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Socially Selective Traffic Nuisance in Neighbourhoods

Gerhard Steinebach and Martin Rumberg

Socially Selective Traffic Nuisance in Neighbourhoods

1. Determining Adverse Impacts of Traffic on the Residential Environment
2. The Socially Selective Dimension of Traffic
3. Social Structure and Property Values: Indicators of Social Selection
4. Particular Sensitivity and Environmental Justice
5. Conclusions: Theses on the Social Selectivity of Adverse Traffic Impacts


Main roads have many adverse impacts on the neighbourhoods they traverse. Apart from air pollution, the risk of accidents, divisive impacts, design, functional, and spatial shortcomings, and technical infrastructure deficiencies, traffic noise is considered a major indicator for the impairment of residential quality. This article provides an overview of these adverse impacts from the point of view of space-related risks and quality. On the basis of available data and studies on social structure, property price developments, and vacancies, it then attempts, essentially in terms of noise, to classify the links between traffic-related environmental pollution and social problems in neighbourhoods. In the research context, the question arises whether the still very incomplete findings available are suitable for localising these links and assessing their significance. Finally, the question of space-related abatement strategies is addressed.


1. Determining Adverse Impacts of Traffic on the Residential Environment

Main roads have many adverse impacts on the neighbourhoods they traverse. In addition to air pollution, the risk of accidents, divisive impacts, defective design, and functional, and spatial shortcomings, and technical infrastructure deficiencies, traffic noise is a major source of impairment to health, residential quality, and recreation in the residential environment. This is nothing new: it has been recognised and described for more than 30 years (cf. e.g., Wanner et al. 1977)

Road traffic in Germany, with its large share of total traffic and by far the densest network, is the biggest problem. However, in the local context, rail traffic, air traffic, and, in certain cases, shipping are also important. Multiple impacts are not untypical. But road traffic exerts a sort of ubiquitous, varying, and to some extent superimposed, fundamental stress on the built environment.

With the exception of air traffic, which provokes extensive stress that, however, fluctuates strongly in time, disturbance by a concrete traffic route is always limited to the vicinity. In the spatial context there are links determined by the internal structure of the area affected, e.g., use, physical density, and type of development. Thus there are strong local determinants in addition to the traffic component. Not only stress inflicted on neighbourhoods from outside owing to superordinate conditions (traffic organisation and intensity, overall settlement structure development) is concerned; it is also a matter of their vulnerability to such impacts. Apart from the medical and health dimension, the social aspect of the selective impacts of traffic are addressed. However, traffic nuisance varies strongly within neighbourhoods, so that typification at the neighbourhood level and the identification of simple cause-effect relations are difficult. What is more useful is to differentiate the total burden across the levels of investigation and reference.

Traffic-derived nuisances in the residential environment are to be classified as land use conflicts. The point of departure is the claim of residential use to natural resources and an anthropogenic setting that are formulated in ideal-typical terms as principles of urban land-use planning (section 1 (6) of the Federal Building Code). Requirements for healthy housing and working conditions, safety, socially stable population structures are laid down, as well as the social and cultural needs of the population. Competing residential and transport demands in the built environment give rise to conflicts covering the following components:

  • Operational, external effects of traffic, such as noise and pollutant emissions, as well as the risk of accidents, causing a nuisance to or even endangering the health of local residents.
  • Competition for land, bisection of areas, and other urban development conflicts, design deficiencies and loss of functions.
  • A wide range of difficult to define socio-economic repercussions for residential use, like segregation and property devaluation.

