New York City Ends 30 Year Experiment With 'Don't Honk' Signs

By the end of the year, New York City will remove all of the "Don't Honk" signs from city streets. Transportation officials say the signs are contributing to visual clutter. But critics say the city is tacitly admitting defeat in the war on noise.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's evident to anyone who's visited New York City that it is a loud place to live. Also, that much of the noise is caused by frustrated drivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

SIEGEL: Well, when it comes to honking, New York is making a U-turn. City officials are removing hundreds of don't honk signs from the streets. They say there is no evidence the signs are working. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, others say New York is admitting defeat in the war on noise.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's been almost 30 years since New York first posted don't honk signs on light poles across the city. And for almost 30 years, New Yorkers have been cheerfully ignoring them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

ROSE: I am standing under one of those red-white-and-blue signs that say: don't honk, $350 penalty. They're kind of an endangered species in New York, but I did manage to find one here on 39th Street, near Times Square. I have to say it does not seem to be getting a lot of respect.

MAUREEN O'SHEA: The cabs are going to honk. The trucks are going to honk. I can't imagine a quiet street in New York with nobody honking their horn.

ROSE: Maureen O'Shea(ph) works at a bar just down the street from that don't honk sign. She doesn't think it's doing much good, neither does Maritza Sim(ph) of Queens who also works nearby.

MARITZA SIM: It's what we do. We're always in a rush. Sitting in traffic, somebody is not paying attention, you know? Light turn green and you're still sitting behind him. Yeah, they're getting honked, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: City officials have also concluded that the signs are not doing what they were intended to do.

JANETTE SADIK-KHAN: You know, New Yorkers don't look to a sign to decide whether or not they're going to honk.

ROSE: Janette Sadik-Khan is New York's transportation commissioner. She says complaints about honking are down more than 60 percent in the last five years even though the number of don't honk signs hasn't gone up. Worse, Sadik-Khan says, those signs contribute to visual clutter on the streets and may give drivers the wrong impression.

SADIK-KHAN: The signs seem to be up at random locations, at some where we don't see much honking or complaints and yet not at other places where there may be honking. So, you know, there was a concern that people might erroneously think that honking is banned only at those few intersections that have the signs.

ROSE: Taking the signs down does not mean that honking is now legal. The $350 penalty for excessive honking is still on the books everywhere in the city in theory. But critics say it's rarely enforced.

ARLENE BRONZAFT: You can have a wonderful code on the books. But if you don't enforce it, what good is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

BRONZAFT: Ah. There, there's one.

ROSE: Arlene Bronzaft is an expert on noise pollution who helped write the city's current noise code. Bronzaft also helped get the don't honk signs put up in the first place when she worked for the mayor back in the 1980s. She thinks the signs have helped to reduce the din at busy intersections like this one where the Queensboro Bridge dumps onto Second Avenue.

BRONZAFT: If you want the signs just to function as a reminder, that's not wrong. In psychology, they're called prompts. If you're taking it down, then you should take it down because of results that indicate they're not needed.

ROSE: Bronzaft says she still hasn't seen or heard any hard evidence showing that the signs have failed. Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says her department has other initiatives to fight congestion, but she thinks it's time for the city to admit what has long been apparent to New Yorkers themselves: Will you ever be able to stop New Yorkers from honking?

SADIK-KHAN: Oh. Will it disappear forever? No, I don't think honking is ever going to go away. I don't think jaywalking is going to go away, either.

ROSE: But the don't honk signs will be gone by the end of the year. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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