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When Traffic Apps Turn Shortcuts Into Travel Nightmares10:59Download

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Early morning rush-hour traffic winds its way along a narrow street in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles in 2014. When the people whose houses hug the narrow warren of streets paralleling the busiest urban freeway in America began to see bumper-to-bumper traffic rushing by their homes, they were baffled. When word spread that the explosively popular smartphone app Waze was sending many of those cars through their neighborhood in a quest to shave five minutes off a daily rush-hour commute, they were angry and ready to fight back. (Richard Vogel/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Early morning rush-hour traffic winds its way along a narrow street in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles in 2014. When the people whose houses hug the narrow warren of streets paralleling the busiest urban freeway in America began to see bumper-to-bumper traffic rushing by their homes, they were baffled. When word spread that the explosively popular smartphone app Waze was sending many of those cars through their neighborhood in a quest to shave five minutes off a daily rush-hour commute, they were angry and ready to fight back. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Here & Now's Robin Young headed to Martha's Vineyard. Thinking she would outsmart the notoriously bad summer traffic on the way to Cape Cod, she used a traffic app to find a shortcut. So did thousands of others, and what should have been a two- to three-hour trip turned into a 12-hour bottleneck nightmare.

For Robin, it was an inconvenience. But for some of the people living in the neighborhoods affected by the bottlenecks, it meant losing the ability to pull out of their driveway.

Robin reflects on that experience, and discusses the uses and pitfalls of traffic apps with Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center.

Interview Highlights

On who's at fault: people or the apps

"It's shared. If... anything it's the tragedy of the commons. It's everyone trying to make decisions for their own self-interest, [which] often winds up in causing harm to the public good... We used to call it the 'Wile E. Coyote theorem,' which is basically the coyotes running along the mesas in New Mexico, chasing the roadrunner and they run off the edge of the cliff, and they're fine in midair until the coyote looks down, and as soon as the coyote looks down, there he goes. And so what happens is Waze or Google or whoever, the apps, look at the road and say, 'Oh, this works fine,' and they send you to places and volumes of traffic that are beyond what the road is meant to be, and then something goes wrong... You create your own backup and then the backup actually is its own bottleneck."

On tensions between apps and neighborhoods where drivers are sent

"That's a huge problem with Waze and other apps like it. When you have a grid street system, when the main road breaks down, the apps — since they're just looking at data — they look at it and say, 'Oh, you can go this way.' And we send you in those directions, and the people who go there tend to be the most anxious, and therefore the fastest drivers, and they drive through the neighborhoods and the neighborhoods don't like this.

"So wars on apps take place. People in the neighborhood who are starting to be overrun with cut-through traffic invent accidents and post them on Waze to have Waze say, 'Oh, there's an accident there.' And then drivers quickly figure out that those accidents aren't real and then Waze has to go out and block the people who are submitting false accidents. But the neighborhoods are saying, 'Hey, this is a neighborhood. My kids are playing in the street. Don't drive through here.' The drivers who are mad and being stuck in congestion are saying, 'It's a public road. I should be able to drive through there.' And so then you wind up with cities building traffic circles and chicanes and other things in order to physically slow traffic down."

On potential solutions

"If you're working with Waze, and if they can, Waze can change the attributes of a particular road in order to indicate that it's slower than it is otherwise, to discourage people from taking a particular route. At the same time, there are the traditional traffic engineering things. As I said, you can put in traffic circles. If you're in Seattle, Seattle leads the nation in traffic circles to prevent people from diving through neighborhoods very quickly. The speeds that people travel are slow. Waze, Google, capture that slow data and say, 'Wow, that road's pretty slow. We're not going to send you that way. It's better to stay on the main arterial even though it's going to be three lights.'

"You also have cities fighting pass-through traffic. There's this conflict between people and businesses who live in an area and the people who are trying to traverse that area to go to their own activities which are on either side."

On the challenges for traffic engineers

"What you're going to find is that the traffic engineers who are trying to balance between what these different, diverse groups want — which are often mutually exclusive — is they're trying to find a balance. They're trying to send the right amount of traffic in the right places at the right speed. The difficulty in the app world is the app world isn't part of that community discussion. Waze isn't in the room, and Waze's software, or Google's software, or Apple's software — pick your navigation software — they're running a giant international system. It's not tuned to what's happening in Fremont or what's happening in Westchester County. In some cases it works really well. When it works really badly is when the volume overwhelms the alternative routes."

This segment aired on July 20, 2017.

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