Identifying these conflicts in the spatial and acceptor frame of reference meets with fundamental problems. In the first place, the integrated, neighbourhood-related approach, particularly important from an urban planning and sociological point of view, often goes astray when it comes to environmental impacts that vary strongly within a small space. For instance, the noise and air pollution caused by major roads in heavily built-up, densely developed neighbourhoods only fully impacts directly exposed frontages. Further back hardly any conflicts occur. In order to assess such impacts, the dwelling and the immediate residential environment must therefore be considered in a more differentiated fashion, as in pollution control law. The situation is different with conflicts affecting the public space. In the case of design deficiencies and the bisecting of areas by traffic routes, as well as socio-economic repercussions of emissions, even if they are attributable to qualitative shortcomings of individual dwellings, there is a strong neighbourhood-related component in the foreground.

The data available for identifying traffic nuisance and pollution are miscellaneous and incomplete. Urban development disruptions are in practice registered only in qualitative terms or by situation-derived measures. For any generalising evaluation, expert consensus on indicators and methods of measurement and assessment is lacking. Although there are recognised methods for assessing the pollution covered by immission control law, whose primary aim has been to lay down legal load limits in narrowly defined areas of application (cf. Steinebach 1987, 15 f.), the pollution data thus collected cannot provide universal environmental indicators. The lack of functional benchmarks accordingly prevents the more profound analysis of pollution intensity and distribution, as well as the relevant traffic factors. Their informational value lies mainly in ascertaining whether a (legally) relevant threshold value has been exceeded.

EU air quality directives display a particular form of this threshold value orientation. They operate with limit values for individual air pollutants that are strict but which cannot be further justified in technical terms, making effective statements on the need to improve air quality. This correctly identifies strongly affected areas. However, specific spatial conditions, pollution combinations, the number of people affected, and, above all, pollution below the thresholds are not taken into account. From the point of view of spatial planning, however, precisely these pressures on the environment are of particular interest, for only they describe land use conflicts for which, leaving aside any normative limit values, pollution intensity can be fully assessed in relation to a given space and, where needful, optimised.

It must be decided what emissions are to be admitted for spatial uses and what pollution levels environmentally sensitive uses can be expected to bear. The benefits enjoyed by the emitter must be weighed up against the claim of impacted uses to protection, and the number and distribution of parties affected must be taken into account (cf. Rumberg 2006, 32). A first move in this direction has been provided by the EU Environmental Noise Directive, which addresses dose-effect relations and determines the number of persons affected in terms of pollution classes. This permits pollution intensity in a neighbourhood to be quantified; the extremes and polarisation of impacts can be determined and conceptual conclusions drawn (cf. Steinebach/Rumberg 2005). It is astonishing that this methodological approach has failed to make any noticeable mark in Germany. On the contrary, the Environmental Noise Directive has been criticised for lacking clear limit values (cf., among others Mitschang 2006, 441). Regardless of the still controversial methodology, however, it can be said that implementation of the EU directives on air quality and environmental noise will fundamental improve the data situation for two key traffic-related sources of environmental pollution. With publication of the first strategic noise maps, we will in the coming months have a first opportunity to superimpose pollution data on population data and thus to gain a picture of the environmental burden on the population in larger areas.

But even with these fundamental data, gaps remain in our knowledge about the impacts of traffic-related pollution in neighbourhoods. Assessment of the total load from various pollution sources has, in particular, yet to be clarified, for differently scaled and derived data are directly confronted. If more than mere qualitative assessments are wanted, the following main questions need to be answered:

  • What relations can be established between dwelling-related and neighbourhood-related environmental stress? What effect does the spatial distribution of pollution (polarisation and bundling as against dispersion) and the combination of adverse environmental impacts have? What conclusions can be drawn from the presence of badly affected dwellings for a neighbourhood as a whole?
  • How can consistent and recognised indicators for total environmental load be developed from the wide range of single impacts? How can the data resulting from implementation of the air quality and environmental noise directives be appropriately analysed and interpreted?
  • How can the vulnerability of urban and building structures and their internal quality (e.g., quiet and unpolluted zones, quality of building construction and ground plans, locational advantages, etc) be integrated into evaluation? Can individual adverse impacts be compensated independently of spatial and built structure?

