The Impact of Traffic Noise on Children’s Cognitive Development

As awareness grows about the effects of noise on children's health and learning, some cities are leading the way to quieter roads and classrooms.

In a New York classroom, the noise levels were so high that the teacher had to shout to be heard. Located near elevated subway tracks, Public School 98 in Manhattan experienced constant interruptions as trains passed by about 15 times a day. For years, complaints about the noise at Public School 98 went unheeded until 1975, when Arline Bronzaft, an associate professor of psychology at Herbert H. Lehman College, published a study on the impact of noise on children’s reading ability. Bronzaft found that students on the noisy side of the school building performed poorly on reading tests compared to those on the quieter side, with average reading scores lagging three to four months behind. Following these findings, the Transit Authority installed rubber pads on the tracks, and the Board of Education equipped classrooms with sound-absorbing materials.

Noise pollution is a growing global problem, with urban noise pollution becoming a “global public health menace,” according to the UN. Excessive noise leads to chronic stress, disturbed sleep, higher blood pressure, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Long-term exposure to loud noise can also result in hearing loss and tinnitus. Noise pollution from traffic and crowded schools particularly affects children from low socio-economic backgrounds, impacting their health and development.

Cities like Buenos Aires and Barcelona are implementing measures to combat noise pollution, such as creating quieter roads and classrooms, improving green spaces, reducing speed limits, and introducing sound meters. In the US and European Union, road, rail, and aircraft traffic are the main sources of noise pollution. A 2022 study in Barcelona found that road traffic noise slowed down primary school children’s working memory and attention span, essential for learning, problem-solving, reasoning, and language comprehension. This study tested 2,700 children aged between seven and 10 years in 38 schools, measuring noise levels and assessing cognitive function over a year.

The study revealed that noise levels from traffic can negatively impact children’s cognitive function during critical stages of brain development, causing learned helplessness and impaired attention. The World Health Organization recommends that classroom noise levels not exceed 35 decibels, but many schools experience higher levels, especially during group work and other activities.

Barcelona has taken steps to reduce noise pollution by creating “superblocks,” small neighborhoods closed to through traffic and filled with green spaces. These superblocks have been shown to reduce noise and air pollution, making cities more walkable and livable. Barcelona plans to create 503 superblocks by 2030 as part of its urban mobility plan, aiming to convert one in three streets into green spaces and ensure that 80% of all journeys avoid cars.

Quieter schools and neighborhoods can lead to happier children. Research during the Covid-19 pandemic found that adolescents from noisier homes and classrooms found noise more annoying and distracting. Reducing noise pollution not only improves learning conditions but also contributes to the overall well-being of children.

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