Highway Traffic Noise Barriers:

* can reduce the loudness of traffic noise by as much as half;
* do not completely block all traffic noise;
* can be effective, regardless of the material used;
* must be tall and long with no openings;
* are most effective within 61 meters (200 feet) of a highway (usually the first row of homes);
* must be designed to be visually appealing;
* must be designed to preserve aesthetic values and scenic vistas;
* do not increase noise levels perceptibly on the opposite side of a highway; and
* substantially reduce noise levels for people living next to highways.

Keeping the Noise Down

A sound occurs when an ear senses pressure variations or vibrations in the air. Noise is unwanted sound. The brain relates a subjective element to a sound, and an individual reaction is formed. Numerous studies have indicated that the most pervasive sources of noise in our environment today are those associated with transportation. Highway traffic noise tends to be a dominant noise source in our urban, as well as rural, environment.

How Does a Noise Barrier Work?

Type of Material Is Best for a Noise Barrier
Noise barriers can be constructed from earth, concrete, masonry, wood, metal, and other materials. To effectively reduce sound transmission through the barrier, the material chosen must be rigid and sufficiently dense (at least 20 kilograms/square meter). All noise barrier material types are equally effective, acoustically, if they have this density.

How Do People React to Noise Barriers?

Overall, public reaction to highway noise barriers appears to be positive. However, specific reactions vary widely. Residents adjacent to barriers say that conversations in households are easier, sleeping conditions are better, the environment is more relaxing, windows are opened more often, and yards are used more in the summer. Residents also perceive indirect benefits, such as increased privacy, cleaner air, improved views and a sense of ruralness, and healthier lawns and shrubs.

Negative reactions from residents have included a restriction of view, a feeling of confinement, a loss of air circulation, a loss of sunlight and lighting, and poor maintenance of the barrier. Motorists have sometimes complained of a loss of view or scenic vistas and a feeling of being "walled in" when traveling adjacent to barriers.
Are Residents' Views Considered?

A major consideration in the design of a noise barrier is its visual impact on the surrounding area. A tall barrier near a one-story, single family, detached residential area can have a negative visual effect. One solution to addressing the size relationship in visual quality is to provide staggered horizontal elements to a noise barrier to reduce the visual impact by planting landscaping in the foreground. Native plantings are preferable.

The visual character of noise barriers in relationship to their environmental setting should be carefully considered. In general, it is desirable to locate a noise barrier approximately four times its height from residences and to provide landscaping near the barrier to avoid visual dominance.

Noise barriers should reflect the character of their surroundings as much as possible. It is always desirable to preserve aesthetic views and scenic vistas, to the extent possible.

Motorists' Views

The psychological effect of noise barriers on the passing motorist should be a part of barrier design and construction. Noise barriers in dense, urban settings should be designed differently than barriers in more open suburban or rural areas, and they should be designed to avoid monotony for the motorist. At normal roadway speeds, motorists tend to notice noise barriers overall form, color, and surface texture. A primary objective of noise barrier design should be to avoid a tunnel effect for the motorist. This can be accomplished by varying the forms, materials, and surface treatments.

Graffiti on noise barriers can be a potential problem. One solution is to use materials that can be readily washed or repainted. Landscaping and plantings near barriers can also be used to discourage graffiti, as well as to add visual quality.

Does Construction of Noise Barriers on "Both" Sides of a Highway Increase Noise Levels?

Multiple reflections of noise between two parallel plane surfaces, such as noise barriers or retaining walls on both sides of a highway, can theoretically reduce the effectiveness of individual barriers. However, studies of this issue have found no problems associated with this type of reflective noise. Any measured increases in noise levels have been less than can be perceived by normal human hearing, that is, less than 3 dB. Studies have suggested that to avoid a reduction in the performance of parallel reflective noise barriers, the width-to-height ratio of the roadway section to the barriers should be at least 10:1. The width is the distance between the barriers, and the height is the average height of the barriers above the roadway. This means that two parallel barriers 3 meters (10 feet) tall should be at least 30 meters (100 feet) apart to avoid any reduction in effectiveness. These studies have also shown that any reduction in performance can be eliminated through the use of sound absorptive noise barriers.