How One Asian City Silenced Car Horns

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
While past efforts to make Kathmandu's streets safer, cleaner and less chaotic have largely failed, a 6-month-old ban on rampant horn-honking has stuck. . (Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

One of my least favorite things about New York City is the honking.

It’s not that I hate the idea of car horns. What I hate is the misuse of them. More so than in any other city I’ve visited or lived in, New York is filled with flagrant horn abusers. As a frequent passenger and as a pedestrian, I’ve noticed horns aren’t used so much as a warning or way to tell the driver in front of you to snap-out-of-it-and-get-moving, please. Instead, it's customary to lay on the horn as a knee-jerk way to express your displeasure. Honking just for the sake of honking.

While recently stuck in gridlock on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I observed a cacophony of car horns erupt and spread across four lanes of traffic. These drivers — dozens of them — weren’t honking at anyone or anything in particular. They were rage-tooting into the void.

Surya Raj Acharya, an urban scientist based in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, has observed similar behavior in his city. "People pressed the horn just for the sake of it ... 80 percent of the time it was unnecessary. It was mostly just to express their indignation," he tells the Guardian.

But unlike in New York, Acharya doesn’t believe Kathmandu's honking woes to be necessarily profound or endemic. And this is largely why in a congestion-plagued city that's home to 1.4 million people, officials have been successful in silencing vehicle horns altogether.

That’s right — once horn-happy Kathmandu motorists have kicked the honking habit.

As the Guardian reports, governmental agency Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) — working in cooperation with the Metropolitan Traffic Police Department (MTPD) — first put the kibosh on "unnecessary honking" six months ago after coming to the (somewhat belated) realization that nonstop honking was taking its toll on residents, a majority of whom rely on touristic activities like shuttling visitors to and from popular cultural sites as their main source of income.

"We received a lot of complaints about horn pollution. Everyone felt that in recent years it had become excessive," Kedar Nath Sharma, chief district officer for Kathmandu, explains. "It was not just the view of one person or community; we all felt the same. It was discussed in every tea shop."

Per MTPD stats shared by the Kathmandu Post, there are 828,000 registered vehicles in Kathmandu Valley. A large number of them are trucks and tour buses, which emit blaring honks up to 120 decibels. Sounds above 85 decibels are considered potentially harmful to human health. Long-term exposure to loud horns can lead to stress, elevated blood pressure and hearing damage.

An intersection in Kathmandu, Nepal
In lieu of lights, most intersections in 'Hornmandu' are manned by whistle-blowing traffic operators. (Photo: Mario Micklisch/flickr)

'We wanted to show the world how civilized we are'

The Kathmandu Valley’s ban on indiscriminate honking took effect on April 14, 2017, at the start of the Nepali New Year. And almost immediately, officials deemed the so-called No Horn rule as a success. "We found unnecessary honking reduced significantly on the first day," MTPD spokesperson Lokendra Malla tells the Kathmandu Post.

According to the Himalayan Times, motorists repeatedly nabbed flaunting the rules can be slapped with fines up to 5,000 Nepalese rupees — or about $48.

Kathmandu residents behind the wheels of ambulances, fire trucks and police vans are permitted to honk away. So are ordinary motorists responding to certain emergency situations. "If any emergency comes, one can use his/her vehicle horn but he/she must give appropriate reason for doing so," KMC spokesperson Gyanendra Karki explains to the Times. Seems fair enough.

As mentioned, the main aim of the No Horn rule is to alleviate localized noise pollution, particularly in densely populated areas that experience frequent gridlock. As Mingmar Lama, Kathmandu’s former head traffic cop, made clear earlier this year, the city wants to demonstrate to other cities struggling with rampant honking that achieving horn-free — or more realistically, horn-lite — status is possible.

"To mark the new year we wanted to give something new to the people of Kathmandu," he said. "The horn is a symbol of being uncivilised. We wanted to show the world how civilised we are in Kathmandu."