The scientific investigation of these questions is prerequisite for the action-oriented analysis of neighbourhood traffic pollution. At present only extreme loading can be clearly recorded: built-up major roads where important limit values are extensively exceeded and which have obvious urban structural deficiencies can be identified without recourse to evaluation criteria. More differentiated investigation is hampered by wide gaps in knowledge.


2. The Socially Selective Dimension of Traffic

There are many sides to the social selectivity of the environmental burdens caused by traffic, and – unlike the social selectivity of transport opportunities – it has been hardly examined. That the distribution of particularly strong adverse effects from traffic in the residential environment is socially inequitable, is, by contrast, a commonplace. “Whoever can afford to do so, moves out” has been a widespread dictum on residential areas situated on major roads, railways, and near large airports. This obvious principle has given rise to the hypothesis that property and rental values depend on environmental impacts that are directly perceptible, i.e., visual or acoustic. Traffic nuisances are thus closely associated with phenomena like suburbanisation (“escaping from the noise”) and segregation.

If we accept the hypothesis of the social selectivity of traffic impacts, involving de-integration and environmental stress to the unilateral disadvantage of socially deprived groups, this raises questions and has repercussions. This can provoke a spiral of disadvantagement in strongly affected areas (lower investment in the maintenance and development of housing stock affected by pollution, less civic engagement for public spaces and development of the neighbourhood, a trend towards dilapidation).

Moreover, existing immission control concepts against noise and air pollution have no social components. Nonetheless, it is perfectly plausible that socially disadvantaged population groups need more than average protection with regard to health, housing supply, and stress. Since high noise pollution also reduces the population’s opportunities for development and self-realisation, it is suggested that it also makes it more difficult for those affected to escape from difficult social situations – producing another vicious circle. Finally, the subject of socially selective environmental burdens would thus also have to be considered from the point of view of environmental justice (cf. Elvers 2005; Maschewsky 2006), covering entitlements, and distributional, preventive, and procedural aspects (cf. Elvers 2005, 12), a perspective that already has a long tradition in the United States and is now gradually gaining ground in Germany.


3. Social Structure and Property Values: Indicators of Social Selection

Investigating how traffic pollution influences social structure and property market in neighbourhoods presupposes agreement on appropriate indicators. Class models are thus employed, e.g., the social class index with the dimensions school-leaving qualifications, vocational qualifications, and disposable household income (cf. Winkler/Stolzenberg 1999), as well as life situation concepts – with results that are sometimes difficult to interpret and generalise.

Quite apart from this, cities are traditionally divided up socio-culturally, and residential areas are more or less sharply differentiated in terms of social class and group (cf. Hellweg 1999, 109). Especially since industrialisation, a role has also been played by environmental factors; not, however, nuisances caused by traffic but mostly proximity to industry and physical density. Environmental stress from traffic, a relatively recent development due to mass motorisation, arises independently of traditional socio-spatial structures. Since regulatory arrangements like the Road Traffic Noise Ordinance have put a stop to extreme environmental burdens in the case of new development and major changes to roads and railways with a certain time lag, the problem in the built environment can be said to change only gradually over the years. The particular complexity of the issue is due not least of all to the circumstance that existing residential areas and neighbourhoods with strongly differing initial physical, social, and open space characteristics were basically exposed in equal measure to the increase in traffic and the growing land take for transport purposes. In contrast, adverse environmental impacts from industry, originally a major factor in socio-spatial structuring, has massively diminished. It is therefore hardly surprising that environmental stress caused by traffic is difficult to distinguish in terms of social group.

Nevertheless, many studies have deductively addressed two major issues:

  1. the devaluation of housing due to adverse environmental effects (overviews on noise in, e.g., Schmedding 2002 and Guski 2003),
  2. the interdependence between pollution intensity and social structure in affected areas (segregation due to adverse environmental effects).

However, deficient data and the broad range of methodological approaches means that none of these studies can be considered representative. Typically, they are either overview studies with strongly generalised data or studies of single neighbourhoods that cannot be generalised.

