Metro’s Mid-Freeway Transit Stations Are Hellishly Loud

Metro has been working on the problem, but solutions remain elusive

Family on the Vermont Avenue Green Line Station platform. Capture via Streetfilm
Family on the Vermont Avenue Green Line Station platform. Capture via Streetfilm

A couple weeks ago, folks from TransitCenter and Streetfilms were in Southern California to experience and document Metro’s success in expanding rail transit. In the process they also encountered some disappointing aspects of Metro rail. Metro light rail’s lack of priority when mixing with car traffic was explored in an earlier post. Today Streetfilms and TransitCenter released a new short documentary about the inhospitable environment at Metro stations located in the middle of Southern California freeways.

Metro’s Green Line is the main culprit, with eight of fourteen stations sited in the middle of the 105 Freeway. There are also three Gold Line stations on the 210 Freeway in Pasadena – and five Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit stations in the middle of the 110 Freeway.

Southern California station noise levels have been studied by Metro and by academics. Unfortunately, noise fixes have proved elusive.

In 2009, the year Metro opened the Silver Line BRT, the agency hired ATS Consulting to study noise levels at the 37th Street Station on the 110 Freeway. (The ATS study is not online, but is summarized in the UCLA study below.) ATS found station noise from 78 to 87 dB, which was “not high enough to cause hearing damage even with long term exposure, but… sufficiently high to impede most conversation and cause annoyance.” The study recommended sound barriers (more on these below) at the 37th Street Station, which Metro added.

At that time Metro station design guidelines specified a maximum 70 dB noise level. After the study, Metro increased that limit to 75 dB, but the agency has not been able to meet even that relaxed standard.

The UCLA study, Passenger Exposure to Noise at Transit Platforms in Los Angeles by Alexander Schaffer, came out in 2012. Shaffer measured noise levels at all sixteen Metro mid-freeway stations.

Metro rail freeway stations ranked in noise level order. Chart from UCLA study
Metro rail freeway stations ranked in noise level order. Chart from UCLA study

Five Green Line stations top the list for worst average noise levels. Pasadena’s Gold Line stations had the lowest average noise levels, but still ranged from 78 to 81 dB. Every station fail to meet Metro’s 75 dB design limit.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends sound levels not greater than 90 dB for all workers for an eight-hour day.  The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends exposure not exceed 85 dB for eight hours to “minimize occupational noise-induced hearing loss.” People waiting at stations don’t spend eight hours there; peak-hour Green Line service is every six minutes, but after 7 p.m. trains arrive every twenty minutes.

The decibel scale is logarithmic, so going from 75 to 85 dB doubles the noise level. The study characterizes 80 dB as “the noise of normal city traffic” and “decibel levels in the high 80’s are comparable to noise from trucks or motorcycles passing nearby.” A CityLab article summarizing the study described freeway station noise as like “having like a loud vacuum cleaner running circles around you,” though it quotes Schaffer stating that rider exposure to freeway noise while waiting is less a “health problem” than just “pure annoyance.”

Noise levels tended to be worse at stations directly under roadways. Offset stations (Lake Avenue Gold Line Station pictured) are somewhat less noisy. Image via Google maps
Noise levels tended to be worse at station platforms directly under overcrossings. Offset stations (Lake Avenue Gold Line Station, pictured) are somewhat less noisy. Image via Google maps

Schaffer found that station noise varied based on several factors, including:

  • Overhead Structures – Stations directly underneath large roadway bridges (Vermont, Lakewood, and Rosecrans) suffer from noise bouncing off the underside of the road directly above. Stations offset from roadways (Hawthorne, Lake) tended to be somewhat better.
  • Traffic Speeds – At several stations (Slauson, Lake), the study attributed reduced noise to nearby cars traveling at slower speeds. Less noise from slower-moving traffic may be a double-edged sword, though, as riders may be exposed to greater air pollution from slower moving cars.

Given the high decibel levels at all of these stations, Schaffer recommends avoiding building future stations in freeway medians. As the study notes, this recommendation is important in planning for the Eastside Gold Line extension along the 60 Freeway, as well as the Sepulveda Pass rail along the 405. In addition to noise issues, these freeway stations expose riders to air pollution, and rarely foster a walkable environment compatible with transit-oriented development.

