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Community members, experts talk vehicle noise during forum at SPH

Forum comes as Smiley administration considers noise cameras to address vehicle noise

The event, titled the “Providence Community Forum on Vehicle Noise,” was organized by Imran Dharamsi ’24 and  Dr. Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology and founder of the Community Noise Lab.
The event, titled the “Providence Community Forum on Vehicle Noise,” was organized by Imran Dharamsi ’24 and Dr. Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology and founder of the Community Noise Lab.

On Wednesday night, community members, academics and politicians gathered at the School of Public Health to discuss vehicle noise in Providence. 

The event, titled the “Providence Community Forum on Vehicle Noise,” was organized by Imran Dharamsi ’24 and Dr. Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology and founder of the Community Noise Lab

Three representatives from Mayor Brett Smiley’s office, Councilman John Goncalves (Ward 1) and Councilman Juan Pichardo (Ward 9) attended the event. Around 30 community members were present. 

A representative from Smiley’s office shared information about the City’s noise camera plans. Smiley is pushing for acoustic cameras to be installed across the City to address vehicle noise issues, The Herald previously reported. In the House, a bill that authorizes municipalities to install such cameras — and issue tickets based on violations picked up by the cameras — is being held for review.

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At a Thursday Senate Committee meeting, S2898, the Senate version of the same bill, was heard. Smiley said at the meeting that the Providence Police Department received 5,600 noise complaints last year. He added that two yearly surveys of constituent satisfaction both recorded over 40% of residents expressing dissatisfaction with noise levels in the city. 

At Wednesday’s event, Dharamsi presented information from his thesis about “stakeholders’ opinions” on vehicle noise enforcement. The thesis concluded that “every community needs to have some community forum like (the event) to best understand what people think” about noise issues. 

Community members at the event expressed overwhelming support for the cameras, saying that high costs would be worth it for quality-of-life improvements. Dharamsi estimated that camera installation costs range from $15,000 to $35,000 per device, deriving his results from media reports on New York City’s noise cameras and information from Newport’s pilot program. Walker noted maintenance costs would likely be higher than Dharamsi’s estimates.

“You have to buy the software,” Walker said, adding that the city also needs to “pay someone to manage this.”

At the meeting, participants discussed other methods for addressing vehicle noise, including enhanced police enforcement, changing the built environment through means like raised crosswalks, addressing the issue neighbor-to-neighbor and engaging in public awareness campaigns.

Community members expressed concerns with racial disparities in police enforcement — noting that the cameras are automated and therefore less subjective in who they ticket than officers might be. 

“The most equitable and unbiased way to enforce (the noise ordinance) is through camera technology,” said Smiley at Thursday’s meeting. “There is no risk of implicit or explicit bias from a police officer and who they chose to pull over.”

According to Goncalves, changing the built environment would be a long, expensive process that could negatively impact emergency vehicles. 

Additionally, community members agreed that addressing the issue on an interpersonal level and engaging in public awareness campaigns would be ineffective as standalone solutions due to the lack of enforcement.

At the meeting, Goncalves shared how he helped spur Providence’s noise camera initiative several years ago by reaching out to leaders from the United Kingdom and learning about how acoustic cameras are used there. He emphasized the indiscriminate nature of ticketing by cameras rather than by human officers.

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The camera “doesn’t know who the driver is” when it records a violation, he said.

“While I think this was a great meeting, I would like to take this meeting to the community,” Walker told The Herald. “More people need to be at the table.”

Dharamsi and Walker said that participants at the meeting mostly seemed to be from the East Side. Pichardo’s district, which is on average much noisier according to a noise map Walker’s lab put together in 2022, is on the West Side.

Walker noted that the map measured all types of noise — not just vehicle noise — and was not intended to guide acoustic camera placement. “A lot of people are using that data to make arguments about the cameras belonging in a neighborhood, but those neighborhoods are loud for many other reasons than mufflers on cars,” she said. 

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Community members discussed whether noise camera installation could lead to more ticketing in neighborhoods predominantly composed of people of color. Smiley has publicly stated that the cameras would be evenly installed across the city, The Herald previously reported.

Hannah Stern, Policy Associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of R.I., testified at the Senate hearing in opposition to the bill.

Since violations detected by cameras need to be approved by law enforcement before tickets are issued, Stern said that the ACLU is concerned about “whether we have approving of violations more in certain neighborhoods even if these cameras are evenly distributed.”

At the Wednesday meeting, community members disagreed on whether evenly distributing the cameras is the most equitable or cost-effective solution, citing camera prices and disproportionate noise levels in the city.

To Goncalves, vehicle noise poses a concern to his constituents because it is “undermining quality of life across the city” and creating an “externality they didn’t sign up for.” While many participants shared that they expected some noise when deciding to live in a city, some community members stressed that vehicle noise was an unexpected nuisance.

In an interview with The Herald, Pichardo said that he does “receive some (noise) complaints, especially of loud music,” but “can’t say I receive a whole lot.” Dharamsi found in his thesis that auto enthusiasts and residents “agree that noise is not the most important issue.”

If S2898 is passed, the city will have to decide the procurement process and exact policies around purchasing and placing the cameras. For these processes, Pichardo hopes to ensure that there is “outreach to community organizations and neighbors” in his district and that data is acquired throughout Providence about perspectives on noise cameras. 

Walker told The Herald in a previous interview that she is “100% against noise cameras.” On Wednesday, she said her primary job is “to be less opinionated and just to provide a forum for people to talk.” 

“We want to hear from the people and Councilman Pichardo’s (Ward),” Walker said. Pichardo connected with Walker and Dharamsi about potentially hosting a similar presentation and discussion to engage the community further, he told The Herald.


Ciara Meyer

Ciara Meyer is a Senior Staff Writer covering the Beyond Brown beat. She is from Saratoga Springs, New York and plans on concentrating in Statistics and English nonfiction. In her free time, she loves scrapbooking and building lego flowers.



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