On the Sociology and Economics of Omnipresent Noise

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Two very different accounts of the neighborhood dynamics of modern community living, related to the community campaign being chronicled in this thread.

First, from Mike Lofgren, multi-decade veteran of national-level politics, about the suburbs of Washington D.C.:

Yes, two-stroke engines are very polluting (I can smell them when walking in my neighborhood). But they are also much noisier than 4-stroke engines and (obviously) electrics. That brings up my main point: they are the major, but far from the only, culprit destroying the tranquility in residential neighborhoods during recent decades.

It was not until I retired that I became aware of how noisy supposedly tranquil suburban communities are. Consider the following:

1. The almost universal use of commercial lawn services. All the commercial-grade gear (blowers, weed whackers, riding mowers) is without exception much louder than the consumer equivalent. In Virginia, the racket goes on from early April until the final leaves fall a couple of weeks before Christmas. Does no one ever mow their own lawn anymore, as they did a couple of decades ago? Are people now too rich/busy/lazy/self-important to do it themselves?

And the services are very inefficient: they mow on a rigid schedule, meaning they mow right after a rain (rutting the ground and tearing the grass), or, as during this past August/September when there were 5 weeks straight with no rain: the grass had gone dormant and didn’t need mowing. They still mowed lawns every week, generating noise that would wake the dead for no good reason.

Days of yore (Wikimedia)

To interrupt Mike Lofgren’s account for a moment: this is a transition I’ve often reflected on too. When I was a kid, either I mowed the family lawn, or my brother did. OK, that was a long time ago, and in a small town. But when our two sons were young, in early and mid-1990s, they mowed our lawn — and made money mowing the neighbors’ lawns as well. That was right in Washington D.C., and it was within more-or-less the modern era. We even had a neighbor (who moved out long ago) known as Lawnmower Man, because he would lovingly trim his lawn every few days.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a local teenager or householder mowing lawns or doing yardwork in the vicinity. Again, this is a controlled-by-location, variable-by-time observation: same part of Washington, different eras, within living memory mainly done by householders, now virtually all work done commercial landscaping crews. Just reinforcing Mike Lofgren’s observation.

Back to him:

2. You mentioned that the absence of regulation means low-wage immigrant laborers are exposed to pollution. Has it ever occurred to suburban Republicans who hate immigrants worse than strychnine poisoning that there is a thing called supply and demand?

How many of them hire lawn services, which are probably the biggest single source of employment for Latin American male immigrants? In a decade or so, many of them will be filing for SSI disability payments based on occupational hearing loss (hearing protection is often nonexistent). And having a madly vibrating backpack blower strapped to one’s body several hours a day, day after day, will certainly cause neuromuscular disorders over time.

3. Whether commercial or do-it-yourself, does no one know how to operate the marvelous contrivance called a leaf rake anymore? It’s good exercise, and I find it is more efficient for gathering up leaves.

4. In the age of Amazon, the number of loud, diesel-powered delivery vans coursing through residential areas seems to have increased by an order of magnitude. A large van would seem to have ample space for an abundant battery pack. There is no reason why vans on a fixed itinerary could not be battery-electric powered.

5. The DOT-mandated back-up beepers of the commercial vehicles and construction vehicles (like Bobcats and backhoes) that have proliferated in suburbia are, in some instances, piercingly loud. I recall one case of a beeper that could be heard a half mile away. Back-up cameras and/or pedestrian avoidance systems could in some cases alleviate the noise problem. [JF note: ah, back-up beeps…..]

To test my hypothesis, I went on a two-mile walk this afternoon. It was impossible to be out of earshot of the racket generated by commercial landscaping services. These operations are creating externalities that we will pay for later, quite apart from their damage to tranquility and privacy.


For a different perspective, a reader who used to live outside Boston and now lives in further-north New England. She writes:

First, whether fall leaves will disintegrate over the winter and fertilize your lawn depends entirely on what kind of tree we're talking about, and maybe how cold your climate is.  Maple and even more so oak leaves are remarkably resistant to decomposition.  Leave a large quantity of either on your lawn and you'll have a matted mess in the spring and patches of no grass at all.  Even putting them in the compost is problematic.  And they can cause rot of the crowns of perennials if they're not pulled back early in spring.

Shredded, either by the lawnmower or a shredder that's at least as noisy as a blower, they're great stuff for mulch and compost, but by themselves, they're murder (at least in northern areas with real winters and snow cover and stuff).  So just leaving them be isn't as easy an option as it sounds in many cases.

Secondly, I'm guessing this won't be as much of a problem in your neighborhood, but in my old home town, an inner suburb of Boston , the attempt by some residents to get some simple regulation on hours of use blew up into a full-scale civil war in the town that raged for a couple of years between the long-time "townies" and the more recent, more "professional class" arrivals.

The townies took the side of the little landscaper outfits, who understandably wanted to be able to do their work in town at their convenience…. There had been, as in many gradually gentrifying suburban communities, simmering resentments between the two sides for many years, but this leaf-blower thing blew it wide open.  

I understand the neighborhood-cleavage potential. In our area, the natural axis would not be newcomer/previous resident but rather one based on working patterns. People who are at downtown offices all day, or often away on weekends, would be on one side. On the other, people at home with children, or working at home, or working nights, or retired, or disabled, or for other reasons present during the day.

This potential for ill-will is why I’ve stayed out of this issue until very recently. (While personally not liking the omnipresent noise, and not working at home any more because of it. I wrote a book in 1993 and another in 1996 mainly at my home office in Washington. The ones since then I’ve mainly written elsewhere.)

What’s changed recently, for me, is the evidence that these two-stroke gas-powered noisy leafblower engines really are an anomaly. Because of their inefficiency and hyper-polluting nature (30 minutes of leafblower use creates pollutants comparable to driving a pickup truck 3800 miles), they’ve been banned or phased out in most other uses. For more than a decade the EPA has been prohibiting them as boat motors. Motorcycle and scooter makers make very few any more. Countries like Thailand and Indonesia are trying to clean their air in part by getting rid of two-stroke engines (as explained here). They anachronistically persist in widespread first-world use mainly on lawn crews, which is bad for public health in general but most of all for the lawn-crew members themselves.

At the same time as legal and environmental momentum has increased against the dirty two-stroke engines, the electric alternatives have been becoming more plausible, thanks to improvements in battery technology and other innovations. The switch will come sooner or later, and in my view it is worth trying to nudge it along.