Andrew Zhu

Honky-Honk in NYC

Honk

Inspiration

Inspired by a noisy series of honks several months ago while I was walking on my way to the hospital.

Honky-Honk in NYC

New York: The city of skyscrapers, the city of lights, the city of theatre and Broadway and museums. And also of honking. I lived in the city for the better part of a half-decade, and there was nary a day in which I did not hear the clamoring of a car horn in the form of non-muted protest by a disgruntled driver. Even in a bustling intersection filled with pedestrians moseying along, cars and trucks accelerating through red lights, and delivery e-bikers zooming past, the honk never failed to cut through the air and pierce one’s eardrums in a burst of cacophony. 

Honking Syndrome, defined as the propensity for an individual to spontaneously smash their car horn, is not exclusively endemic to New York City. In cities all around the world from Mexico City to Rome to Tokyo, the noise of the honk follows the aggregation of civilization. Within the United States, considering all the cities and states I have visited (which admittedly is not a very impressive number), New York City stands above the rest in the number of cases of Honking Syndrome, especially in the borough of Manhattan.

In proposing potential explanations for the epidemic of Honking Syndrome in the city, I jump first to the explanation of numbers: perhaps the reason is due to population size and density. Considering the 90 “large cities” (cities with a population over a quarter-million) in the United States by population density, one city comes out on top: New York City, with a population density of 11,312/ km² followed by Jersey City (7,681/ km²), San Francisco (7,195 km²), Boston (5,401/ km²), Newark (4,991/ km²), Miami (4,743/ km²), and Chicago (4,657/ km²).

While New York City, especially Manhattan (density 28,873/ km²), has a population density far and away higher than that of second place Jersey City, we should also take into account the population of the city itself to measure the expected honking proportion. Let’s approximate honking with a simple equation, where the number of honks ∝ P*PD, where P = city population and PD = city population density. By this formula, the following are the top twenty cities by Honking Score, which is normalized to the twentieth-ranked city; also presented are each of the five boroughs within NYC.

From the data, we see that four out of the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx) have Honking Scores greater than that of Chicago, the second-highest city by honks score, while Staten Island lags far behind as befitting as status as the runt of the boroughs.

I will admit that the “Honking Score” metric is entirely unscientific and unvalidated. However, the basis behind this score is as follows: modelling vehicles as particles and the city as a box, the number of collisions (i.e. causing honks) should be proportion to the number of particles, squared, divided by the box area. Assumptions, whether reasonable or not, are too many to include.

As an aside, let’s consider other metropolises around the world. Taking the top 50 world cities (city proper) by populations, this table presents the list of the top twenty cities by normalized Honking Score:

Now, New York no longer finds herself at the top of the table, instead being displaced by eleven other megacities. The most frequent countries represented on the list are India, with eight cities, followed by China and Pakistan with two cities each.

I had the opportunity to visit China for a period of three weeks in May, and I was sure to pay close attention to access the levels of Honking Syndrome. To my pleasant surprise, I observed that the incidence rate of Honking Syndrome to be much lower than that of New York City, even in cities such as Dongguan and Guangzhou with populations exceeding 10 million.

I attribute these differences to several factors. For one, there is the cultural contrast in the individualism-collectivism spectrum between Western and Eastern culture; at times, it seems almost a point of pride, akin to free speech expression, for a driver in the States to blare music out their vehicle with windows all rolled down.

Another mitigating factor against Honking Syndrome is the excellent infrastructure found within Chinese cities. If nothing else, the government and private corporations are able to complete at an expedient rate massive developmental projects, while maintaining sufficient parking spaces within city centers; furthermore, public transport alternatives are in better shape than the analogous Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York City. Furthermore, cities in China are sprawling and expansive, encompassing the surrounding metropolitan and even rural regions, such that the population listed in a database is not simply that of the city proper. For example, the urban density of Dongguan is listed as 4,200/ km², less than seven times than that of Manhattan.

One aspect that is not immediately apparent is that the honk itself differs between Chinese and American automobiles, wherein the former produces a quiet toot of a noise while the latter emits a jarring screech. This perhaps is a consequence of China’s omnipresent, automated system of traffic violation enforcement. In speaking with relatives who live in China, it seems that the government enforces a strict traffic policy: any deviations from prescribed driving standards, including speeding and excessive noise, are immediately documented through cameras placed on highways and roads, and Chinese citizens subsequently receive fines and penalty notifications through the all-influential WeChat app. It follows, therefore, that the honking acoustics of Chinese automobiles would be adjusted accordingly to fall within the legal parameters.