The economic dimension is addressed essentially through quantitative studies (ranging from simple comparisons to multiple regression analyses) of property price collections, standard land values, and rentals. Since about the early 1980s, studies have been made of the influence of traffic noise, comparing differently affected locations or even establishing functional relations (“devaluation per decibel of noise pollution”). Results have ranged widely. For instance, reductions in traffic or rental values of 0.5 per cent per decibel of additional (road) traffic noise (e.g., Penn-Bressel 1983; Borowski 2003), as well as four times that figure (Borowski 2003; Täffner 2003; Schmedding 2002). Simple comparisons of land prices lead to noise-induced drops in value of between 10 and 25 per cent (Borowski 2003). Similar effects are recorded from aircraft noise, which has a more extensive impact not specific to settlement structure (Kühling 2006). However, all the studies available point to strong local and property market influences.

The monitoring of housing vacancy rates that is becoming more frequent in Germany shows a clear but spatially differentiated increase in vacancies in adversely impacted locations.

As far as social selectivity is concerned, it can be said that, although traffic noise, the “leading disturbance,” clearly leads to an economic loss of value, it does not override the major factors determining property prices (local market, location, housing quality, locational advantage, etc.). Thus up-market dwellings are to be found in areas strongly impacted by traffic but otherwise attractive. Although property prices are lower than in comparable, non-affected areas, in absolute terms they are higher than in simple residential areas not exposed to traffic harm. This confirms the view that there are compensations at the neighbourhood, site, and physical structure levels.

Nonetheless, members of lower social classes live more frequently on busy main roads than people with higher social status, so that the distribution of subjective noise pollution in the residential environment is also socially inequitable (Hoffmann et al. 2003; Swart 2003 and many others). For instance, a secondary analysis of the Federal Health Survey (Swart 2003) on the link between social class and the extent of exposure to noise showed an – albeit slight – social gradient. 8.9 per cent of lower class respondents and only 5.2 per cent of upper class respondents complained about very strong traffic noise (ibid. 117). This correlates with the finding that 28 per cent of lower class respondents live on busy thoroughfares while only 19 per cent of the upper classes do so. On the assumption that such findings are representative, they confirm significant class differences in environmental stress.

The range of conceivable causes is wide. One important influence is likely to be the limitation of residential suburbanisation to the middle and upper classes (Häußermann 1999, 11). It has strongly increased the residential areas and locations with low environmental stress occupied by these groups. In areas exposed to noise pollution, less affected uses (services, commerce, restaurants, catering and hotels) have become established, thus reducing the environmental burden through mixed use (Steinebach 2001). In socially deprived neighbourhoods, there tends to be a lack of demand. It is also likely that property-related structural protection measures are more frequently taken in more affluent residential areas. But stable cause-and-effect relations are little in evidence.

These findings suggest that one-dimensional models do not suffice to prove any social selectivity with respect to traffic-related environmental impacts. Although there is evidence that property prices fall and social structures shift in particularly adversely affected locations, it is not the case everywhere. There are apparently other factors affected choice of residence and local circumstances that have to be taken into account. They include the internal urban structure of neighbourhoods, the quality of physical structures, the design of open spaces, access to peace and quiet close to home, and especially general locational characteristics of the housing market. The local housing market also plays a decisive role. Having been little investigated, however, these cause-and-effect relations require greater in-depth research.


4. Particular Sensitivity and Environmental Justice

To ensure healthy living and working conditions and the safety of the population within the meaning of Section 1 (6) of the Federal Building Code, minimum standards must be set. In the case of noise and air pollution, this is done by setting normative threshold values (cf. Steinebach 1987, 22 f.). The origins and significance of the threshold values in force in Germany are not clear, since they are regularly decided without being documented (cf. Rumberg 2006, 31). With regard to noise control, it is probable that regulation is guided by the perceptions of “average, representatively reasonable people” (cf. Jansen/Klosterkötter 1980). But this is no more that a normative value judgement. For it cannot be denied “that different groups of people are specifically affected and that this can have social repercussions” (Buchholz 2005, 1). One need only mention pregnant women, the sick, the old, and children who are at any rate not taken into account by the above effect standards. Nor is account taken of socially disadvantaged groups’ exposure to worse housing supply and more stressful working conditions.

