December 04, 2023

Making Noise about Noise with Ingrid Buday

Noise pollution in our cities is something we experience every day from traffic to construction to fireworks, yet it doesn’t get as much attention as other issues facing Torontonians. However, the noise bylaw review will come to the Economic and Community Development Committee on January 11, 2024. I spoke with Ingrid Buday on November 15, 2023 to learn about her advocacy story on noise and why Torontonians need to get involved with this noise bylaw review.

RZ: What was your motivation to make noise about noise?
IB: My motivation started when I was getting woken up by motorcycles and racing vehicles on the empty streets in my area during the pandemic and I tried to log complaints with 311 like we're supposed to do. The complaints got closed, they told me to phone the police, and then they wanted the vehicle license plate, picture, and description which I can’t do at 3:30 in the morning in my pyjamas on the 25th floor. I started tweeting out my frustration and found out I am not alone, so now my motivation is much bigger than me. I've learned how many people – whether it's from leaf blowers, motorcycles, construction noise, or garbage trucks at four in the morning – are subjected to unnecessary noise and it's really impacting their health and livelihoods.

RZ: You created this “Not 311” Noise Report which got over 8000 responses. Walk me through how you developed this tool and what were the most common kinds of noise complaints?
IB: I learned about this when I took an introductory GIS course at University of Toronto in the first winter of the pandemic because I always loved maps. That's where I saw I could – with minimal knowledge of website programming and GIS software – create a survey that somebody could complete on their phone, which would put a pin on a map that can be seen with everybody else's. To me, that was so powerful because of how many times we all submitted surveys and the results are never shared with us. Because I felt alone in my plight against noise, I thought other people did too and that's exactly the case.

This is the second version of the noise report I started. I did a pilot last year, refined it again this year, and found almost 90% of the complaints are from motor vehicles and small engines – including leaf blowers – and vehicle noise is the complaint that’s handled the worst by 311. If you look at it from a process or workflow, I'm in bed, I make a report to the city, the city says call the police, and closes the report. Then, I want to make that report to the police but don't have the information, so the report never gets made and that's where people are extremely frustrated. They don't know what to do and there’s a lot of apathy around noise because whatever they've tried hasn't worked. That's why I wanted to make this visual display of the community to show how many people and where and what time the noise occurred.

RZ: While looking at the Not 311 map, I noticed very few data points for Scarborough and Northwest Toronto. Do you know why that’s the case?
IB: Because I'm bouncing around in my echo chamber. I need to get out there because there are noise issues everywhere. I did a noise measurement at Danforth and Victoria Park with my measuring equipment which is one of the loudest intersections I've been at, so I know noise is everywhere. The noise bylaws are under review right now; the City held six public consultations in which 750 people turned out from all over the city and they got 2200 emails before the feedback window closed on October 15. The problem is trying to reach and engage those people, so I have a crowdfunded media campaign with the Small Change Fund so people can donate directly to that media campaign. I can then push out that message closer to January 11th when we can depute about the noise bylaws at the Economic and Community Development Committee.

RZ: Do you know why the noise bylaw review was delayed from the previous November 28 date?
IB: When the City held six public consultations, they only had one for motor vehicles. I asked the following question: “If the City of Toronto is trying to manage motor vehicle noise and they need the Toronto Polices to stop the vehicles so that the bylaw officers with the sound level meter can test the vehicles, have they talked with Toronto Police before?” The answer was “no” which didn’t make sense because engaging the police is how you mitigate this noise source. What that did was poke some of the holes to determine whether the City talked with Toronto Public Health, Toronto Police, and other important stakeholders. Given this and the overwhelming feedback with 2200 e-mails, the City pushed it back to engage with stakeholders and go through the feedback.

RZ: What prompted you to use noise meters in addition to the “Not 311” tool?
IB: When I started getting annoyed by noise and looked at a heat map of the city’s noise, it says my area is loud at 90 decibels, but didn't show the spikes I live with daily such as sudden accelerations. I bought a noise meter so I could understand and that's when I saw these individual noise spikes which is much more accurate because it's not an average. I ended up connecting with Tor Oiamo – associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University – who did a YouTube video (see below) and he said we don't know enough about noise at the bedroom window. I started to reach out to people about putting meters on their balconies or front porches so we could understand what people are living with. I now have 10 of my own meters and put them all over in quiet places, loud places, provincial parks, and on the 45th floor of condos. I can look at a week and then count the number of noise spikes that people are subjected to, so we're not dealing with averages anymore. We're dealing with data and numbers, and now I can start to extrapolate the number of noise impacts people have if they live close to a highway or an arterial.

RZ: Could you explain some of the work Tor Oiamo has done on the noise file?
IB: He is a world expert on traffic and urban noise who has been cited. When the noise bylaws started to be reviewed in 2015, they commissioned a report from Toronto Public Health called “How Loud is Too Loud” which he was the main researcher. He has done some other studies and has been referenced by the World Health Organization. Now, he’s in Norway studying building envelopes because in Norway, if somebody experiences 45 decibels or greater in their home, the noise maker must pay for them to mitigate the sound coming into their homes whether that’s the street, the city, or a train station. He shared that in a panel we had last week. Europe is at the forefront of noise mitigation. They have much better regulations whether it comes to vehicles, air pollution, and noise pollution. I am thankful that we are collaborating on noise and he supports my work because many researchers like their research, but they don't necessarily want to be the loudmouth that makes all the noise, so I'm happy to be that person.

