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Streetcar Symphony 

Wednesday, Jan 17 2007
Those who ride Muni (or live near the tracks) have its many sounds carved into their souls. None of those noises could be characterized as soothing. Most would be described, politely, as abrasive. And the streetcar's horn, well, that's a special sonic blast created by Lucifer himself.

There's one noise in particular that San Francisco resident Susan Hellein really can't stand. The daily commuter, a project manager at Gap Store Design, has created the Humane Bell Request petition (www. to ask Muni to change what she calls the "high pitched, ear-splitting alarm" used when a streetcar's door is ajar.

"It haunts my dreams," she says. "I even hear it in the off-hours, in my head. On the train, I see people [cover] their ears and shudder. And it doesn't help to create an environment where people want to talk to each other, even though no one talks on Muni."

Hellein should know: She was on her way to work a couple weeks ago when the sound let off, startling a woman next to her. The lady jumped out of her seat and elbowed Hellein in the ribs.

The odds of the petition working (that is, getting the agency to change the tone) are slim, as Hellein knows. About four years ago, she called Muni to complain about the volume of a different irritating sound. She was told then that the issue might be addressed — if she gathered at least 1,000 signatures on a petition. She dropped the issue.

"But when I took one to the rib, I thought, 'Maybe I'll do something online.'"

And what sound would Hellein like to hear? She suggests something more melodic, more like the "tinkling bell" sound trains use as they move through intersections. "That's [Muni's] most humane sound," she says.

Or perhaps it should be a more human sound — maybe, she jokes, one offered by her boyfriend, a professional voice-over artist. At the very least, she'd like something that "doesn't grind into your consciousness.

"I don't have any complaints about the price, I don't normally have problems catching a train when I need it, and the operators are often chatty and lovely," she explains. "It's just this one thing, and it could improve a lot of people's lives."

About The Author

Tamara Palmer


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