Imagine a city without the sounds of cars

I was doomscrolling Twitter the other day, saw this Tweet from a friend, and laughed a bit too loudly:

It reminded me that my favorite thing about my visit to Tokyo last year was the least expected: it’s an eerily quiet city!

Wherever I go, I try to put into practice one of my favorite urban exploration exercises: “the listening game.” Here’s how it works:

  • 1. Stop for sixty seconds wherever you are in the city.
  • 2. Breathe and enjoy the sounds you hear.
  • 3. Keep a list in your head of every kind of sound you hear (e.g. caw of a crow, wind in the trees, voices of children laughing).

It’s something that anyone can do at any time (unless you have a hearing disability), on any walk wherever you are. I’ve done this exercise in Times Square and in a forest, and you can even try it in your own backyard, which I also recommend.

One warning: if you’re like me, you’ll notice how frequently you hear the sound of cars.

In the Twin Cities, anyway, you hear cars almost everywhere. I thought about this again recently after it finally rained, and the sound of the freeway eight blocks away, and all the other busy streets, became so much louder. The hum of car tires is insidious in American cities, like social tinnitus ringing in the ears of the neighborhood.

(I once mapped this out for a project I was working on, recording decibel levels at different distances from I-94 in Saint Paul.)

From my Rondo Public Space study.

That’s why Tokyo was so surprising. I was expecting it to sound like New York City, where the street creates an omnipresent hum even from a window ten stories up in an apartment building: the honking of a horn, the wail of a siren, the din of traffic streaming down a wide avenue around the corner. 

I was sure Tokyo would be worse. The city is gigantic and twice as dense as New York City. And after all, everyone’s seen those videos of people flooding through a crosswalk.

A loud and busy part of the city, outside the biggest train station.

I was stunned to find out that most of Tokyo is really quiet! I spent a week there before the pandemic gripped the world, and the placidity was amazing. Sure there are freeways in Tokyo (though they’re rare by our standards) and wide streets (though, despite F&F:TD, most people drive the speed limit there), but the vast majority of streets in that huge city are narrow, with design speeds below 20 miles per hour. As a result, car drivers yield to just about everything and everyone. 

The back streets of Tokyo, where everyone does all their walking, are peaceful, quiet places. You can hear the chirping of a bird a block away or the rustle of the wind in a tree in a garden. You can have a conversation in a normal voice with a companion, and walk for miles with almost no anxiety about suddenly having a car careening around the corner at you.

A quiet street in Akasaka, Tokyo.

It was amazing. I walked for miles through Tokyo and marveled at the serenity of the streets and the quality of life in a metro area with a population of 37 million and density that’s many times that of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It really made me rethink the assumption, so common in American conversation, that density is synonymous with noise. 

Of course, there are other streets in Tokyo that are wildly loud and chaotic, where the sound of pachinko parlors, plastic video game characters, giant TVs on the sides of buildings, and even an occasional walking life-size mascot seem like the Minnesota State Fair every day of the year. But having that contrast was wonderful, the highs and lows of experience, as opposed to what we so often have in our American cities: the omnipresent sounds of traffic and cars, and maybe, if you’re especially lucky, the distinctive whine of someone running a leaf blower.

4 thoughts on “Imagine a city without the sounds of cars

  1. Teddy-D

    This is a very often overlooked topic, thanks for raising it.

    It often strikes me as hypocritical how many of those whose primary mode of transportation is via use of combustion engines (EVs are amazingly quieter) decry the law breaking of bicyclists and “jay walkers” but seem completely unphased by an idling muscle car, motorcycle or any other modified exhaust designed almost entirely to intimidate others on the road that are in complete violation of just about any noise ordinance. Contrary to the phrase, loud pipes don’t actually save lives and actually with estimates that 85% of motorcycle owners are running modified exhaust systems (and at least half a million truck owners have disabled their emission controls entirely) they’re actually contributing to worse emissions and pollution that decreases the quality of our air and our life spans. Cities aren’t actually that loud…but cars are.

    1. Trademark

      Everyone’s hypocritical in someway regards to the laws they care about and wish were prosecuted more and ones they don’t care about.

  2. genomad

    I had the same impression when I visited Tokyo in 2017. It was surprisingly quiet!!!. And the train system is amazing!!.. One area where it could improve is there are a lot of streets that were empty where the sidewalks were crowded. Also it needs bike lanes, I saw lots of bicyclists but they were almost always riding on the already crowded sidewalks.

    Anyway. I’ve been to many cities in Europe, Japan, China and all over the US. The cities in the US are louder and harder to walk around than any I have visited overseas. We can do better.

    Few things would make me happier than to live somewhere walkable with no loud exhaust noise and no mega bass…. I basically always wear noise cancelling headphones when I’m outside these days 🙁

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