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Gas Station’s Anti-Loitering Sonic Device Leaves San Francisco Residents Sleepless

Written by Garrett LeahyPublished Nov. 11, 2023 • 5:00am
Cars drive through an intersection past a gas station with a large condo building in the background.
The Chevron gas station at 1501 Van Ness Ave. is located beside a condo building on Pine Street, where residents have complained about noise from an anti-loitering sonic device. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

San Francisco resident Jasmine Xu slept soundly at night until Monday, when a piercing whine began permeating her apartment.

The discomfort-inducing sound emanates from the Chevron gas station on Van Ness Avenue near her building.

“[The noise] goes through the glass,” Xu said. “I try to get eight hours [of sleep] every night, and now, I’m waking up like every two hours. I used to sleep through the night.”

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Chevron said the sonic device was installed to prevent loiterers who might harass or threaten its employees. Still, the high-pitched whine has the unintended effect of tormenting law-abiding residents, including Xu.

Homeless advocates say the gas station’s speaker is the latest addition to “hostile architecture” on and around Van Ness Avenue meant to deter the presence of unhoused people.

An anti-loitering sonic device plays a high-pitched whine, which local residents and unhoused people say is highly irritating. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Xu said she has no recourse but to make complaints to the city for help. She and her husband have filed 311 complaints daily, Xu said.

“I just want to get some sleep,” Xu said.

Sixteen noise complaints have been filed about the gas station, located at Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street, in the past week, according to 311 data. Despite the complaints, the high-pitched whine drones on.

The Standard used a sound-level meter to measure the volume of the sonic device at the gas station and found it to be 83.1 decibels. Eighty decibels is about the same volume as an alarm clock, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

Anthony Campos, an unhoused man who often uses the gas station’s bathroom, said the noise is irritating and places an unfair burden on people who aren’t sleeping near the gas station.

“It’s disrespectful to the general public, especially people not loitering,” Campos said.

A man in a gray jacket and a black face mask stands in front of a beige wall.
Anthony Campos poses for a portrait near a Chevron gas station on Van Ness Avenue near Pine Street on Friday. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Annett Wagner is the building manager for the Rockwell condo building on Pine Street across from the gas station and said that she has received more than a dozen complaints from residents about the noise. She said residents and building security have told her that the high-pitched noise plays as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. Wagner and Xu both said the speaker goes off intermittently at random, seemingly with no set schedule.

“It goes off during quiet hours, so you can’t even open a window to get fresh air when you sleep,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she asked the gas station clerk to turn off the sound and the clerk told her employees don’t control the speaker. Wagner said she filed a complaint with Chevron on Tuesday and the company hasn't responded.

She called police the same day, and she said officers told her Friday that noise complaints are outside of the department's purview, as it is a civil matter, and advised her to consult her attorney. 

Wagner said the next step is issuing a cease-and-desist letter demanding deactivation of the speaker.

“We are working with local authorities to ensure our anti-loitering tools comply with local noise regulations,” a Chevron spokesperson told The Standard in a text. “The protection of our employees, customers and premises is our top priority.”

The Chevron gas station manager did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Just Another Tactic’

Kelley Cutler, who sits on the Local Homeless Coordinating Board for San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that the speaker is the latest example of “hostile architecture,” or infrastructure meant to deter people from gathering in a particular place. Cutler said, in San Francisco, these measures—such as large planter boxes—are chiefly intended to prevent homeless people from sleeping or gathering.' Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that the speaker is the latest example of “hostile architecture,” or infrastructure meant to deter people from gathering in a particular place. Cutler said, in San Francisco, these measures—such as large planter boxes—are chiefly intended to prevent homeless people from sleeping or gathering.

“It’s just another tactic,” Cutler said. “We’re seeing it more and more everywhere.”

A person looks on at a public meeting.
Kelley Cutler listens while seated on a panel during a community meeting held at Balboa High School in 2019. Cutler says the planters appearing around San Francisco are meant to shuffle unhoused people around the city. | Source: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The area near Van Ness Avenue seems to be a hot spot of measures meant to make unhoused people uncomfortable. On Eddy Street near Van Ness, a pair of speakers plays music from Star Wars to discourage people from congregating nearby.

On the same block as the Star Wars speakers, a hotel had installed sprinklers to douse homeless people sleeping nearby; it has since announced plans to remove them.

The use of sprinklers and speakers to deter loitering is hardly a new practice in San Francisco.

Cutler said that playing music or other noises to make homeless people move is ultimately pointless and does nothing to solve the issue of homelessness; instead, it just encourages unhoused people to move to a quieter locale.

“The best option is working to get people into housing,” Cutler said. “It would be more productive to put pressure on the city to do something about it.”

The Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Police Department, which respond to noise complaints during and after business hours respectively, did not respond to requests for comment.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at

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