The fact that a no-honking rule has been successfully implemented in a chaotic, clamorous city like Kathmandu may seem like some of miracle. Officials credit consultation with stakeholders, flexibility and a robust public information campaign leading up to the ban as being the three main drivers being this noise pollution-lowering triumph.

"To make sure that this campaign succeeds, we have been aggressively disseminating our message to the public through print, broadcast and online media," KMC's spokesperson tells the Post.

"Also, there was nothing to spend and no investment needed — it was just a change in behavior," chief district officer Sharma elaborates to the Guardian.

Holy cows, loud horns

A cow joins traffic in Kathmandu, Nepal
Moove it please: Street-roaming bovines are a traffic and public safety issue in Kathmandu. (Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

While the No Horn rule has brought an uncharacteristic stillness to the Nepali capital (similar schemes are being introduced in other tourism hotspots across the mountainous South Asian country), it’s not without its detractors.

Kathmandu resident Surindra Timelsina doesn’t disagree that noise pollution is a problem. But he also believes that officials should focus more on curbing air pollution, fixing traffic lights, improving roads and more aggressively tackling what he views as the root of the honking: chronic bad traffic. "The authorities must first resolve the problem of traffic jam in Kathmandu Valley if they really want the motorists to stop honking horns," he tells the Kathmandu Post.

To be fair, the city government has taken steps to decrease pollution levels by outlawing vehicles more than 20 years old. But as the Guardian explains, this law, unlike the horn ban, has been "aggressively resisted."

"The syndicates that run passenger vehicles are very strong, so the government has failed to phase them out," Meghraj Poudyal, vice president of the Nepal Automobile Sports Association, explains. "People earn money from them, so the syndicates are bargaining with the government. They will only give up the [old] vehicles if the government pays them."

There’s also been blowback from taxi drivers who worry that racking up fines for occasional transgressions could prove to be financially devastating. "We have dogs, cows and tractors crossing the streets, so we need our horns," taxi driver Krishna Gopal tells the Guardian.

On the topic of cows, in 2013 the city launched a campaign to remove the animals from major thoroughfares. "The stray cows and oxen have been a big nuisance in Kathmandu streets. They not only cause accidents, but also make the streets untidy," a spokesman for KMT told Agence-France-Presse at the time. "We see traffic jams because the drivers who try to avoid the cows often crash into other vehicles."

The penalty for killing cows, considered to be sacred in Hindu culture, is much steeper than gratuitous horn-honking. Those involved in vehicular bovine-slaughter can be jailed for up to 12 years.

A traffic-clogged road in Kathmandu, Nepal
While officials have remedied one huge source of noise pollution, Kathmandu still struggles with poor air quality and constant gridlock. (Photo: Roman Möckli/flickr)

Other beep bans

Although it may seem novel, Kathmandu isn’t the first city to attempt outlawing egregious honking. In 2007, officials in Shanghai implemented a ban on vehicle horns in the city’s downtown core. The restriction was deemed a success and expanded to other areas of the city in 2013 (but not without criticism).

In 2009, a one-off "No Honking Day" launched in the traffic-riddled Indian city of New Delhi yielded less-than-ideal results. This March, Chhavi Sachdev reported for National Public Radio on "the honking big noise problem" faced by cities across India where sounding one's horn, much like in New York, is more an obnoxious reflex than an act of defensive driving.

And as for the hotbed of pointless beeping that is the Big Apple, sounding one’s horn excessively is, in fact, illegal. However, in 2013, the city began removing all signage reminding motorists of the law and the $350 fine associated with it. The Department of Transportation considered the routinely ignored signs, introduced in the 1980s under the honk-hating watch of former mayor Ed Koch, as a form of visual pollution that did little to actually quell noise pollution. It didn’t help that the rules were laxly enforced and horn-tooting scofflaws were rarely ticketed. Essentially, the city gave up. Honkers rule.

It’s weird to say but perhaps the next time I'm confronted by a deafening chorus of horns in New York, I’ll close by eyes and dream of Kathmandu.