooters passing by, are the main source of
noise annoyance. Furthermore, the accuracy and details of the Noise Map are often
misunderstood because of its strategic nature. People expected numerous solutions to tackle
the problems but the majority of the Action Plans published until now hardly contain concrete
solutions. They only contain vague formulations such as: 'Noise will be reduced by traffic
measures, quiet road surfaces etc'. In many cases the Action Plans aren't SMART1. On top
of this government officials are often reluctant to provide the public with more information
because they dont have the mandate or knowledge.

4.4 Obstacles to be found in public

Large cities with depressed districts are often exposed to high environmental burdens. 'The
poor are living downwind, downstream and downhill' a report of the World Health
Organisation [6] mentioned. Or said by DeLeon [7] "Those who are most often affected by
policies in terms of new or revised programs are the least often consulted". These districts
contain large numbers of less fortunate people. They cannot be reached easily because of
their language handicap, different cultural background and other daily concerns. This part of
civil society, which can be a rather large part of the urban community, is doubly handicapped
because of the so called knowledge gap [8] High(er) educated people are more capable to
find the information they need. The gap is still widening. It's the ultimate challenge to reach to
people that are less fortunate and are at the same time effected by noise the most.

4.5 Modern means of communication and its limitations

Directive 90/313/EC about public accessibility of environmental information states that


information must be clear, understandable, accessible and the most appropriate channels of
communication must be used. This doesn't mean that publishing noise maps and action
1
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time bounded

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plans on the internet complies with this. In the Netherlands 90% of the household is
connected to the internet. In other countries2 this percentage is much lower. Furthermore,
the majority of the 10 % of non-connected people in The Netherlands are lowly educated
people. Sometimes, even for the connected, the noise maps of a city cannot easily be
found. Often the noise map is deeply hidden within the municipal website or not even
available at all. It is not clear whether or not this is deliberate. Whatever the case, the
information on the internet should be improved and it should certainly not be the only means
of communicating the noise maps in order to reach certain target groups.

4.6 Affecting and involving the public, a missed chance

Unfortunately, the chance to involve the public in the process of the noise maps and action
plans wasnt taken. Although the directive doesn't impose the competent bodies to engage or
involve the public this was the opportunity to involve the public in making noise policies
and/or in affecting those policies. The directive says in article 9.1 'Member States shall
ensure that the strategic noise maps they have made, and where appropriate adopted, and
the action plans they have drawn up are made available and disseminated to the public in
accordance with relevant Community legislation, in particular Council Directive 90/313/EEC
of 7 June 1990 on the freedom of access to information on the environment(13), and in
conformity with Annexes IV and V to this Directive, including by means of available
information technologies'.
Article 2 states that the information must be clear, understandable and accessible and
elsewhere in the END it is stated that the most suitable channels must be used to inform the
public. The WG-AEN3 has drafted a report [9] which provides a lot of handles and
recommendations to governments for informing the public. But just like an earlier report4 this
report is hardly known by municipal officials. The late publishing could (March 2008 ) play a
role as well. This report recommends engagement of the public where the END doesn't say
anything about stakeholder participation. During these presentations a chance to involve the
politicians was missed. Only in a few cases politicians were present during the meetings on
informing the public.

4.7 Relation between informing and change of attitude and behaviour

Knowing that only 5% of our behaviour is planned, one can imagine that affecting it is not
that simple. People are more or less unaware of their behaviour. An example of automatic
behaviour is the commuter that chooses to travel by car every day. Probably only in the
beginning this was planned behaviour. After a while this person doesnt consider alternatives
anymore. Automatic behaviour is very difficult to change. It can be done by constructing
impediments that are inescapable such as a ban or a physical obstacle such as a road block.
Social validation, by using social networks or leaders with a strong opinion can also be
effective. Using priming5 can be an effective instrument as well. By referring to colours,
fragrances etc. people's behaviour can be affected. However, even when we succeed to
2
According to www.comscore.com the average for Europe amounts 65%, the lowest on the ranking are Serbia
(30%) and Bulgaria (37%). Greece and Romania are scoring low as well (38%).
3
WG-AEN stands for Working Group on the Assessment of Exposure to Noise
4
Good Practice Guide of Noise Mapping
5
Priming refers to a increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. Because priming it believed to occur
outside of conscious awareness, it is different from memory that relies on the direct retrieval of information. Direct retrieval
utilizes explicit memory, while priming relies on implicit memory. Research has also shown that the affects of priming can
impact the decision-making process (Jacoby, 1983).

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change the attitude of people by telling them that something is unwise or bad for their health
people can persist or fall back in their (former) behaviour.

4.8 Conclusions and recommendations

1. Informing people by publishing in ladies and health magazines could be


beneficial in order to inform people about noise and its meaning on their daily life.
2. One has to realise that reaching certain target groups such as people with a
low education (and the probably the group that is effected the most by noise) is
difficult. This groups have to be identified in advance in order to be able to specifically
target them. Publishing information on a website is simply not enough.
3. ;
4. Knowledge of noise and its effects doesn't automatically mean that people
can be mobilised to act towards politicians and policy makers;
5. Governments must communicate with the public interactively through joint fact
finding to raise more confidence and support among the public; it's important to
include management of false expectations;
6. It would be helpful to include in the END, the recommendation to
communicate with the public interactively;
7. Information for the public must be attractive, distinguished, compact, concrete,
structured and well dosed.

References

[1] Koning kiezer heeft geen keus, Essay in Dutch newspaper (Volkskrant, 2 januari 2010)
by Hans Wassink
[2] De sociale Staat der Nederlanden 2009, SCP
[3] EUROBAROMETER, European Commission 2009
[4] Nieuwe aanpak in overheidscommunicatie, Swankhuisen et al, Coutinho 2007
[5] Global warming poll, media climate changing as well, digital journal
(http://www.pewclimate.org/publications)
[6] Supportive Environments for Health, Trevor Hancock, WHO 1992
[7] Democracy and the Policy Sciences: Aspirations and Operations; Peter DeLeon,
Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 22, 1994
[8] Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge; P.J. Tichenor et al 1970
[9] Presenting Noise Mapping Information to the Public, WG-AEN , March 2008

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