Tuesday, January 21, 2014, 07:49
Quiet, please! Hong Kong is suffering from severe noise pollution
By Albert Lin

Hong Kong is too noisy because, as a rule of thumb, not only are some members of our industrial,  construction and commercial sectors uncaring about the noise their operations create, but too many of our flat-dwelling residents are seemingly deaf to the noise they generate.

The root cause of today’s noise pollution in Hong Kong is poor planning in the past coupled with cramped development.  With its limited land supply Hong Kong’s expansion had only one way to go — upward.  But each high-rise added to population density involving ever greater numbers of people crammed into multi-story accommodation on either side of the harbor.

And so, to accommodate increasing road traffic, we saw the construction of elevated highways that in some cases run just outside families’ living rooms, which brings us to our biggest single noise problem today — noise pollution from traffic, affecting more than 1 million people.  And the reason for our noisy roads is that Hong Kong has a gross imbalance of motor vehicles compared with road supply.  These statistics put it very plainly — there are 318 licensed vehicles for every kilometer of road, and 70 percent of all vehicles on our roads are private cars — a total of 464,595 of them.

Just think what a catastrophic situation would take place during our morning and evening rush-hours if we didn’t have the MTR and all the other bus, minibus, train and tram operators providing our super-efficient public transport system.

Happily, more than 30 km of barriers and screens have been erected along our new roads since 1990, providing a buffer against traffic noise for New Territories residents living nearby.  Specially paved low-noise road surfaces are also being used to reduce traffic noise.  But such noise-amelioration measures simply cannot be applied to old, existing urban roads, except if they are to be re-surfaced — which would in turn involve major traffic diversions.

Returning to our noisy industrial/commercial operations, sometimes the explanation is that noise-mitigation measures haven’t been fully introduced because they cost money and affect the company’s profits.  Often only the barest possible steps are taken, prodded along by prosecutions launched by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD).  Although set up in 1986, the EPD only got its “teeth” three years later, when the Noise Control Ordinance was passed.  This empowered its inspectors to take offenders to court as they struggled to get a grip on the runaway noise pollution that was beginning to seriously affect our living standards.

The worst offenders in those days were the builders’ pile drivers crashing away to create the solid foundations of construction projects.  Unremittingly they thumped away at least 12 hours a day as our economy boomed and residential and commercial developments blossomed across the urban areas.

Today pile-driving is limited to three to five hours a day in built-up areas, quieter machinery must be used and various noise-abatement procedures exercised on site.  Nevertheless some anti-social construction companies still flout the regulations, and seem to regard fines for noise offences as an overhead.

Meanwhile, let us now consider the domestic noise-maker, tens of thousands of whom seem to regard excessive noise as the norm.  It seems that their voices are just as loud as their general conduct — especially a TV set with the volume turned up high.  Other domestic noise issues include faulty air-conditioners that wheeze and clank hour after hour, neighbors who think nothing of slamming their iron gates, and faulty intruder alarm systems that go off in the middle of the night, rudely awakening hundreds of nearby flat-dwellers.

On the other hand, did you know that different people respond differently to the same level of noise?  And that some people’s hearing is permanently affected because when growing up they lived amid the constant racket, usually from pile-drivers?

Everybody in Hong Kong can help reduce noise. Don’t turn up your TV or hi-fi too loud, especially at night.  Always be considerate of your neighbors, especially if activities such as renovation work or repairs are taking place.  Close your doors and windows to reduce the noise — and try to limit the tradesmen’s activities from 8 am to 6 pm.

The author is the Op-Ed editor of China Daily Hong Kong Edition.