Traffic noise

Traffic noise is a serious problem in Germany, where surveys show that traffic-noise pollution has declined only marginally over the past decade. A statistically significant proportion of the German population is exposed to a sufficiently high level of noise pollution for this factor to constitute a probable health risk.

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Noise pollution

Traffic noise is the bane of many Germans’ lives. To be precise, 54 percent of Germans are disturbed by traffic noise, 34 percent by train noise, and 23 percent by aircraft noise. These statistics are from a representative survey of 2,000 persons that was recently conducted, titled Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2012.

Current German noise abatement policy makes very clear distinctions between various kinds of point sources, and thus as one would expect, noise abatement regulations and measures are point source specific. This also holds true for the citizens affected, who mainly focus on the predominant point source.

Noise pollution regulations

Although the 1974 Federal Pollution Control Act (BimSchG) meant the term “environmental degradation” to refer to all noise pollution factors as a whole, from the get-go the law’s traffic noise provisions only applied to conflicts of interests concerning road and rail traffic to the exclusion of air traffic, maritime traffic and existing rail lines.
The EU ambient noise directive, which was implemented in Germany in 2005, also takes a unified approach. However noise mapping and noise action planning, which began in 2007 and 2008 respectively, have as a rule always been based on heterogeneous strategies for the various point sources.


Noise abatement target values

The UBA and WHO have defined the following noise abatement target values, which are based on mean levels outside residences so as to also protect outdoor and urban gathering places:      

  • In the interest of averting health risks, noise levels should not exceed 65 dB(A) and 55 dB(A) during the day and night respectively (minimum target value).
  • In the interest of avoiding severe and potentially harmful noise pollution, noise levels should be reduced to 55 dB(A) and 45 dB(A) during the day and night respectively (medium target value).
  • The long term goal should be daytime and nocturnal noise levels of 50 dB(A) and 40 dB(A) respectively (optimal protection). If these targets are unrealistic, particularly in city centers, they are nonetheless useful as limit values for purposes such as cost-benefit analyses and indemnification regulations.

Point sources may be evaluated differently for the same acoustic level.

  • In its national noise protection program II (Nationales Verkehrslärmschutzpaket II), the Ministry of Traffic, Construction and Urban Development (Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung) defined the following minimum noise abatement objectives for 2020, relative to 2008 levels:
    • 10 dB(A) reduction in rail traffic noise
    • 5 dB(A) reduction in road traffic noise
    • dB(A) reduction in air traffic noise

Effect of time of day on noise effects

Unlike many other types of environmental degradation, noise effects vary considerably depending on when they occur over the course of a given day. People divide their days into a work phase, a sleep phase and a relaxation phase. The EU ambient noise directive allows for the fact that while sleeping or relaxing, people are more prone to be disturbed by an additional 5 dB(A) in the evening and 10 dB(A) at night. As a rule, Germany’s noise emission reduction objectives, guide values and limit values call for a 10 dB(A) reduction at night relative to daytime levels. Paragraph 29(b) of the Air Traffic Act (Luftverkehrsgesetz) stipulates that nightly rest is subject to special protection. By stipulating that nightly rest is incompatible with a target value exceeding 40 dB(A) and an interim value of 55 dB(A), WHO’s Night Noise Guidelines (2009) raised the bar in this domain.

Nighttime and weekend noise abatement

Nocturnal noise can be abated by carrying out noisy activities during the day rather than at night. But unfortunately the tendency is for the reverse to occur, owing to changing lifestyles. Whether attributable to personal preferences or the profit motive, optimal capacity use of infrastructure elements round the clock – often in the hope of reducing air pollution by reducing traffic congestion – complicates the task of nocturnal noise abatement. Noise abatement policies need to protect nighttime rest against such evolutions and optimize the abatement measures in this regard.

The situation is similar for noise abatement on the days that most people commonly devote to recreation, namely weekends and holidays. Unfortunately, the regulations governing noise abatement during these periods are not particularly strict – although the EU’s ambient noise directive allows member states to adopt regulatory weekend noise abatement indexes. Some member states have adopted laws limiting the use of various point sources on weekends (e.g. banning trucks on Sundays).


Measure ranking

The watchword in the field of environmental policy is first avoid, then mitigate, then compensate. In other words, you first have to determine whether it is possible to nip a point source in the bud, or eliminate an existing one – for example by creating a pedestrian route rather than a vehicle thoroughfare. If this first line of defense is unfeasible, you then mitigate unavoidable point sources as much as possible through measures such as installing noise abatement systems in motor vehicles and by building noise barriers. As a last resort, you institute noise abatement measures for the point sources that cannot be abated any other way. Such measures include indemnification and acoustically insulated windows.

The rationale behind this graduated approach is that avoidance measures such as reducing or banning motor vehicle use are usually the least cost intensive, have the fewest negative effects, generate the most synergy, cause fewer accidents, generate less noise and exhaust, take up less space and so on. Reduction costs more and entails more severe negative effects, while  compensation should be used solely as a last resort.

The measure ranking for traffic noise is as follows:

Noise emission avoidance measures, which also promote safety, climate protection and air cleanliness:

  • Local: reduce the number of cars, trucks and buses that produce noise emissions
  • Overall: Reduced use of motor vehicles
  • Encourage people to walk or use bicycles instead of using means of transportation that cause pollution.
  • Improve vehicle capacity use through carpooling and the like

Noise abatement
(synergy as a rule, for the part minor negative effects, often across the board effectiveness):

  • Get people to use quieter means of transportation
  • Install noise abatement amenities in cars and on roads
  • Encourage people to operate their vehicles more quietly and to drive slower

Outdoor noise abatement
(usually standalone and cost intensive measures that have negative effects):

  • Barriers (cost intensive, restrict visibility)
  • Temporal and spatial shunting measures such as constructing bypass roads around cities to reduce through traffic. However such measures merely increase emissions elsewhere and are essentially cosmetic, i.e. emissions are reduced locally, but overall emissions are not.
  • Optimized layout plans

Indoor noise abatement through construction measures