For existing stations, Schaffer recommends noise reduction measures, primarily involving physical barriers between transit riders and nearby freeway traffic. These barriers include benches, sound walls, and enclosed waiting areas. In addition, dampening materials could be added to existing structures (canopies, the undersides of roadways) that riders wait under.

Metro has been installing plexiglass sound walls as part of a pilot noise reduction program.

Station geometry differs between bus and rail. Mid-freeway rail stations feature a single center platform, while mid-freeway bus stations usually feature two side platforms. Generally, at the bus stations there is also less distance between riders and freeway car lanes. These factors make adding soundwalls more effective at bus stations, so Metro has focused the program there, installing plexiglass sound walls at four of five mid-freeway Silver Line BRT stations: 37th Street, Slauson, Manchester, and Rosecrans.

A rider waits behind recently-installed plexiglass sound walls at the Green Line Harbor Freeway Station, which is located in the middle of both the 110 and the 105 freeways. Photo by Joe Linton

Earlier this year, Metro installed plexiglass sound walls at the Green Line’s Harbor Freeway station.

Metro spokesperson Jose Ubaldo stated that Metro currently has no plans for additional sound walls at Green Line stations due to “funding constraints” and because “the noise reduction at the Harbor Freeway Station has not been satisfactory.”

Freeway stations are an unquestionably unpleasant aspect of L.A. transit riders’ experience. While the freeway noise may be a minor health risk in and of itself, it is one of numerous factors cumulatively impacting the health of low-income Angelenos. Metro cannot fix all of the hazards that combine to adversely impact riders’ health, but the agency should take further steps to find effective measures to further reduce annoyingly loud car noise at its stations.

Metro leaders frequently reference “lessons learned” from past projects. The lesson Metro should learn here is to never again locate a station in the middle of the freeway.

  • This reminds me why when anyone touts running rail in freeway medians I point out this shortcoming. Also it is a schlep to get to and from these stations, separated as they are from anything by a moat-like roadway. Bad idea!

  • ExpoRider

    Simple solution: 55 MPH speed limit on all freeway segments adjacent to LRT alignments. This would also negate the need for improving median barriers on I-210: slower speeds = fewer and less violent crashes.
    I can’t think of any reason this wouldn’t be an immediate success (sarcasm implied).

  • Joe Linton
  • Joe Linton

    Here’s a screenshot of an example walk from the Green/Silver Line 105/110 station (and the walk is even a bit worse than it looks here – the station is that blue square – Google maps is starting in the parking lot, not the platform)

  • Courtney

    Streetfilms is welcome to come to Chicago for their transit stations that are near the freeway. It’s pretty loud and depressing at some of those stations.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Same problem in the Bay Area with new BART stations at Pittsburg Center and Antioch. It is so loud you cannot hear the arrival announcements over the public address system. I don’t know if you’d even be able to hear the fire alarm. The only respite is at rush hour when the freeway slows down to a crawl.

    You can get a flavor from this video, although no microphone can really capture it.

  • david vartanoff

    You can thank Chicago Transit Authority for the idea. IINM the Congress Expressway median (now Eisenhower Blue Line)was the modern replacement for an elevated segment which also accomplished “Negro Removal” (euphemistically called urban renewal).

  • p_chazz

    Amen to that! Traffic noise is a problem at the other median stations as well. I’ve particularly noticed it at Castro Valley. MacArthur and Rockridge don’t seem quite as bad.

  • Stop being socialusty transit LOSERS and get a CAR like Uncle Paul Koretz told you! Then you can help to burn more extracted hydrocarbons and make the economy hum!

    (Say, isn’t it a hot summer we are having?)

  • Let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good. Metro should certainly work on the issue, but the fact of the matter is that freeway alignments do provide favorable operating speeds and what is most important for many folks is first and foremost how long the trip will be. Also, freeway alignments don’t HAVE to be absolutely hostile, it just requires some competence from all parties involved.

  • Ethan

    What’s the dB reduction from a cinder block sound wall between cars and the platform? If it’s significant, then let’s add them to stations and move on to more important issues.

  • ExpoRider

    Fortunately, BART recently made the correct decision by refusing to back the locally preferred alternative to extend the Pleasanton Line only as far as a freeway station outside the City of Livermore.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    What’s the dB reduction from the same number of cinder blocks just dumped in the middle of the freeway?

