Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The U.S. Department of Transportation—the major nexus of the noise problem in the U.S.—has been led by Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Lan Chao, during the Trump administration. Unsurprisingly, she has not addressed the hubris, intransigence, and industry influence that have prevented that agency from addressing noise as a well established and harmful environmental pollutant.

Now comes President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, former McKinsey consultant and mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. As he steps into Chao’s shoes in Biden’s cabinet, he’ll be the person on whom attention will need to focus. Does he understand noise as a public health and planetary problem? Is he willing to support policies for a quieter America? David Welprin, a New York assemblyman, sure thinks so. What will he need to act? And how can Quiet Communities and other like-minded organizations help him?

Pete Buttigieg is clear-headed about environmental issues and what needs to be done. On thing we can hope is that he’ll listen to the 50+ members of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the 50+ regional groups that comprise the Quiet Skies Coalition. While those groups focus strictly on airport and aircraft noise, Secretary Buttigieg will have the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railway Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and others, reporting directly to him.

Organized efforts are needed to get the message to the new Secretary that noise is a public health problem and an eenvironmental health problem. It’s a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to air and water pollution, and another powerful reason to address those problems. When COVID-19 hit, a window opened on the possibility of a cleaner, quieter world. Look at how the skies gleamed bright blue when travel shut down. Look at how marine mammals’ health improved when ocean drilling and shipping halted–all that air and water pollution came from the industries that the DOT oversees. Secretary Buttigieg must be convinced to make those improvements permanent!

How can we help to influence him? We can start by identifying noise as a bellwether–a canary in the coal mine. Listening works, because we can’t see most air and water pollution. As a result we often ignore it. But everybody hears the noise. So we all have a role to play.

Just by listening and reporting, we can all contribute to reducing the pollution that’s choking us and harming our children.

Now is our chance—the first time in four decades to reverse president Ronald Reagan’s 1981 actions that de-prioritize noise as a public health issue. After 40 years, we’ve reached a tipping point–it’s time to act!