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Interview Cristina Pronello – research on traffic noise and travel behaviour

Cristina Pronello is a Professor in Transport and Territory Planning at the Politecnico in Torino, Italy. A multi-tasker at heart, she combines various roles (Member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of JPI Urban Europe and Chair of the COST Transport and Urban Development Domain Committee (TUD)) with conducting her own research. We asked her a couple of questions about these roles as well as about her recent research articles on traffic noise and changing travel behaviour.

Could you tell us a little more about your work for JPI Urban Europe and COST?

Pronello: ‘Within the Scientific Advisory Board of JPI Urban Europe I discuss possible topics for future calls. It is all about getting intergovernmental money on the table for the urban context. The domain TUD at COST aims to foster international research networking activities between scientists and experts dealing with transport systems and infrastructures, urban land use and development, architecture and design, and civil engineering issues. COST is a bottom-up initiative focusing on network activities based on common research rather than on research activities “per se”, and favours the mobility of young researchers. It is a very open programme; everybody may submit proposals for research. In total, 36 countries are eligible. We also organise workshops such as on future scenarios for cities.’ 


JPI Urban Europe and COST are both aimed at filling research gaps. Your own research focuses on traffic noise and related social costs. Can you elaborate? 

Pronello: ‘High social costs are related to ‘noise illness’ and lack of wellbeing. Noise pollution causes stress, sleeping problems and there are a lot of long term effects that affect our quality of life. The issue of noise pollution is not as well-known as air pollution. The reason for this is that problems arising from noise pollution are much less visible than negative health effects caused by air pollution; to put it bluntly, people usually do not die because of noise pollution. Due to this relative invisibility, cities and researchers are less eager to invest money in it. Furthermore, people do not perceive noise pollution as dangerous, they are usually annoyed, but  citizens are rarely aware of the risks and consequences of noise pollution to their health. Another problem with noise pollution is that it is difficult for decision makers to deal with the phenomenon when it comes to research. Practice often fails to select the correct noise indicators. This is partly due to the complexity related to making this correct selection; policy makers do not have this expertise. What happens is that decision makers lose their way in all the available data and cannot make the right decisions and intervene in an adequate way.’ 


What would you advise cities when it comes to addressing noise pollution?

Pronello: ‘The most important thing is to monitor the situation. Collecting data is not enough. Monitoring the situation night and day, and at different locations with varying noise levels in the city is crucial. Distance is a good friend; with distance you can disperse the noise. This can then lead to practical and economic solutions, like constructing tramways only on bigger roads. Urban planning should take noise reduction into account, for example, avoid building infrastructures close to sensible receptors. In Torino, the city decided to construct bedrooms in the core of new houses instead of on the road-side.’


You also researched influences on the travel behaviour of people. Even though people accept the importance of the environment and sustainability in general, we do not always see this translated in their behaviour towards transport. Could you explain how this works?

Pronello: ‘Habit really plays a key role in this issue. People think: I enjoy using my car, thus I will continue using it to go to work and for my leisure trips. They simply do not consider the alternatives available. It is possible to divide all people in clusters with certain characteristics. About 20% of these people could be susceptible to change. Interventions could persuade them to change their current way of travelling and make it more sustainable. With good, effective and timely information, this group of people could be persuaded to use a more sustainable way of transport. Interventions like increasing the cost for parking, while improving the public transport and soft modes, can also help to change the minds of these people. It is not easy to change behaviour of people.’


You see a key role for education in making the travel habits of people more sustainable. Could you elaborate?

Pronello: ‘By using an effective educational programme focusing on the cost effect mechanism of sustainable transport modes and by making known the hidden effects of the choices people make for certain transport modes, we can change the behaviour of people in a relatively cheap way. This is essential, because we can invest millions in technology and in that way shape a perfect world, but in the end people will always be free to make certain choices. Convincing people to make the right choice for the environment and for everyone's health is the real challenge.’