Our loud neighbor, the 'L'
06/13/2012 10:00 PM
Where I grew up in Illinois, precisely 292 miles south of Chicago’s West Loop, we didn’t have public transportation. At night, I mostly heard crickets. Now, I listen to the Blue Line roll by outside my window. Along with the police and ambulance sirens, it’s a reminder that this is the big city. The ‘L’ running down the center of the Eisenhower Expressway emits a low, soothing rumble. But on Lake Street, it’s a loud roar.
Every few minutes, Green and Pink Line trains roll down the elevated tracks above Lake Street in the West Loop. For employees at businesses along Lake — during an eight-hour work day — it adds up to about 160 trains each day. Each one lasts for about 10 seconds, but it’s loud enough to interrupt a conversation.
To find out precisely how loud, I enlisted the assistance of Thom Fiegle, a sound engineer from Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation. Fiegle and the staff of Sensaphonics provide specially-designed earphones to the Dave Matthews Band and other professional musicians. The equipment is designed to control the damage of loud sounds and prevent hearing damage. So, they know a thing or two about noise.
Thus Fiegle and I found ourselves directly under the shiny new Morgan Street CTA station, where he pointed a decibel monitor upwards as train after train rattled by, rendering our conversation punctuated largely by “huh?” and “pardon me?”
How loud is the elevated train? I’ll get to that shortly.
You don’t find many residential properties along Lake, but there are plenty of businesses. I wondered how the employees coped with this unusual workplace challenge.
I walked down to Ashland — where trains are still moving at a fairly good clip — and checked in at Medwest, an orthopedic surgical supply company. Cathy Murphy, the Medwest administrative assistant, sits close enough to the Lake Street entrance to hear the train coming seconds after it leaves the Ashland Station. I asked her what she does when she’s on the phone with a customer and the train approaches. She smiled and shrugged.
“We just get used to it, or tell the caller, ‘would you hold for a few seconds, please?’”
A few doors down, Eric Alley, the manager of Terrazzo & Marble, said he and his staff have developed selective hearing.
“If I’m talking to a customer and I hear a train approaching, I’ll say, ‘in about five seconds, you’re not going to be able to hear anything I say,’” Alley said. “They usually just laugh.”
People, it appears, are adaptable creatures, but what about animals? Dogs can pick up and distinguish sounds at roughly four times the range of humans. I checked in with the staff at Pet Care Plus, where an outdoor dog play area has no protection from the noise. Owner Jennifer Stavrianos said the staff tunes out the sound of the ‘L.’
“I’d say 99 percent of the dogs don’t react at all,” she said. “A few of the owners seem to react to it more than the dogs.”
Stavrianos’ office is like other businesses along Lake — at the very front of the building where the full volume of the train is apparent. After six years in the location, she’s used to it.
“We’re pretty much immune to it at this point, “she said. “If we get a phone call as the train is getting close, we know you can count four rings until it passes,” she said.
As I spoke with Stavrianos and workers at other businesses along Lake, inevitably our conversation was interrupted by the thunderous roar. And that was indoors. Outside, a conversation is nearly impossible until the train passes.
Would the ambience of a restaurant be similarly compromised? In the interest of research, I planted myself at the bar of Vera, Mark Mendez’s Spanish-influenced fine-dining Spanish emporium. I imagined the potential for awkward conversational pauses with a first-date couple who decided to meet here after a sterile match.com courtship. It turns out the front window of Vera — mere feet from the elevated tracks — is made out of some high-tech tempered glass. The train approaches, but if you weren’t looking outside, you could miss it entirely.
“We barely hear it inside here,” said Todd Fischer, the host at Vera. “It might be the glass or the building construction, but it doesn’t bother us in here at all. Outside the front door, it’s really bad.”
Which brings me back to my experiment with Thom Fiegle, who gamely pointed his decibel meter skyward for a series of trains, to get a range of readings.
Before the first train appeared, the late afternoon street noises and traffic measured about 88 decibels. For comparison, a whisper is 20 decibels and a gunshot is 145 decibels. A jackhammer measures 125 decibels, which is why you usually see construction workers wearing earplugs.
“If you’re exposed to 120 decibels or higher for 30 minutes, you’ll experience hearing damage,” Fiegle said, pointing out the musicians who have suffered hearing loss. “Look at Pete Townshend [of the Who] and Lars Ulrich [of Metallica]. Their hearing is permanently damaged. And Phil Collins — there’s a reason he doesn’t tour anymore. It’s not because he can’t drum or sing. It’s because his ears hurt too much.”
A rock concert typically logs in at around 115 decibels. Our measurements of the Green and Pink Line trains peaked at 103 decibels. That’s slightly higher than a lawn mower and lower than a chainsaw. Fiegle says at that level, the Lake Street elevated trains are likely more of a nuisance than the source of hearing damage to workers along the route. A nuisance that a wide range of employees — and a playground full of dogs — have come to accept.