Historic city centers, architectural wonders and other remarkable sights, delicious food and drinks, religious and other cultural heritage or famous people: Each city has its unique set of characteristics that activates all of human senses and often gives us itchy feet. All of human senses? No! While most often people desire a city trip because of visual sense or taste buds, in very few cases it is because of a certain acoustic in a city.
Everyone is aware what sounds can do to people. How they can provoke emotions, how a song can make us sad or happy, or an annoying sound can – well – annoy us. Sounds have a huge impact on mind and well-being. This is particularly true in “noise polluted” areas such as urban centers. With urbanization taking place at tremendous pace, city centers are getting congested with more people, more shops and noisy traffic.
In fact, traffic is the main cause of noise pollution: Hooting cars in traffic jams, tuned scooters and motorcycles or vehicles with outdated combustion engines all add to a symphony of headaches. While this article does not want to promote noise pollution, it is rather an expedition into city’s unique sounds that contribute to the urban experience.
Historic announcements and sounds of different modes of transport
What pops into people’s mind when they think of London? Tower Bridge? Big Ben? Great stouts in dodgy pubs? Probably all of the above. And maybe only as a second impulse the unique announcements for the London Underground transportation system: “Mind the gap”. It is an audible (and visual) warning phrase issued to rail passengers in the U.K. to take caution while crossing the spatial gap between the train door and the station platform.
The phrase “Mind the gap” was coined in 1968 for a planned automated announcement, after it had become impractical for drivers and station attendants to warn passengers. As data storage capacity was expensive back then, the phrase had to be short. The announcement was recorded by an actor reading “Mind the gap” and “Stand clear of the closing doors please”.
And now think of Vienna. The Austrian capital is famous for its imperial sights, the smell of traditional coffee houses and the taste of a very special chocolate tart from the Hotel Sacher, but Vienna is also famous for a sound that has – to a great extent – been lost in today’s urban areas. A popular Viennese tourist attraction is horse carriages – or “Fiacre” as they are traditionally called – which not only leave a distinct smell in the city, but also a unique sound. The clicking hooves are remarkable and shape the city’s sound since 1693.
In Amsterdam, people cannot walk on the pavement without displeasing the gazillion cyclists biking through the city every day at an oftentimes abnormal pace. This commonly leads to a concert of cycle bells. Honking scooters waiting at traffic lights or overtaking in traffic jams cannot be considered unique to one single city, but instead are characteristic for many of the new urban hubs, particularly in newly industrializing economies such as Bangalore in India or Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. They also account for earaches in cultural strongholds such as Rome, where one can only escape the rattling Vespas by fleeing into a silent cathedral.
To fill the lack of public transportation in Nairobi, thousands of mini vans are transporting commuters from the outskirts of the city to the center and back. Somehow, it seems that the drivers of the Matatus (the mini vans) and the conductors get the party going every time they are on tour. To entertain the (“party”) crowd in the jammed minivans, the driver blasts the latest Nigerian and Kenyan dance and R’n’B tunes which people can hear all over the city.
While Matatus creates a unique atmosphere on the streets of Nairobi and make people feel like dancing every time a white van is passing by, the music industry has started to turn the table and is using urban traffic and means of transportation for inspiration.
Paul Kalkbrenner, a German techno DJ has landed a big hit with a song inspired by the unique sound of the closing subway doors in Berlin. The movie “Berlin Calling” shows how he recognized the sound while riding the subway, how he recorded it with his phone and how he turned it into a world hit – “Train”.
Similarly, the Ugandan singer and songwriter Maurice Kirya has produced a song about the scooter taxis “boda boda” in Uganda’s capital Kampala. And also the Viennese horse carriages made an appearance in the music industry. Gustav Pick, who lived from 1832 to 1921, was a musician and composed a very famous and popular song about the Viennese Fiacres – “Fiakerlied”.
What will the city of the future sound like?
A lot of characteristic urban sounds have been around for decades, but traffic is changing: Electric engines are taking over, in public transport as well as in vehicles. People are all hoping for less noise polluted traffic, silent cars and busses. While this is a worthy desire, the potential threat of silent traffic has been raised.
OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), suppliers and municipalities are thus working on sound designing the vehicle and city of the future. While this could be another chance for OEMs to strengthen their brand by adding a unique sound experience to their fleet, it is also an opportunity for municipalities to create a unique sound of silence for their public transportation system. And who knows: Maybe one day people will travel to a city and buy a sou(nd)venir?
European Union funded initiative called eVADER (Electric Vehicle Alert for Detection and Emergency Response) consisting of various participants including academic institutions, OEM’S and suppliers are developing innovative methods to improve the acoustic detectability of electric vehicles in urban settings. This study focuses not only on the sound produced inside the car, but also on the outside to improve the safety of electric vehicles.
Share your thoughts in the comment section: what is your unique city traffic sound experience?
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.