Loud and proud in the noise capital of Europe

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The Independent Online
ECHOING those ponderous academic studies that demonstrate the blindingly obvious, Madrid's local authorities have spent nearly pounds 5.5m in a three-year study that shows that the Spanish capital remains the noisiest in Europe. The results bear out an OECD study some years back that ranked Spain as the noisiest country in the world, after Japan.

Six acoustic measuring points set up throughout the city registered a noise level of more than 65 decibels for most of the time. This is the safety limit of tolerance set by the World Health Organisation and the EU's "maximum permitted sound level". Main roads roar beyond the city's own 70 decibels limit, and big traffic intersections hit a mighty 80 decibels during the three daily rush hours: from 6.30am to 10am, 1pm to 5pm and 7pm to 10pm.

An exasperated opposition socialist councillor, Ruth Porta, complained this week: "The conservative city council has spent Pts1.3bn (pounds 5.4m) to measure the noise level we have to endure, but hasn't contributed a single peseta to reducing it." Eighty per cent of the noise pollution is caused by traffic - car horns, engines and motorcycle exhausts - and the rest from industry, bars and shopping areas.

The authorities insist that noise levels are no worse than 20 years ago, despite a 30 per cent increase in traffic. "In southern cities like ours, we have more street life, there is more activity, and you notice it," explains the head of noise control at the City Hall, Placido Perera. Stress, insomnia, aggression and lack of concentration are the main effects, but according to Mr Perera, "city noise does not cause permanent damage".

The best way of quietening the row, the authorities admit, is for people to use public transport rather than the private car, but nobody seriously expects that to happen. The Socialists propose roundabouts instead of traffic lights, more acoustic screens - the last one was put up in 1991 - and repaving streets with a more porous asphalt that absorbs moisture and reduces noise.

So what will the city do? Set up more measuring stations, for a start: there will be 25 throughout Madrid by September. From next week they will start measuring the noise produced by heavy lorries and building works.

The problem is that most people don't find noise a problem. Spaniards - whose own language was described by the writer Laurie Lee as "the dry throaty rattle of pebbles being rolled down a gully" - are mostly self- assertive and gregarious and used since childhood to raising their voices to make themselves heard. You find gentle speakers outside Madrid, but few in the capital.

Awoken on a Sunday morning by an insistent monotonous shouting down a megaphone, I looked from my terrace to see two men touting bouquets of roses off the back of a truck, inflicting a gruesome form of noise pollution upon a quiet residential street. But it seemed to be effective: a woman not only bought two bunches, she broke off a bloom and, with a flourish, pinned it behind her ear.