A recent online survey sought input on traffic congestion and quality-of-life issues on the Charleston peninsula. It asked, what did I think of limiting the number and the range of horse-drawn carriages? What did I think of the bicycle rickshaws? Should they be restricted or eliminated? How about motorcycles? Should they be banned below Calhoun Street?
I will admit that I'm rather indifferent to most of these issues. It seems to me that Charleston's way of life is threatened by an influx of far too many people and too many vehicles, descending on a quaint and backward region which has long been suspicious of urban planners and studies and the taxes to support them. The idea of making life better on the peninsula by curtailing carriages and rickshaws seems as useful as saving the Titanic by prohibiting frozen daiquiris.
But the idea of restricting motorcycles below Calhoun Street? Now that got my attention.
I have written before about the antisocial effects of motorcycles in an urban environment. In a beautiful, historic enclave such as the lower Charleston peninsula, they are an obscenity.
Maybe motorcycles have a place in Myrtle Beach, a town without history, a town created for people to raise hell and let their hair down. But apparently even Myrtle Beach residents have had enough of the noisy machines.
For decades the Grand Strand towns just north of Charleston have hosted two enormous biker rallies each May. And for years the chorus of local complaints has become more shrill as up to half a million bikers spend more than two weeks ripping and roaring through their towns and neighborhoods. There are many objections to the rallies — among them, charges that they bring violence and boorish behavior and create miles of gridlocked streets and roads. But one of the biggest complaints is noise. There are neighborhoods where residents cannot sleep for days at a stretch due to the incessant, all-night roar of motorcycles.
Now, after many years, the City of Myrtle Beach is trying to close down the bike rallies. Charleston should take a hint from the city to the north and not let the bikers bring their noise and mayhem here. Each year during their Myrtle Beach rallies, thousands of bikers stream down U.S. 17 for a day trip to the Holy City. They spend their time blasting their machines in our historic, narrow streets, drowning out conversation and wrecking ambiance, all in the name of "personal freedom."
The European Union has strict limits on motorcycle noise, including the mighty Harley-Davidson. That fabled throaty roar and "potato-potato" rumble are the products of very intentional engineering. That means it can be engineered out of the machine and further muffled at the exhaust. The same can be done with high-pitched Japanese bikes. Motorcycle noise should be brought down to EU standards or lower. It would probably take federal legislation to accomplish this. And short of federal law, municipalities should control access to motorcycles using noise ordinances. At least one Arizona town has used $750 fines to curtail loud bikers passing through.
It's time motorcycles (as well as boom cars and Magnaflow exhaust systems) be treated as more than a mere nuisance. We now know that sounds in excess of 85 decibels can damage hearing. Loud noise has been associated with nervous disorders, sleep disorders, indigestion, heart arrhythmia, and other conditions.
The rising battle over noise in America has all the overtones of another old social conflict. For generations, smokers claimed a divine right to blow their fumes in anybody's face. It took a great deal of medical data and mass lobbying, but we have seen a cultural shift away from privileged smoking toward a largely smoke-free society. I think it is time we take up the fight against motorcycles and other privileged noisemakers, just as we did against privileged smokers a generation ago. Using federal laws and local noise ordinances, we can make America's public places safe for our ears, as we are now making them safe for our lungs.
In the past year, the human race quietly passed an enormous milestone. For the first time in our history, a majority of homo sapiens now live in cities, rather than rural areas. We are now officially urban apes, and we will have to learn new ways of living together, for our own health and sanity. Restricting motorcycles is a good place to start.