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Fremont, Calif. Outsmarting Navigation Apps

When faced with large amounts of regional commuter traffic on neighborhood streets, traffic officials in Fremont, Calif. turned to Waze for help.

Getting regional commuter cut-through traffic off of local streets can take a variety of approaches, ranging from tweaking Waze algorithms to retiming traffic signals, and even old-fashioned signage.

“We put up these changeable message signs that said, ‘Turn Restrictions Ahead. Don’t Trust Your Apps,’” said Hans Larsen, public works director in Fremont, Calif.

Starting about two to three years ago, the Silicon Valley city began to experience significant gridlock on its local streets as navigation apps directed commuters off of the congested freeways to both commercial throughways and even local neighborhood streets.

“People couldn’t get into their neighborhood. They couldn’t get out of their driveway,” said Larsen, describing a problem that has cropped up in other large metros where navigation apps like Waze have directed regional commuter traffic around say, a bottleneck on the freeway. 

The region, home to companies like Apple, Facebook, Netflix and numerous start-ups, has been home to explosive job growth, adding 152,000 jobs in the last four years, according to Fremont statistics.

“But that same area has only produced about 28,000 new housing units. And so the rate of job growth far outstrips the ability to house people who are filling these jobs. And so, what is created are these huge monster commutes that are farther in the tri-valley area,” said Larsen, referring to places like Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, and continuing on into the Central Valley in cities like Stockton.

“You can add jobs in months. It takes years to add housing. And it takes decades to add the transportation,” he added. “And so it’s difficult to sort of play catch-up on these transportation issues.”

To combat the cut-through regional traffic, Fremont officials met with officials from Waze and joined the company’s Connected Citizens program, which engages transportation, safety and other officials in an effort to build dialogue around creative traffic management solutions. The talks with Waze led to the company sharing driver data with Fremont, allowing the city to get a detailed, real-time look at traffic flow and insight into how it could be better managed. 

From this data, traffic planners determined that restricting turns at certain intersections during specified times could cut down on the local traffic.

“And then when we make a change, they will immediately acknowledge that, sort of within their algorithm,” said Larsen. “So the big benefit was really an understanding of the issue, and the routing, and that we can actually, in real time.”

Turn restrictions were placed at six locations, resulting in a 70 percent to 90 percent reduction in cut-through commuter traffic, said Larsen.

“And we supplemented that with enforcement,” he added. 

Fremont also worked with Caltrans to put ramp metering on the freeway interchange ramps, a roughly six-month process.

“So previously, you get off the freeway, cut through our local streets and then get back on the freeway without having to go through a ramp meter,” he explained. “If you’re getting off the freeway and having to get back on, you’re going to pay a bit of a delay penalty to get back onto the freeway.”

It wasn’t just neighborhoods in Fremont experiencing cut-through traffic. Some of the city’s commercial corridors were also congested, to the point that local businesses reported slowdowns, if only because customers could not reach them.

“We found that we still had a lot of people coming off the freeway, and now they’re just staying on our main streets, rather than going through turn-restricted neighborhoods,” said Larsen.

The city then purposefully slowed the flow of traffic on main thoroughfares, namely with adjustments to signal timing.

“The purpose is to eliminate any travel time benefit on our local streets, and try to keep the regional traffic on the freeway system,” said Larsen, adding, this move led to a roughly 50 percent reduction in traffic on those streets.

About 18 months ago, the city formed a community task force to study transportation issues and explore how to better educate the community about the causes of traffic and its solutions. The process is nearing completion, with the draft of a Mobility Action Plan, a five-year strategy to outline various traffic planning and mitigation efforts.

“There’s been a misperception in the community that all of this increase in traffic, is somehow associated with Freemont’s own growth,” said Larsen. “And it really is a very small percentage, at best.”

Other improvements to the regional transportation system are in the works, such as added HOV lanes and an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail line, farther into Silicon Valley.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.