Background. Exposure to noise in everyday urban life is considered to be an environmental stressor. A specific outcome of the reaction from environmental stress is a fast pace of life that also includes a faster pedestrian walking speed. There is a limited amount of experimental evidence that people tend to walk faster in an environment with dense traffic and traffic noise. On the other hand, listening to nature relaxation sounds may decrease actual walking speed. The present study examined an effect of listening to annoying acoustical stimuli (traffic noise) compared to relaxation sounds (forest birdsong) on walking speed in a real outdoor urban environment.
Methods. The participants (N=83) walked along an urban route of 1.8 km. The first part of the route was a street with driving cars, the second part was a dense oak alley that led out of the noisy street with traffic. There were three conditions in the experiment. The participants listened either to traffic noise or to forest birdsong; they walked without listening to any acoustical stimuli in the control condition. Their walking speed was measured for certain parts of the route. After completing their walk, participants were asked to describe their experience during the walk.
Results. A mixed ANOVA indicated a significant between-subjects main effect of the condition (F 2,160 = 14.80, p <.001, η2 = 0.16), significant within-subjects main effect of the section walked (F 2,320 = 103.28, p <.001, η2 = 0.39), and significant interaction between the section walked and direction of the walk (F 2,320 = 11.76, p <.001, η2 = 0.09). A post hoc test showed that participants listening to traffic noise walked significantly faster on the route than participants listening to forest birdsong sounds and participants in the control condition. Participants who listened to forest birdsong walked slightly faster than those under control condition; however, this difference was not significant. Analysis of the walk experience showed that participants who listened to forest birdsong during the walk liked the route more than those who listened to traffic sounds.
Conclusion. The study demonstrated that exposure to traffic noise led to an immediate increase in walking speed. It was also shown that exposure to noise may influence perception of an environment. The same environment may be more liked in the absence of noise or in the presence of relaxation sounds. The study also documented the positive effect of listening to various kinds of relaxation sounds while walking in an outdoor environment with traffic noise.