Roadway noise

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Sound level meter used in measuring noise

Roadway noise is the collective sound energy emanating from motor vehicles. In the USA it contributes more to environmental noise exposure than any other noise source, and is constituted chiefly of engine, tire, aerodynamic and braking elements.


Roadway noise began to be measured in a widespread manner in the 1960s, when computer modeling of this phenomenon was perfected. After passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and Noise Control Act, the demand for detailed analysis soared, and decision makers began to look to acoustical scientists for answers regarding the planning of new roadways and the design of noise mitigation.

Description of basic variables

The intensity of roadway noise is governed by the following variables: traffic operations (speed, truck mix, age of vehicle fleet), roadway surface type, tire types, roadway geometrics, terrain, micrometeorology and the geometry of area structures.

Traffic operations

Traffic operations noise is affected significantly by vehicle speeds, since sound energy roughly doubles for each increment of ten miles an hour in vehicle velocity; an exception to this rule occurs at very low speeds where braking and acceleration noise dominate over aerodynamic noise. Small reductions in vehicle noise occurred in the 1970s as states and provinces enforced unmuffled vehicle ordinances. The vehicle fleet noise has not changed very much over the last three decades; however, if the trend in hybrid vehicle use continues, substantial noise reduction will occur, especially in the regime of traffic flow below 35 miles per hour. As a pedestrian safety issue, hybrid vehicles are so quiet at low speeds that the customary warning noise may not alert the pedestrian to nearby danger, creating a potential hazard for visually-impaired people, who rely on such noise to navigate in areas of heavy traffic, find it particularly difficult to, for instance, cross streets. Trucks contribute a disproportionate amount of noise not only because of their large engines, but also the height of the diesel stack and the aerodynamic drag. Significant interior noise is usually present inside moving motor vehicles; in fact, passengers are generally not aware that these levels are high, because experience has led motorists to expect levels commonly exceeding 65 dBA.

Roadway surface

Roadway surface types contribute differential noise effects of up to 4 dB, with chip seal type and grooved roads being the loudest and concrete surfaces without spacers being the quietest. Asphaltic surfaces are about average.

Tire types

Tire types had considerable design changes in the 1970s, and at this juncture are probably optimized for noise control, given the needs of safety for a significant grip by the tread.

Roadway geometics

Roadway geometics and surrounding terrain are interrelated, since the propagation of sound is sensitive to the overall geometry and must consider diffraction (bending of sound waves around obstacles), reflection, ground wave attenuation, spreading loss and refraction. A simplistic discussion indicates that sound will be diminished when the path of sound is blocked by terrain, or will be enhance if the roadway is elevated so as to broadcast; however, the complexities of variable interaction are so great, that there are a legion of exceptions to this simple argument.

Micrometeorology is quite significant in that sound waves can be refracted by wind gradients or thermoclines effectively dismissing the effect of some sound barriers or terrain intervention.

Geometry of area structures is an important input, since the presence of buildings or walls can block sound under certain circumstances, but reflective properties can augment sound energy at other locations.

Computer models for roadway noise

Because of the complexity of the variables discussed, it is necessary to create a computer model that can analyze sound levels in the vicinity of roadways. The first meaningful models arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of the leading research teams were BBN in Boston and ESL Inc. of Sunnyvale, California. Both of these groups developed complex mathematical models to allow the study of alternate roadway designs, traffic operations and noise mitigation strategies in an arbitrary setting. Later model alterations have come into widespread use among state Departments of Transportation and city planners, but the accuracy of early models has had little change in 40 years.

Generally the models trace sound ray bundles and calculate spreading loss along with ray bundle divergence (or convergence} from refractive phenomena. Diffraction is usually addressed by establishing secondary emitters at any points of topographic or anthropomorphic “sharpness” (such as noise barriers or building surfaces. Meteorology can be addressed in a statistical manner allowing for actual wind rose and wind speed statistics (along with thermocline data).

Case studies

An interesting early case where two of the leading models were pitted against each other involved a proposed widening of the New Jersey Turnpike from six to twelve lanes. The BBN and ESL models were on opposing sides of a matter decided in New Jersey Superior Court. This case in the early 1970s was one of the first U.S. examples of acoustical scientists playing a role in the design of a major highway. The models allowed the court to understand the effects of roadway geometry (width in this case), vehicle speeds, proposed noise barriers, residential setback and pavement types. The outcome was a compromise that involved substantial mitigation of noise pollution impacts.

Another early case involved the proposed extension of Interstate 66 through Arlington, Virginia. The plaintiff, Arlington Coalition on Transportation sued the Virginia Department of Transportation on the grounds of air quality, noise and neighborhood disruption. To analyze roadway noise, the ESL model was used by the plaintiff, who won this case partially due to the credibility of the computer model. The matter was revisited a decade later and a greatly reduced highway design with transit element and extensive noise mitigation was agreed to.

Later cases have occurred in every state, both in contentious actions and in routine highway planning and design. The public as well as governmental agencies have become aware of the value of acoustical science to provide useful insights to the roadway design process.

External links

See also