RZ: How did your noise story get included in Hot Docs’ “Citizen Minutes” series?
IB: It’s all about connections; sometimes a thin little thread. When I started doing advocacy – including with Community Bikeways – I learned about Civic Tech which is a group of people that like to use tech for civic good. I did a presentation there and (then) Grade Eight student Arushi Nath attended who has done a lot of deputations. She’s awesome. Her dad then emailed me and told me about the Toronto Public Space Committee – a Dave Meslin group – so I participated in one session of theirs and introduced myself as somebody who studies noise. Cat Mills – who’s the director of the film – was in that meeting and she reached out to me afterwards saying noise is interesting and after a few emails, she asked if I would be interested in doing a pitch for Hot Docs. Apparently, this got chosen because after showing the two-minute quirky and fun pitch trailer, everybody shared their noise story and felt this had to go further. Then it went to the next iteration, and the same thing happened so they knew that it was relatable and a concern for many people. I would not be as loud and as much in the public eye if I didn’t have that, so I'm very grateful for that thin little thread that wound all the way through to Hot Docs.

RZ: What are you expecting to see in the noise review report due at the Economic and Community Development Committee on January 11?
IB: The City and the Police need to enforce what is illegal now. Right now, the Toronto Police must stop the vehicle and team up with the City bylaw officers who have the sound level meters. I was riding along the Martin Goodman Trail recently when I saw a cop pull over a car. I asked what he got that guy for, and he said improper muffler. On a visual inspection, the police can ticket under the Highway Traffic Act, so do it. I want the City to take preventative action on noise instead of waiting for something to happen first. They should be going to the shops that modify mufflers and after giving them warnings, remove their licences for noncompliance. The City needs to improve the reporting process so that moving violations – which are 90% of the No More Noise Toronto noise complaints – go directly to the police.

The second thing is the City should do checks on amplified sound from clubs and bars at 11:00 at night, and 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning because that keeps a lot of people up at night. With the night economy coming up, that’s going to be a huge source of problems and amplified sound is the number one noise source complaint according to the City of Toronto.

The last recommendation would be for the City to appoint someone responsible for noise in public spaces. When condos are built, the builder needs to do a noise impact assessment, which is how much noise the building’s systems make. When you build tall buildings across or beside each other, they don’t look at the noise that creating a second hard wall causes, which will impact people in the original building because the street sound bounces off the other building. We need to look at the public space and make sure it is not impacted as much as possible because if we're going to have transit-oriented communities, buildings are getting taller and we're going to have more noise canyons. It's only going to get louder, and more people will be impacted because there is no sound mitigation above tree level.

RZ: Which noise matters fall under Toronto, provincial, and federal jurisdictions?
IB: The City can only have jurisdiction over certain noise sources such as construction, amplified sound, and stationary vehicles. Even then, the province can interfere and override them. The Night Economy Review is coming up, which hopefully will help to manage sounds coming from eating and drinking establishments and nightclubs.

At the provincial level, there are laws in the Highway Traffic Act for modifying vehicles for which the police can lay charges. Other cities such as Windsor and Orillia have done blitzes under the Highway Traffic Act and issued citations. Sound is defined as a contaminant that may cause an adverse effect in the Ontario Environmental Protection Act. I need to look more into this in 2024.

At the federal level, noise or sound is not in the Environmental Protection Act where it should be. Air pollution is there, but noise pollution isn't. When a vehicle gets manufactured in Canada, it is subject to Noise Standard 1106 which means the vehicles are tested to be 82 decibels. Any electric vehicle or import should come under that standard. Well, you can't tell me that Ferraris are 82 decibels since they all get modified. Once the vehicle is under that federal standard, then that vehicle gets dropped on a truck and moved over to another province, and then the provincial laws take over.

So, you have the vehicle which is regulated as a product federally and then they regulate the behavior or how that product is used provincially, so where does that 82-decibel standard go? I proposed a policy to the Green Party in September to look at those holes. If we ever want to use noise cameras, a decibel level is needed to trigger the camera. The equipment has an array of microphones to tell which vehicle is making the noise, and take a picture of the license plate. The decibel level threshold should go right down to the municipal level. The City should have a decibel level of 85 decibels because negative health impacts start at 55 decibels, so we're still giving 30 decibels of negative impact to people.

RZ: Where is the intersection between noise and road safety?
IB: Tor Oiamo said that 60% of the noise in Toronto comes from vehicles, and noise and speed are directly related. We were asked in a panel what's the best way to make Toronto a better sounding city, which is to reduce the speeds on our roads and the ability for people to suddenly accelerate. There are the problems of racing and stunt driving even when you think about road safety. Daniela Levy-Pinto who’s blind cannot make sense of our environment because the loud sounds are muffled, so that's where I look at that 85 decibels. If we really want to think about it, we should try and get down to 55 decibels; kind of how Vision Zero calls for zero traffic deaths. We need to have something like TOnight45 as a goal to get down to 45 decibels at night so we can sleep well. During the day, 55 decibels would be great because then Daniela would be able to hear more and feel safer. The word she uses to describe how she feels when navigating her city is terrified. No one should be terrified on a sidewalk. We sometimes get terrified on our bikes because of the erratic driving behavior of people, but if you're on the sidewalk, you should feel safe, comfortable, and not be assaulted by sound.

RZ: What are some resources you can suggest for those who want to learn more about noise?
IB: My website is where people can sign up for noise news – my newsletter – for the bylaw review period which is the best way to stay informed. The other thing they could do is go to the Small Change Fund to donate to the media campaign to get into Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough. The problems are there. It's just a matter of how to reach those people. People also need to share their testimony with the City and elected officials. I will make it easy for them to send emails and share their story on January 11th. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so there's a whole bunch of people in Toronto that need to get squeaky and loud because we are a silent majority. We just want to sleep and enjoy our homes, but we need to advocate for that. No More Noise Toronto’s goal is to engage and equip people to do that.

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