Incident 226: Waze Allegedly Clogged Streets and Directed Drivers to Make Unsafe Traffic Decisions
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Each week, Thomas and Diane Vicari head down the hill from their Sherman Oaks home to take their grandchildren to school.
So both were shocked to learn of city plans to block their street each day during rush hour to stop a horde of smartphone-led commuters from crawling through their hillside neighborhood.
“Of course there’s traffic. Of course there’s safety issues. Of course it’s out of control,” said Diane Vicari, a filmmaker who since 1973 has lived on Rayneta Drive east of the congested 405 Freeway. “But there’s gotta be a law that says you have the right to access your home at any time of the day. Unless there’s an emergency, they can’t do this. They have to draft something that works for everybody.”
The two were among hundreds of residents who packed a public hearing late Tuesday to weigh in on a controversial West Sherman Oaks Hills Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan.
The plan, which features three options proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, calls for road and turn restrictions within the winding streets that run parallel to the busiest urban freeway in the nation.
The parade of cut-through traffic led by Waze and other smartphone apps to bypass the 405 has drawn a national spotlight to Sherman Oaks gridlock.
Each morning and afternoon between Mulholland Drive and Valley Vista Boulevard, city officials and residents say, the area’s narrow streets fill with a bumper-to-bumper crush of cars that block driveways, hinder trash trucks and deter police and fire emergency vehicles.
The exhaust-choked congestion across the Santa Monica Mountains has also resulted in road rage shouting matches. Weary motorists even stop to ask to use neighbors’ bathrooms.
A solution devised by a working group of transportation, police and fire officials would be a series of signs saying “No Right” or “No Left” turns during peak rush hours to deter the hordes of navigation-app freeway refugees. Times were adjusted for local schools.
The city is proposing three alternatives, from the most severe turn restrictions to moderate to unrestricted and asking residents to vote on a recommended option. A public comment period ends Feb. 13.
Transportation officials will then tally the neighborhood votes and comments about the traffic mitigation plan and submit a final version to the City Council for consideration.
What would be the most ambitious traffic plan ever devised to counter cut-through traffic caused by smartphones could cut Sherman Oaks traffic in half by summer, officials say.
“This is something that needs to be done, because of Waze,” Councilman David Ryu, whose district includes Sherman Oaks, told an estimated 300 residents who had filled an auditorium at Buckley School for two hours. “I am committed … (but) not everyone’s going to be happy.”
For years, savvy San Fernando Valley commuters have bypassed the 405 Freeway by taking surface streets to West Los Angeles. Then along came Waze.
The Google-owned, Israel-based navigation service employs crowd-source data from millions of motorists to find the quickest route to shave valuable minutes off of commutes.
In April 2015, as complaints began to pour in about computer-generated traffic, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a data-sharing agreement with Waze.
The city would provide data to Waze about road closures, construction, and safety hazards and hit-and-run crashes so drivers could avoid blocked streets and congestion. The city would get real-time feedback on traffic and road conditions.
Garcetti, at his second State of the City address at Cal State Northridge, said the exchange would mean “less congestion, better routing, and a more livable L.A.”
For Sherman Oaks, however, it may not have worked out that way.
In a yearlong study, Los Angeles traffic officials found that more than 900 cars an hour were crowding streets scarcely 20 feet wide, built for 2,000 cars a day. It also found that 86 percent of the cut-through traffic was from outside the neighborhood.
“We’re really exceeding the amount of traffic on these streets, sometimes over 400 percent more than these streets can handle,” said Brian R. Gallagher, a senior DOT engineer in charge of Valley operations.
He said his department has tried to communicate with Waze to ask that it not divert traffic to side streets and include new traffic signs into its formula, but so far not much has happened.
“They are out of our jurisdiction, and they can do whatever they want,” he explained.
A Waze spokeswoman said the phone app spreads cars across the grid of public streets, helping not only to alleviate congestion but promote a safer drive.
“It simply wouldn’t be effective to create traffic jams of our own,” Julie Mossler, a Waze spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Public roads are intended to be used by all citizens, including to alleviate gridlock in more congested parts of town. Waze works closely with departments of transportation all over the world, including the city of L.A., to better understand traffic flow and respond to emergencies.”
While police and fire officials endorsed the new Sherman Oaks traffic plan, residents called for a more regional approach.
“This isn’t a local problem; it’s a regional problem,” said Ron Ziff, vice president of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council. “Too many cars caused by not enough public transit. And smartphones. It deserves a regional solution, and it deserves the attention of the mayor.”
