SINGAPORE: In the cramped confines of a crowded bus or train, where personal space is a luxury, there are few things more infuriating than the shrill laughter or pulsating music of a TikTok video from a fellow commuter’s phone. It’s a scene that plays out all too often in public transportation.
Just as in the realm of neighbourhood estates, where mahjong sessions or karaoke singing can disrupt the peace of others, noise in public transportation presents a unique blend of irritations.
In February, the police were reportedly called in after a dispute involving a man who allegedly blasted music loudly from his phone on a bus. Reports said that due to the dispute, the bus service was cancelled and more than 20 passengers on board had to alight and find alternative transportation.
In a separate incident, a five-minute video of a man having an expletive-filled rant on the upper deck of a double-decker bus was widely circulated on social media. Reports said the man was upset after being asked to turn down the music on his phone.
There are numerous other examples of such disputes, prompting the question of whether unacceptable noise on public transport should be taken just as seriously as neighbourhood noise?
A MERE NUISANCE OR A HEALTH ISSUE?
Over the years, the authorities have implemented a slew of measures to address spats between neighbours. These include the setting up of a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) on Neighbourhood Noise in April 2022, of which I am chair. Feedback from close to 4,400 participants has given us a deep insight into what residents view as acceptable and unacceptable noise.
Broadly speaking, acceptable noise is unintentional or cannot be controlled whereas unacceptable noise is intentionally created to disturb others.
The government has accepted many of our recommendations to deal with noise-related disputes among neighbours, with officers now empowered to enter homes to stop a nuisance even without the consent of the legal owner.
A Noise Experiential Lab was also recently launched to raise awareness about how everyday actions at home can inadvertently disturb their neighbours.
That unacceptable noise is hazardous to health is well-documented.
According to the US Environment Protection Agency, noise pollution is “a growing danger to the health and welfare of the nation’s population.” The European Environmental Agency (EEA) ranks noise second only to air pollution as the environmental exposure most harmful to public health.
Notwithstanding these pronouncements, threats posed by noise remain “often underestimated”, by government agencies, according to the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise.
Research has shown that noise pollution not only drives hearing loss, it is also linked to many non-auditory health conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental health and cognition problems and low birth weight babies.
The city of Mumbai takes noise on public transport seriously. In April, transport body Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport announced that bus passengers would be barred from having loud conversations on their phones and watching videos or playing audio without headphones. Those flouting the rule may be fined up or jailed under a law that prohibits “continuance of music, sound or noise … to prevent annoyance, disturbance, discomfort or injury to the public”.
Just last month, two members of parliament in Brussels tabled a motion for a resolution to punish users of excessively loud smartphones in public transport in the Belgian capital. One of them remarked: “Some people still do not seem to be aware that using a (smartphone) loudspeaker can be a real nuisance to the people around them. I am astounded by the number of people who adopt such behaviour.”
THE RIGHT TO A PLEASANT RIDE
What can Singapore do in this space? Should loud smartphone use be framed as a public health issue? Is it serious enough to warrant taking a hard stand against the recalcitrant?
Mumbai’s recent move to tackle noise on public transport might be something worth considering for Singapore. Such a move would empower bus captains and fellow commuters to intervene without fear. Bus captains and MRT staff would also be able to warn and/or order offenders to alight at the next stop.
It may also be worth considering having a campaign to educate commuters about acceptable and unacceptable noise, the health hazards caused by unacceptable noise, the right to peaceful enjoyment of a pleasant ride and the need to be considerate in shared spaces.
It is of primary importance that commuters are made aware of their social responsibility in creating a conducive and peaceful environment for others.
With the rise of online videos and entertainment, commuters are habitually consuming these on public transport, especially on long journeys. There is a responsible way to consume them without disturbing the peace and privacy of fellow commuters – with headphones.
Commuters should also be considerate if they must talk on their phones – it shouldn’t be so loud that a person two rows down can hear every word that’s being said.
At the end of the day, education can remind and persuade us to do the right thing, but it cannot make us listen if we choose not to. We are still left to make our own decisions to be a better version of ourselves by being kind and gracious to our fellow commuters.
Dr William Wan is Chairperson of the Community Advisory Panel on Neighbourhood Noise and a senior consultant with the Singapore Kindness Movement.
This article was first published on CNA.