A normally busy state highway near my house (author photo).

Stop. Listen. Wherever you are right now, can you hear traffic noise? 

While we wait for science to save us from COVID-19, I’m killing some time walking (alone) on a quiet street. All the streets are quiet now, especially in the 38 states (and rising) like this one with “stay at home” orders in place.

COVID-19 has quieted highways across the country, if not the world – temporarily. Fewer cars and more bikes and pedestrians are a sudden glimpse of a future predicted to arrive as soon as 2022, with twice the number of bike commuters in major cities worldwide, and therefore fewer cars on the road. 

Like everything else disrupted by the virus, traffic will be back, at some point. The noise of internal combustion engines is part of daily life, affecting you more than you realize. Today’s silent highways are another preview of a world coming soon, when quiet e-vehicles take over. In my lifetime, silence will fall on the interstates and other major roads, and it will affect all of us.

People don’t like to be next to multi-lane highways, a statement so obvious it’s embarrassing to say out loud. Sometimes the obvious is easy to overlook, though, in its power to shape the world around us. It’s too obvious to consider so it doesn’t get considered at all. 

With highways, it’s the noise and the pollution and the trash and the way these massive transportation edifices make it difficult for those immediately adjacent to them to get anywhere, ironically. Don’t underestimate the noise. The US Department of Transportation says, “levels of highway traffic noise typically range from 70 to 80 dB(A) at a distance of 15 meters (50 feet) from the highway. These levels affect a majority of people, interrupting concentration, increasing heart rates, or limiting the ability to carry on a conversation.” Researchers have found links between noise and cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes, as well as sleep disturbance and depression.

Our aversion to traffic noise and other highway impacts shapes land use and property values around busy roads. We’ve grown used to this, so we see it as natural and neutral, as though it’s always been that way and couldn’t be any other way. Neither of those things are true.

In cities, freeways were often sited as a deliberate strategy to “clear” neighborhoods seen as undesirable by those in the positions of power that mattered. After obliterating those often-Black, sometimes-other-marginalized-group neighborhoods, the highways made it easy for white residents with means to move to the suburbs, further hollowing out the city. There’s a sinister feedback loop that starts here, where the highway is built through the poor/black neighborhood because racism/NIMBYism/inability to resist, and then effects of the highway makes what remains of that same neighborhood have to struggle much harder. Just the presence of a limited access highway next door to a home will depress its property value. That doesn’t count the deleterious effects of disinvestment in neighboring properties as their values decline and as people with options are driven away by the noise and inconvenience. The worse it is, the worse it gets. 

All of this is sad but familiar, a story repeated through cities across the country. A new and different story is being written in Boston and Seattle, among others, where  freeways have been removed from the cityscape, buried or rerouted. In their place are open space and/or new lower-speed smaller surface roads. This realigns land use, property values, and in time, the perceived status of the whole neighborhood. That spiral reverses and suddenly the old neighborhood is a much more desirable place to live. 

We can’t get rid of all the interstates (can we?). Traffic has to go somewhere, plus interstates arguably serve national defense preparedness. But consider: We walk these pandemic-quieted roads in the twilight of the internal combustion engine, with climate change bearing down on us. Lot of plans around for climate action, with a commonality of the strategy of electrifying transportation, because we know how to generate electricity with renewable resources and because transportation and electricity generation are two of the big dogs in US GHG emissions. Solve those, and you’ve solved a lot of our climate issue. And so, EVs are on their way, probably with more mass transit and more getting around under our own power and more micro-mobility. All these modes have in common that they are so much quieter than the traffic roaring by on I-95, and so much cleaner. 

When the big silence falls on the highways near you, how will it change where you live? How will your life be better?

Will you remember the quiet roads of these pandemic days?