Noise and vibrations: In brief

Peace and quiet is important to our quality of life. It enables people to relax, sleep well, concentrate, and to hear each other. Noise, meanwhile, is intrusive, and causes illness. One in seven people in Switzerland is exposed to loud road traffic noise where they live, with those in towns and agglomerations the most affected. The effects of noise on health and the human need for quiet must be taken seriously and factored more closely into urban development, in particular.

1. Mobility, inward urban development, 24-hour society  (drivers)

Mobility continues to increase in Switzerland. Some three quarters of passenger transport performance (land transport only) is accounted for by motorised road transport. The measures introduced to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the working from home mandate, led to a decline in transport performance in Switzerland in 2020 for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Noise and spatial development are inextricably linked. Settlement areas must therefore develop inwards to protect Switzerland's soils and landscapes. However, this frequently raises noise levels within those settlements, which has a negative effect on their residents' quality of life. On the other hand, inward development cuts distances, meaning that pedestrian and cycle traffic increase, thereby lowering noise pollution.

Cities and agglomerations are becoming 24-hour societies. With bars and restaurants, leisure facilities, shopping centres and other services offering longer opening hours, the shared understanding of what constitutes rest periods is being lost. On the other hand, health consciousness and the desire for quality of life are increasing. This increases the potential for noise conflicts.

2. Noise emissions and vibrations (pressures)

Road traffic is the source of noise that affects most people in Switzerland, followed by rail and air traffic. Despite technical improvements to cars, trains and aircraft, noise emissions overall in Switzerland have not declined. This is because advances in technology have been cancelled out by higher traffic volumes and heavier cars with broader tyres, on the one hand, and an expanding population and settlement growth on the other.

However, at low speeds or in urban stop-and-go traffic, the trend towards electromobility could noticeably reduce noise pollution in the future.

Other sources of noise include shooting ranges, industrial and commercial facilities, machines, building sites and everyday activities (neighbourhood noise, music, lawn mowers etc.).

Rail traffic is the main source of vibrations and structure-borne noise. 

3. Protection provided to the population still inadequate (state)

In Switzerland, one in seven people (1.1 million people) are exposed to noise impacts during the day at their place of residence that exceed the exposure limit values specified in the Noise Abatement Ordinance (NAO). One in eight (1 million people) are also exposed to harmful or disturbing traffic noise at night. Around 600,000 residential units are affected during the day and about 530,000 at night.

The constitutional goal of protecting the population from excessive noise has therefore not been achieved yet. The completed remediation projects have not provided effective protection everywhere. This was often because the requirements were relaxed, which allowed the exposure limit values to be exceeded.

Traffic noise is mainly an environmental problem in cities and urban agglomerations. More than 90% of those who are affected by harmful or disturbing traffic noise live in or around major urban centres. Noise from ordinary or recreational activities in the densely occupied residential areas of urban agglomerations is also generally on the rise.

The subjectively perceived noise pollution is surveyed periodically. The surveys show that the proportion of the population who feel disturbed by traffic noise at home with the windows open is similar to the objectively calculated noise exposure.

According to the FOEN's estimates, approximately 40,000 people in Switzerland are exposed to vibrations in the range of the defined exposure limit values.

4. Health and economic effects (impact)  

Constant exposure to noise pollution from ambient noise (traffic and neighbourhood noise and noise from leisure activities) seldom causes direct damage to hearing. However, permanent exposure to noise pollution causes illness

  • the human body reacts to disturbing sound by releasing stress hormones. This causes an increase in heart rate and raised blood pressure values, which can lead to cardiac diseases culminating in cardiac arrest.
  • When people's sleep is disrupted at night, their bodies cannot recover sufficiently. The direct consequences of this are chronic fatigue, nervousness, increased irritability and impaired performance.
  • Every year, the Swiss population loses approximately 69,300 life years (DALY) that could have been lived out in good health in the absence of noise pollution (WHO estimates).

Noise also causes economic losses: properties exposed to noise lose value, noisy areas are less attractive to live and work in, and the health consequences of noise pollution are costly. The external costs generated by traffic noise in 2019 totalled CHF 2,830 million. Of this, CHF 2,277 million (80%) was accounted for by road traffic.

When noise increases, the social mix of the population in the affected location generally changes. Social segregation occurs: those who can afford to do so move to a quieter neighbourhood.

Moving into quieter residential areas, however, leads to increasing noise levels there, because the mobility needs of the population rise as a result. New and increasing traffic flows create additional noise problems in previously quiet regions and affect acoustically valuable recreational areas as well.

5. Avoid noise at the sources and protect the natural resource of 'tranquillity' (responses)  

The legal basis for noise abatement is provided by the Environmental Protection Act and the Noise Abatement Ordinance. The primary aim of the legislation is to reduce noise at source by availing of state-of-the-art technology for noise avoidance. If the impact thresholds are exceeded, the owner of the facility which generates the noise must take additional measures.

In the context of agreements between the cantons and the Confederation, the federal government provides financial support for cantonal measures to combat excessive road traffic noise. Since 1985 the federal government and the cantons have invested some CHF 6 billion in noise abatement on Switzerland's roads, benefiting around one million people to date. However, since noise levels remain very high, mitigating road traffic noise has become an ongoing task.

For example, road traffic noise can be reduced using the following measures

  • low-noise road surfaces,
  • use of quiet tyres,
  • speed limits,
  • adapted driving behaviour,
  • traffic-calming measures.  

Noise pollution from rail traffic has been reduced considerably, for example by retrofitting rolling stock with quieter braking systems, banning particularly noisy freight wagons, improvements to the rail infrastructure, and by building noise barriers. The night curfew prevents air traffic noise during particularly sensitive rest periods.

The trend in Switzerland towards higher density housing construction, a growing population and increasing traffic levels means that it is all the more important to reduce noise at source in order to create residential and leisure areas that are pleasant from an acoustic perspective. The population requires access to quiet areas inside and outside settlement areas. Tranquillity as a resource must therefore also be adequately protected.

Further information

Last modification 20.12.2022

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