  • Ethan

    What’s the dB reduction after justifiably furious motorists retaliate by throwing them over the fence onto the tracks?

  • david vartanoff

    The idea came from getting funding and land seizure(EPD) done by the highway promoters. Way easier than doing it without that political steamroller in your corner.

  • Ben Phelps

    yes but what a pleasant walk it is

  • LazyReader

    I never would have guessed an enclosed space with large vehicles driving in it would be loud…..

  • Joe Linton

    It’s a good thought that raising the barrier between the tracks and the freeway may be a more effective solution (likely helpful for reducing both air and noise pollution)… unfortunately that would mean Metro would have to work with Caltrans, which gets in the way of this kind of stuff

  • Joe Linton

    It’s a good point – I was thinking about those trade-offs when I was writing the article, but then didn’t include it. There is a balance here between mobility benefits (as you mention – faster operating speeds are a good thing) and annoyingly-loud places. Perhaps it would have made sense to build fewer of these stations – creating more like an express service? It’s hard to see what Metro (and Caltrans) can do to fix what’s been done — without spending a billion dollars to redo the walls between the train and the freeway (maybe this could be part of the 210 Freeway wall upgrades ). At this point, I do think that Metro should be trying some more pilots to find what interventions can be effective.

  • exit2lef

    This should be a lesson not only for Los Angeles, but for all cities. Right now, Phoenix is planning a light rail extension along I-10 on the west side of the city. While that route may be cheaper and faster, it will miss the opportunities for better neighborhood interaction that would exist with a route along Thomas Road just over a mile north of I-10. Instead, the local transit agency plans to run BRT along Thomas. It would be better to switch the modes on the two routes: LRT on Thomas (more development potential) and BRT on I-10 (easier to provide sound insulation at stops).

  • tomwest

    Those plexiglass sound walls in are in the wrong lace. They should be between the rail and the roadway, not in the in the platform!

  • Joe Linton

    Yes – I am coming around to that point of view. Metro is trying them where they can do it easily and cheaply. The state transportation agency Caltrans gets in the way of improvements in/along its right-of-way – see the hoops that Metro is jumping through to get freeway vehicles not to crash into the Gold Line

  • Justin M. Levy

    I am a native Angelino, Ive lived here my whole life. Ive also had a fascination with public transit (probably stemming from the fact we have virtually none here). As a result, when I travel I look at what lessons can be learned from other cities approaches to this issue.
    I recently went to Singapore, and -what do you know- they solved this problem. I hate to sound like a conceded jerk, but this problem isn’t rocket science.
    All you do is build a glass wall on the edge of the platform with doors, so people can board the train. Observe in this video below:

    Sometimes I feel like the people that run LA metro are complete morons…

  • Jeremiah Mckenna

    But the rail is designed to move a lot of people faster, and buses make more stops along the way, so shopping is easier. Plus, the space is wider near I-10 and access to that space is a lot less expensive and easier to acquire.

  • Jeremiah Mckenna

    So the trade off is a few minutes of noise for a faster commute? I think that is a good trade off. Plus, most people are wearing headphones or ear buds with their music blasting any way, so I don’t see a huge problem. More like a solution looking for a concern, which translates to someone getting money that could be spent in other areas.

    Believe me, I work in a body shop and it is loud, extremely loud. But I wear ear plugs all day. Personal responsibility. No one else wears earplugs.

    Plexiglass is not a good sound barrier as it is too hard and too thin. It is inexpensive initially, but over time will crack, get vandalized and need maintenance. If they were serious, they would use a better sound deadening/absorbing material that is actually resistant to the elements and place it between the lanes and the tracks. The closer the barrier to the noise, the quieter it will be on the other side.

    Heck, even a row of thick shrubs will block out enough noise to make it tolerable, plus block or absorb some of the smells and fumes from the cars. Orange trees work well in some places. But then again, SOCal is actually a desert, and you could use a wall made of sand/dirt encased between two sheets, or make it hard, like concrete

  • Tonia

    I live in Santa .Monica by a station the speaker is at full blast all day and yell very late at night screaming at our homes. I complaned over 60 times . They tell me they will turn down the noise but a day later it is at full blast. No glass,walls for sound as promised. High presser washers at 3 am I can’t sleep o hear it all day and night. O won’t to file a lawsuit agents the Metro can you help 17th street station homeowners help.