Residents, in turn, were divided about aspects of the traffic mitigation plan. While some worried the most severe restrictions would keep them from their homes, others said the crazy commuter traffic must be stopped.
“My question is, where do you think those cars are going to go,” asked one man, who did not give his name but said he was a trial attorney who lives on Valley Vista. “By blocking these streets … it’s gonna make it much worse for us. And we’re going to end up in court. It’s not going to be good for anyone.”
But William Carey, a Woodcliff Road resident who has worked with the city to come up with a traffic fix, said his once sleepy street went from handling around 4,000 cars a day two decades ago to 12,000 cars today, adding to neighborhood noise, air pollution and damaged roads and sewer lines.
“This is a safety, life, pocketbook issue,” he said. “It’s not about a couple more minutes of being inconvenienced in getting to your house.”
Thomas Nehren never knew what to expect when he was on the road in his hometown of Salt Lake City. Whether it was speed traps, accidents or road construction, he too often found himself on the wrong street at the wrong time, when a different way to work might have kept him away from traffic – or potentially a ticket. Then he heard about a navigation app called Waze.
"Waze saves me a few minutes of commute every day, with five days a week and 50 weeks a year, that adds up," Nehren says. "I use Waze to help me find the quickest way out of two or three alternative routes to get to work and back home."
A dockless scooter is seen in the streets of Washington D.C. "Dockless" refers to the fact that the scooters have self-locking mechanisms, which makes it easier to park them near the user's destination.
The app, now about a decade old, functions by collecting map data, travel times and traffic information from users, who can report accidents, traffic jams and police activity. A small Israeli startup, Waze was bought by Google in 2013 for approximately $1 billion. Its 500,000 volunteer map editors globally keep its maps updated, but the app is centered on information provided by its users, according to company spokeswoman Terry Wei.
"It's our community of 100 million users around the world that make up the magic that is Waze," she says. "The information ensures that our maps always have the most up-to-date information, improving the driving experience for everyone."
Well, maybe not everyone.
A city council member in Los Angeles this month wrote a letter to the city attorney seeking possible legal action in response to what he describes as threats to public safety caused by Waze technology. The lawmaker, David Ryu, has been speaking up about the issue since he was elected in 2015.
According to Ryu, many of the shortcuts suggested by Waze end up causing more traffic in an effort to cut travel times by using side roads, leading drivers to make unsafe turns and often unpermitted traffic directions. In one case, Ryu mentioned, a street designed for local use is handling over 650 cars an hour. This, he said, has trapped several residents in their driveways and has led to multiple accidents.
"Waze has upended our City's traffic plans, residential neighborhoods, and public safety for far too long," Ryu said in his April 17 letter. "If we do nothing, Waze will lead us on a race to the bottom – where traffic plans are ignored and every street is gridlocked."
The council member proposed collaboration between the private sector, namely Waze and Google, with the public sector to alleviate this ongoing issue. Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor says the council member's office has attempted to bring Waze to the table to work collaboratively.
"The councilman supports technology and alternative modes of transportation," Montemayor says. "This is not an attack on technology. We hope Waze takes some responsibility for some of the problems their app is creating, and they should have legitimate concerns regarding these issues because city officials have been dealing with them day in and day out."
The company insists that it is "committed to helping cities and citizens navigate efficiently and safely."
"It's important to note that Waze does not 'control' traffic but our maps do reflect public roads that federal and local authorities have identified and built for its citizens. If the city identifies a dangerous condition, it is their responsibility to legally reclassify a road, which will then be reflected on the Waze map," she says.
Uri Levine, co-founder and former president of Waze, defends his brainchild even more plainly, saying the backlash is unwarranted and Waze facilitates navigation for the public good.
"All roads are the public domain and therefore the right of everyone to use," Levine says. "In that sense, Waze redistributes traffic to create a better traffic situation for everyone."
He says that when he was starting Waze, he and his team were trying to "solve big problems and to create a lot of value for a lot of people."
"We started back in 2007 with a clear vision of helping drivers outsmart traffic," he says.
But that was a long time ago in the tech world – two years even before the founding of Uber, a company that would revolutionize the transportation sector with its rideshare app that allowed ordinary motorists to connect with passengers who needed transportation and to make a few bucks in the process. The rideshare industry was a boon for Waze, as motorists – who often had less knowledge of their surroundings than a cab driver might – turned to the app to find the fastest and the least congested routes. In fact, demand for such a product prompted Uber to develop its own that can be accessed from within its own app – a helpful feature for its drivers.
