FutureStructure

Getting Around Waze: How Traffic Apps are Changing Cities

As navigation apps become more popular, traffic has been redirected from freeways and major intersections into smaller neighborhoods.

by San Francisco Chronicle / March 10, 2017

(TNS) -- Tired of the peace and quiet of your suburban street? Miss the traffic and tension of an oversubscribed freeway? There is, as it turns out, an app for that.

While promising to steer commuters out of gridlock, Waze, along with Google Maps and other navigation aids, is directing interstates into neighborhoods across the country and beyond. That has pitted residents and local officials against commuters and algorithms — while revealing a tendency of technology not to solve problems so much as redistribute them.

This week, Concord became the latest Bay Area city to roll out a series of weekday turn restrictions and traffic-light changes to discourage rush-hour traffic from filtering through its neighborhoods, to which navigation apps have exported a portion of the paralysis of nearby freeways. It followed car-crossed Fremont, which announced similar steps last year with road signs featuring the Luddite battle cry, “DON’T TRUST YOUR APPS.”

The municipal resistance has been driven by residents complaining that their once-tranquil byways have become as unnavigable and dangerous as highways, with more and more motorists following their apps onto them. “Please stop routing the hordes down my residential street,” one Los Gatos resident pleaded with Waze editors. Others have tried to subvert the apps from within by falsely reporting obstacles: “Since Waze is based on crowdsourcing,” a Southern California user reported, “residents are uniting to report congestion in their area so cars are rerouted.” But the app’s hordes also tend to ensure that such false reports are found out.

The backlash isn’t limited to traffic dystopias such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where one councilman urged the city to lean on Waze to alter its algorithm. Suburban neighborhoods from Portland, Ore., to Charlotte, N.C., have also grappled with the apps, some posting temporary traffic restrictions, others adding speed bumps and barriers. Denizens of a Tel Aviv suburb went so far as to sue Waze for ruining their residential calm.

The app’s standard response is that it does far more good than harm by facilitating the distribution of traffic throughout the grid of public streets — with an implied emphasis on public. Indeed, apps such as Waze — created in Israel and bought by Google for more than $1 billion in 2013 — have democratized infrastructure as well as information. Unless they’re in gated communities, quiet streets are largely a matter of luck, not entitlement. The navigators have only seen to it that some of the people who were fortunate enough to live on one aren’t any longer. And for every app-hating leafy enclave, there’s a freeway full of harried commuters grateful for the ingenious technology that makes their drive a bit less miserable.

The Bay Area’s congested roads, ranked fourth-worst in the world last year by the traffic information provider Inrix, reflect vast shortages of housing and public-works investment. There isn’t an app for solving problems of that scope and complexity, but Waze and others are making them that much harder to ignore.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.