If the United States somehow found a way to incorporate this “Big Brother” system to enforce violations, I believe that the NYC Honking epidemic would be resolved nearly overnight. Now, given the nature of democratic ideals of freedom and liberty, this last option is not feasible, at least not in the de jure implementation.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdowns of non-essential businesses, a less-reported consequence was that Honking Syndrome was nearly eliminated from New York City. There was no honking, there was no traffic, there were not even any cars on the road! Yet, as the peak of the COVID pandemic passed, authorities and citizens both were eager for a return to a semblance of normalcy, and the cacophony of honks soon rejoined the symphony of sounds in the city. To return Honking Syndrome to these unprecedented levels is likely impossible barring another catastrophic alteration to the New Yorker’s commuting schedule.

It may be impossible to lower the incidence of Honking Syndrome in New York City to those of pandemic levels, but there are a few considerations that may ameliorate the situation. I group these into three categories: legal reform, improved infrastructure, and improved driving standards.

Legal reform has been a point of emphasis for activists who seek to target Honking Syndrome, and there has been concerted efforts over the years to improve gridlock, a condition that often accompanies and exacerbates Honking Syndrome. Indeed, the city has implemented a campaign of “Don’t Block The Box” with enforcement by law enforcement of key traffic intersections; drivers would be ticketed $115-$138 and have multiple points deducted against their driver’s license. While this is a positive step in the right direction, there are limitations to this approach. For one, the process of pulling over an offending vehicle takes time in and of itself, often worsening the traffic flow. For another, the manpower needed is extensive, requiring scores if not hundreds of officers on traffic duty. Finally, there is the issue of enforcement itself – I cannot recall a single instance of a vehicle ticketed for gridlock offenses. After all, if everyone in the city is doing it, how can it be effectively policed?

My proposed solution would be to implement cameras for ticketing offenders. Such devices exist, scattered throughout the city, but it would be a far more effective, albeit draconian, solution if New York City followed PRC’s approach and strictly enforced gridlock traffic violations through a well-connected, robust network of automated cameras to detect traffic infractions and take snapshots of offenders’ license plates. As gridlock is a leading risk factor for the development of Honking Syndrome, I believe this approach would be quite effective, though the numbers of altered licensed plates will likely increase.

Infrastructure is a tricky point to tackle. Aside from a few land-reclaiming projects over the years, the area of Manhattan has remained largely unchanged since it was purchased for $24 back in the early 1600s while the population has grown to more than a million and a half souls in the interval. On the surface, the city layout appears decent, with well laid-out orthogonal intersections of roads and avenues; at the very least, NYC’s streets are much less confusing that those of Boston. The issue really lies in the number of personal vehicles on the road. Though most in the city itself do not drive, opting to walk, take the MTA, or use the serves of Uber/Lyft or a taxi, hundreds of thousands of individuals commute to the city for work by driving in, whether through the Lincoln Tunnel or George Washington Bridge or Long Island Expressway. Simply put, the infrastructure has reached carrying capacity, and then some.

Fixing this issue would require a multi-headed approach: improving public transportation (MTA subway or buses, CitiBike) would reduce the supply of personal vehicles; increasing bridge tolls to nudge individuals to public transportation; expanding bridges and roads for reduction of traffic; creating smarter algorithms of traffic light patterns, or even installing pedestrian walkways spanning major avenues. All of these ideas are much easier said than done, of course, but I’m sure there are enough intelligent experts in these fields to figure it out. I hope!

Finally, there comes the issue of the drivers themselves. Having spent several years in New York City, observing the acumen of drivers within the city, and witnessing those same level of skills (or lack thereof) on Long Island proper, I have come to the conclusion that low driving standards are a large reason why there is such a high rate of Honking Syndrome afflicting the city. Yielding is a foreign concept on the streets of New York. Traffic regulations are an item to be largely ignored, unless cross-traffic does the same, in which case a considerable burst of honking is in order. The only aspect of city driving that is somewhat respected is that of pedestrian right-of-way, if only that the typical New Yorker ambulates with a sense of purpose and drive, such that they will not be hindered in their crossing of the street. On this last point, though, I have seen frequent counterexamples, but by and large I believe it holds true.

How to improve driving? That is a multi-billion dollar question. Is it true that the drivers in France or India or China are more adept and better at following traffic regulations? I can scarcely believe the veracity of such a statement. Perhaps it is the entire set of circumstances – the culture of rushing and getting ahead, the geography that favors personal vehicles, the lack of well-run public transportation infrastructure – that all feed into poor drivers. I do not have any real solutions on hand, other than shifting the balance from individual commuters to public transportation, implementing much stricter standards for licenses, or harsher penalties for traffic infractions.

Alright, I’ve probably spent too much time and effort thinking about Honking Syndrome, and since it is not going to be classified into the DSM criteria anytime soon, I think I’ll leave this analysis as is.

End

Reflection

For all the excellent healthcare systems in the city of New York, there still has yet to be a definitive treatment for Honking Syndrome. The dreamer in me can hope, but the pragmatist within has his doubts.

All this writing has also gotten me thinking about the epidemic of Crazy Moped Syndrome, but don’t get me started on that…