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Sunday, February 3, 2013 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.
New Yorkers sound off as ‘Don’t Honk’ signs come down
By MATT FLEGENHEIMER
The New York Times
NEW YORK — Cabbies do it from the back of a taxi line at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, coaxing their colleagues to move up a spot. Commuters do it at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, flabbergasted that others in a city of 8 million might share their route.
And should a fellow driver commit the cardinal sin of hesitating at a light just turned green, anyone — from brain surgeons to criminals to the kindliest of grandmothers — can be expected to smack a palm against the steering wheel.
“Those people,” former Mayor Ed Koch said last month, “are the worst.”
It is the signature act of the New York City road, and in the grand tradition of jaywalking, it happens to be illegal; everyone does it, but barely anyone is punished.
Now, it appears, the city has effectively thrown up its hands — or, more accurately, taken down its signs.
In a move condemned by critics as a tacit surrender to a ubiquitous noise, the Transportation Department has begun removing all “Don’t Honk” signs from the streets, and predicts there will be none left by the end of the year.
City officials said the move was part of an effort to declutter the streets of often-ignored signs. Nonetheless, the decision has ignited a voluble opposition among noise-conscious New Yorkers, particularly in high-traffic residential areas such as the Upper East and Upper West Sides.
“I can’t tell you how many requests I get for ‘no honking’ signs,” said Gale A. Brewer, a councilwoman in Manhattan who wrote a letter to the city’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, arguing against the change.
An ill-advised honk remains illegal, carrying a fine of $350. Few are actually fined; last year, the Police Department issued 206 summonses for “unnecessary use of horn.”
Koch, whose administration introduced the “Don’t Honk” signs in the 1980s, said in January he believed “there’s far less honking today than there was” then, and he credited the signs for playing “a role in making that happen.” (Koch, 88, died Friday of heart trouble.)
But interviews with officials, residents and cabbies suggest that it is virtually impossible to tell whether honking has decreased in New York City, or to gauge how effective the signs have been. Many said they believed honking had been curbed somewhat, but wondered if they had simply stopped noticing it.
“Blowing the horn is a fact of life, part of the fabric and culture of the city,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for AAA New York.
The Transportation Department noted that since 2008, complaints to 311 about honking have declined 63 percent, to 1,796 in 2012 — suggesting that either honking has waned or tolerance of the noise has risen.
Some residents worry that removing the signs, even if they are typically ignored, amounted to an admission of defeat.
Arline Bronzaft, a noise expert, assisted in updating the city’s noise code in 2007. She said, “If people ignore it anyhow, it means they haven’t enforced it. That’s what it really speaks to: their failure.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently acknowledged that the city did not enforce traffic laws as well as it should.
Beside a taxi stand in front of Madison Square Garden one recent day, the omnipresence of the honk was clear. In the span of one green light at West 33rd Street, beginning at 3:38 p.m. and ending at 3:39 p.m., 28 honks were audible, including eight from the same white truck toiling behind a bus.
And yet, the noises seemed to fade into the background, overwhelmed by the beep of a pedestrian signal, the whistles of a man trying to hail a cab, a steel drum performance rising through a grate from a subway station and a spirited conversation between two rival sidewalk newspaper vendors.
Sandra Deifel, 27, who traveled in January with her husband, Frank, from Cologne, Germany, on her first trip to New York, said she had already grown accustomed to the honking. It took all of four days.
“You get used to it,” she said. “Now I can’t recognize it anymore.”
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