For drivers, Waze and other road and traffic apps might be heaven sent, but the same cannot be said for city planners. Drivers today rely heavily on Waze and other apps that help them avoid traffic. Extremely helpful as these apps certainly decrease minutes or even hours of what could be a longer drive. They do so by helping the drivers find alternative roads or creative detours that would avoid main highways.
However, transportation engineers use wider sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic lights to make neighborhood traffic slow, safe, and pedestrian-friendly. This, however, isn’t a major concern for these GPS-enabled computer programs. They do care, to a certain degree, that they give cities some tips on how to game the programs as to avoid drivers from resorting to neighborhood detours to avoid heavy traffic. But still, the ultimate purpose of these apps is to provide drivers with information on all available road space, may it be a country lane or main thoroughfare.
This is causing frustration among cities, which are trying to outsmart these computer systems that just keep on updating.
Waze is bringing drivers to residential areas
Los Angeles, for instance, which really isn’t a car-dominated city, now has residents complaining through LA Times. According to their article in January, Waze had been “pushing cars into residential areas”, and even residents of wealthy areas like Beverly Hills has now no way of avoiding LA traffic because the apps take non-residents to their roads. According to them “there’s nowhere left to hide. There aren’t any smaller roads nearby. We’re it”.
One road sign in Fremont reads “Don’t trust your apps!”. This is located on majorly congested 880 and 680 freeways between major San Jose-area employers like Cisco Systems, eBay, and Intel as well as housing suburbs in Central Valley in California.
With traffic dodging apps such as Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze, drivers are advised to reroute from the freeway at Freemont’s Mission Boulevard to avoid congested highways, take a detour through residential streets, then go back to the highway where traffic is less heavy. This, of course, causes dismay to the people who live in these neighborhoods.
Fremont’s principal transportation engineer, Noe Veloso, expresses his consternation, “The commuters didn’t live or work in Fremont and didn’t care about our residential neighborhoods”.
Upon contacting the developers of the navigation apps, Veloso was told that the bots try to prevent congestion by distributing traffic on all public streets, which unfortunately also includes residential roadways and the only way to stop drivers from taking those routes was to change the street routing to remove the shortcuts.
With this, Fremont implemented a commute-hour turn restriction on the most frequently used residential short cut routes. Along with this, the city also worked with Waze through its Connected Citizens Program to share information, like turn restrictions, so the app could take these data into account. The results so far have been positive, although Veloso still feels worried that commuters would just reroute to other residential neighborhoods.
“We’re just trying to find a balance, to eliminate some of the time savings that’s sending people into our streets”, says Veloso.
The stream always find another way
A citizen of San Francisco, which is also experiencing the same problem, compares it to attempts to dam small streams, “The water often finds a new route around the dam. And that’s what is happening in San Francisco. People are finding a new path of least resistance”.
Sam Schwartz, former traffic coordinator for New York City says “Waze and Uber hit transportation planners so fast that we didn’t know what to do”. Schwartz’ 1992 book New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips was a popular forerunner to the apps that have now been downloaded by hundreds of millions of people.
Schwartz mentions the lack of planning for the situation saying the topic at hand is being discussed in the hallways but not it plenaries. “We need to get ahead of this, but we don’t know what to do” he mentions.
Boston’s streets are also among the places that are frequently used as shortcuts and back routes to avoid congestion. The city’s chief information officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, believes that most drivers are only using the navigation apps for longer trips at this point. He also believes that the current situation “will just be the tip of the iceberg” once technology advances further and cars start to integrate mapping technology into their own systems, and even when self-driving cars start to emerge.
“We can’t force an app maker to embed communal goals into their app”, adds Franklin-Hodge.