It is thus quite understandable that immission control law is accused of taking social and also gender differences in sensitivity inadequately into consideration. In practice, however, this is less important, because most health hazards and nuisances to which, for instance, people who live on main roads in the city are demonstrably exposed (cf. Swart 2003) are not the result of a lack of social specifications in environmental law but arise from the substantial failure to implement the requirements for “healthy housing conditions.” For the actual pollution values often exceed all applicable environmental law or technical threshold values.

For some years now, there has been discussion in Germany about the subject of environmental justice (cf. Maschewsky 2001 and 2006; Elvers 2005). This multi-dimensional approach is not entrenched in pollution control, guided solely by reasonableness and danger avoidance and at best abstractly incorporated into planning law. The point of departure, which is unlikely to be disputed, is that the utility of traffic and the harm it causes are inequitably distributed, and that practically no mechanisms are yet available for balancing them out between beneficiaries and injured parties. On the contrary, strategies like the concentration of traffic flows (also for reasons of noise abatement) further polarise adverse impacts and hence exacerbate such disparities. First, cautious approaches have been developed towards new control mechanisms, e.g., road pricing (cf. Apel et al. 2002) or burden sharing funds in the vicinity of large airports. With an eye on social aspects, this is particularly important. It can mean that dwelling-related measures are also financed in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, thus at least partially compensating for environmental injustices.


5. Conclusions: Theses on the Social Selectivity of Adverse Traffic Impacts

  1. No clear assessment of the social selectivity of adverse traffic impacts in residential areas has yet been possible, since the indicators needed to measure impacts and evaluation and aggregation methods are sketchy and inconsistent. Standardisation approaches, e.g., in the form of European directives are still in their infancy.
  2. At present, particularly badly affected areas can be identified, but any systematic and broadly accepted means of assessing overall impact is still lacking. In particular, it is hardly possible to draw conclusions about entire neighbourhoods on the basis of the environmental pollution load of single sites. Fundamental research, as well as normativization is needed.
  3. The possible social implications of traffic nuisance cover a wide range. On the basis of the studies available on the subject, spatial and urban planning can conclude that severe adverse environmental impacts from traffic routes can considerably reduce property prices but not “shatter” locational structures. High-quality dwellings can thus be found on sites heavily impacted by traffic, but which suffer marked losses in market value.
  4. It cannot be shown that traffic impacts cause the development of socially deprived neighbourhoods. But it cannot be denied that disproportionately many socially deprived people are exposed to these adverse effects. Since price reductions for pollution load also take effect in simple residential areas, the cheapest accommodation in the developed area are to be found there.
  5. This implies a special responsibility for these areas. It must be assumed that economic constraints oblige people to settle in these adversely affected areas (in the case of higher quality polluted areas, this requires much more differentiated assessment), which, because of the housing and living conditions, are generally sensitive and which, owing to low-quality building fabric, enjoy a much lower standard of physical protection, and which at the same time benefit comparatively little from traffic.
  6. This seems clearly to justify giving particular attention and possibly even prioritizing deprived areas in the rehabilitation of the built environment imposed by existing environmental burdens (noise abatement planning, clean air planning). Meaningful substantive links, for instance between concepts and measures of the Socially Integrative City and noise abatement planning are needed.
  7. In socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods, as in other areas, the reduction of peak noise and air pollution hazardous to health must be given priority in the years to come through measures to ameliorate the traffic infrastructure and traffic flow, as well as to improve buildings and properties.


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