Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wearing Earplugs on the Subway

The world is loud. Not just the modern world, the natural one is too. Let's focus on the modern one based in a bustling city. Heavy shipping trucks, cars being floored to make the next red, sirens blasting, and people doing people things like talking in very large groups. If you're really lucky, an air show will be in town and a jet might go supersonic right over your head.
An SPL Meter
Not so ignorable
I consider all of the above sources of noise to be somewhat intermittent and ignorable. The same can't really be said of the traffic below ground, specifically subways. Public transit has been my primary means of getting around the city for years. It didn't take long for the squealing wheels and tons of solid steel moving through enclosed tunnels to get to me.

Down in the tunnels
Initially, what bugged me were the ear piercing squeals that the subway trains often made when they stopped. Their high frequency made it feel much worse. As my ridership grew, it became apparent that the noise wasn't just overwhelming when the trains stopped: most of my trip wasn't much better.

Noise while in the tunnels felt worse than when the train hit open air. However, the problem didn't go away when the train was above ground. Research suggested that noise levels in subway systems were not on the quiet side. Some news agencies did some interesting reports with Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meters and the results were a bit unsettling. Eventually, I caved and started wearing earplugs whenever I took the subway.

Earplugs: A hindrance
It's been years since I started wearing earplugs on subways. The first few dozen times, I felt very self-conscious. Now I don't care. They're definitely a hindrance when trying to carry a conversation. However, those occasions are rare and most of the talking I do on subways is to myself or very brief with people asking for directions.

An SPL meter on a subway
Recently, I got the idea to take my SPL meter on to a subway and see how loud my subway ride was. There have been news reports on the subject so I had an idea, but doing something yourself is always more interesting.

And here it is, a video showing the loudness of my subway ride during an above ground, open air portion of my ride. The meter hasn't ever been independently calibrated or tested for accuracy. It is also a pretty basic model so who knows how accurate the numbers really are. To summarize, the meter reading hovers around the 85-90 dBC range.

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