I was standing at a traffic light the other day waiting for the lights to change. I was alone and there was no traffic. I shut my eyes for a moment and apart from a bit of wind there was an astonishing silence. A rare moment of calm in the big city.
And then as the light went green a big motorbike roared past, a taxi grumbled past me, and then bus screamed in protest at the slope it was negotiating. It reminded me yet again of how appalling is the noise of our streets. We are so inured to it that we don’t notice. Stop for a moment next time you’re out. Stop and listen. It’s quite amazing. And listen for those moments when there’s a lull in traffic. It’s almost blissful.
But most of us are plugged into iPods. There is no silence left and when there is, most of us get fidgety. We feel that there should be some noise. A bit like being afraid of the dark. We have to have street lighting because otherwise……….
As a cyclist, the soundscape around me is absolutely crucial. I need to be listening since it gives me clues to what is where and how far away. That means that I have a love hate relationship with sound – I hate it because most vehicles are so horrendously noisy – both their engines and the sound of the tyres clattering away on the tarmac – it all adds up. If you hitch-hike, the noise beside a major road is staggering – it was always the real down side of travelling that way – and none of notice because we are usually in our cars, insulated from it when we travel.
It always surprises me to see cyclists with headphones on. How can they possibly have an awareness of what is around them. Maybe they look round more – few of them have any extra mirrors. I wonder whether there is any correlation between accidents and iPods. The data must be out there.
But for me, it is the Prius that gives me pause; it’s so damned quiet. It sneaks up behind you at junctions. There is nothing to warn you that it’s started to move. Much as I like their extra mileage, their very quietness worries me as a cyclist. And I’ve had a black Tesla roadster surge pass me a couple of time on Royal College Street in the last few months – both times it was rather terrifying because all there was was a gentle hiss to betray its presence. But just imagine how quiet our world would be if there were only electric cars. No wonder the Milk Board always used electric floats for their 5 am round of delivery – just that tiny whirring noise to betray their presence compared with the much noisier Supermarket delivery vans (though, to be fair, there are a fair smattering of electric ones that claims to be “zero emissions”).
Yet the very silence of the electric vehicles has raised fears for pedestrians (and cyclists) accustomed to vehicles having a corresponding roar to announce their presence. As a cyclist I’m only too well aware of how much pedestrians rely on their hearing to cross the road. Some barely look up from their texting. So now the proposal is to oblige electric cars to make noise. Synthetic noise will be cranked out by a speaker to warn people of their impending doom should they be foolish enough not to look round.
The very idea is too depressing. To me, the silence is one of the real selling points of electric vehicles, quite aside from their higher energy efficiency.
So what does one do about it? I like bells. I have a large ding dong bell – almost 10 cms across – on my bike. It’s audible about 100 m away and people smile when they hear it because, I think, it reminds them of their childhood. “Ding dong”. They look up. It’s not like a horn. It’s not agressive. It’s childlike and innocent. It’s an “I Am Here” sort of noise rather than the “@%^& Off And Get Out Of My Way ‘cos I’m Bigger Than You” that cars and vans make. And a lot of bicycles in fact rattle and ring and creak slightly given them a gentle sound all of their own.
So why not affix bells to electric cars? Sleigh bells on an elastic cord so that as the car vibrates on the road it makes the bells ring gently and in friendly fashion. Simple bells are very robust, they don’t break. they won’t need to be replaced because the chip burns out. The cord can be made of some imperishable rubber – butyl’s a bit pricey but how much will you need? And you can still have horn for emergencies.
It will make for quieter cities, more human, more pleasurable. And with bells. Jingling bells of different timbres and pitches. Think of it.
But will anyone run with it? I doubt it. It’s just too low tech. It’s not clever enough. And it doesn’t make it sound macho. It doesn’t sound like an item you’ve spent a lot of money on, that you want people to turn round and look at. It doesn’t sound like a car, in fact.