Prague residents file class action suit against City Hall over noise pollution

About 100 metres from our studios here at Radio Prague - at the top of Wenceslas Square - runs a very noisy road, the Magistrala. It's bad enough working near it but hard to imagine living beside it. Close to 3,000 people from a residential area adjoining it say Prague City Hall has done little to curb the noise pollution caused by the road. They are now taking their case to court and filed a joint lawsuit against City Hall on Wednesday. Dita Asiedu reports.

Prague's Magistrala motorway - one of the city's less impressive landmarks. The north-south eight-lane dual carriageway, which was built thirty years ago, cuts right through the centre of Prague. With some 100,000 vehicles passing through it every day, it is understandable why residents complain of high noise levels. But never before have thousands of them joined forces and taken their case to court. The group's lawyer Frantisek Korbel, a member of the Green party and a designated government minister, says four separate tests have shown that the community's concerns are valid. Residential areas adjoining the main arterial road suffer a noise level of 77 decibels during the day and 70 decibels at night. The maximum permitted levels are 60 and 50 decibels respectively. Based on many tests of large numbers of people, a sound level of 70 is twice as loud to the listener as a level of 60.

Zdenek Synac is one of the plaintiffs who signed the class action suit. Mr Synac's flat is just 19 metres away from the Magistrala. He says noise levels are so loud that he has to keep his windows closed at all times, even though Prague is now gripped by a heat wave that makes the room temperature unbearable:

"The maximum permitted noise levels are exceeded day and night. We're subjected to the noise 24 hours a day. I have been living here for forty years now. The Magistrala was built thirty years ago. It was originally supposed to be further away but ended up literally next to my home. But I naturally never got compensation for this. The noise levels got even worse with all the construction work going on around here. A few years ago, my wife and I decided to install sound proof windows."

Mr Synac is one of the lucky residents who were able to afford sound-proof windows. The installation cost him four times the average monthly salary. But compensation is not what the residents behind the class-action lawsuit are after. They have put forward a number of proposals to combat traffic noise. One of them is the installation of noise barriers, which deflect noise from adjoining urban areas and typically reduce noise levels by 5 to 10 decibels.

"When we approached those responsible for the noise - the construction companies and City Hall, we were told that the noise-proof windows are unnecessary, the noise barriers would not deflect the noise, and that installed ramps to slow down the vehicles would be even noisier. That was the last straw and motivated us to take the case to court."

Prague Mayor Pavel Bem
While Prague Mayor Pavel Bem stresses that he sympathises with residents he says their proposals are unacceptable as they would mar the city and its urban planning. For Mr Bem, there is only one viable solution. The volume of traffic on the Magistrala will automatically fall as soon as the two planned ring-road around Prague are built. But that will take years.

With no precedent set in the Czech Republic it is hard to tell in whose favour the courts will rule. But if the plaintiffs win their case, Prague City Hall may have to brace itself for a barrage of lawsuits as the majority of the Czech capital's 1.2 million residents feel they live in one of the noisiest cities in Europe.