"Drivers frequently cite the convenience of not having to switch between apps during trips as a big reason for choosing Uber's in-app navigation," Uber spokesman Michael Amodeo says.
With steadily increasing usage and more navigation apps popping up, more motorists are being directed to less crowded streets across the country.
Hundreds of people on freeways usually try to use side roads as a result of rerouting apps such as Waze, Google Maps, INRIX and Apple Maps, according to Alexandre Bayen, director of the Transportation Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley. These roads are not equipped to handle heavy volumes of traffic, which is why it ends up being an issue.
"If only a few people are drinking water from a river, it isn't a problem," Bayen says. "But if there are a million people at the river, there will be no more water. The same thing applies to routing apps. With only a few people using the apps, there is no problem. Now, everyone is using them so there is no more capacity."
The result has been traffic displacement – and anger – that is not limited to Los Angeles.
In San Mateo, California, residents are complaining about Waze directing drivers into their neighborhoods to avoid construction delays. In Fremont, California, delayed traffic signals on main boulevards and rush-hour turn restrictions were imposed to deter Waze users. In Brookhaven, Georgia, the city council approved various traffic-reducing measures such as partially closed roads to thwart Waze users. In Leonia, New Jersey, police closed 60 streets during rush hour because the streets were ill-equipped to handle the volume of traffic directed to them.
And in 2016, in Takoma Park, Maryland, residents went to great lengths to prevent Waze drivers from flooding their roads during a bridge reconstruction project. A Takoma Park man reportedly started reporting phantom wrecks and traffic jams on his street before Waze banned him.
"Waze is meant to be interactive so people put information about roadblocks to trick the software," says Daryl Braithwaite, public works director in Takoma Park.
The solution to this problem, according to Hani Mahmassani, transportation expert at Northwestern University, is a method called closed-loop prediction. Closed-loop prediction could predict traffic scenarios, taking into account the information provided as well as the potential behaviors and responses to the information.
"An entity like Waze doesn't do closed-loop prediction because they're not in the business of managing traffic," Mahmassani says. "They're in the business of providing information."
Access restriction is a viable alternative to the congestion caused by rerouting apps, according to Bayen. Restricted access to specific neighborhoods during certain times of the day may alleviate the traffic. But, the broader question, he says, is how can the situation be regulated.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with routing apps, but the problem is overuse," Bayen says. "Like the river example, when people are competing for the same commodity, if it's not regulated, there will be chaos."
With mobile traffic applications such as Waze causing a dangerous flood of traffic to be funneled onto tiny Los Angeles side streets, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote on a proposal Tuesday that will develop ways to curb the apps from diverting drivers off of major thoroughfares.
"There are tremendous advantages to apps like Waze," said Councilman Paul Krekorian, who introduced the motion seeking the solution. "They can make driving more efficient, but with every technological advance, any consequences that arise must be taken into account. With this vote, the city will have the go ahead to start a dialogue with these tech companies to see if they will work more closely with us to reduce the impact their apps are having on small residential streets and increase the level of traffic safety in our neighborhoods."
At a meeting in October, the Transportation Committee discussed this matter with Los Angeles Department of Transportation staff and recommended that the council designate LADOT as the lead agency to negotiate a data sharing agreement with navigation application companies to explore what solutions to the issues can be negotiated.
Krekorian introduced a similar motion in 2015 that asked Waze to partner with the city and alleviate traffic on residential streets, but he said Waze ignored the request. Waze has not responded to previous attempts tocomment on the motion.
"The real-world neighborhood impacts of sending distracted, stressed and/or lost drivers down unfamiliar streets remain," Krekorian's new motion says. "And while there are certainly other factors that contribute to the overwhelming amount of traffic in narrow, neighborhood feeder streets, map app makers -- like Google, Apple and Waze -- have shown little interest in helping neighborhoods reduce the hazards on their streets."
Krekorian is not the only council member to raise issues about Waze and safety.
Councilman David Ryu recently sent a letter in April to the City Attorney's Office asking for a review of possible legal action against Waze for causing traffic problems
During a series of wildfires in December of 2017, navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps were guiding drivers into evacuation areas and caused congestion where officials were ordering streets closed, according to a motion introduced that month by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz that is under consideration.
Koretz's motion would direct the fire department and Department of Transportation to report on efforts to coordinate with navigation app developers to prevent their apps from directing drivers into evacuated areas.