Waze to create a better world for me and you. But mostly for me.

Modern disruptive innovations based around mobile technology applications implicitly promise a move towards the “pure” capitalism theorized by (paradoxically) 19th century economists. Informed consumers can theoretically compete more effectively on price.

But what happens when the commodity — in this case, road space — is free?


They say bikes get in the way of traffic

The photo above shows beach traffic in the city of Santa Cruz, California. Nobody wants to sit in this mess for longer than necessary, and the Waze traffic app has become a remarkably popular and effective way to help drivers navigate off of the beaten path through the confusing maze of streets in Santa Cruz to bypass some of this traffic. The app uses crowd-sourced input to determine, in real time, the optimal route from your location to your destination.

The problem: previously unknown neighborhood streets have become byways for through traffic. I first began to see rumblings about this two summers ago at city council meetings, with residents asking if the city can somehow restrict Waze users from their streets. This AP story highlights the problem of daily commuters streaming through formerly quiet residential neighborhoods.

One thing that popped out at me from that story was a quote from Waze Director of Communication Julie Mossler. When asked if if people try to game Waze in attempt to discourage traffic from certain neighborhoods, Mossler said, “People are inherently good.”

[begin my weird disconnected rant]

Apps like Waze work not because people are “inherently good,” but because we naturally seek our own self-interest. We don’t generally care about the people whose homes we drive past. In the selfishly materialistic fantasy world of Ayn Rand, this informed self interest enabled by Waze supposedly leads to an earthly paradise of utopian perfection, but the objective reality is stress-inducing road noise, disease causing smog, and real physical hazards for the people who live on those streets. People driving through these neighborhoods just want to get through to the other side, so they’re not thinking of children playing in the street (which still happens in Santa Cruz neighborhoods) or folks walking their dogs.

[end rant]

I don’t blame Waze. The problem is more cars than there is space. As Mossler says, “Los Angeles is a powder keg of cars, construction and population that will only continue to get worse. With or without Waze, drivers will be looking for alternatives to major thoroughfares.” Perhaps Waze is a way to help people utilize the existing road network more efficiently, but perhaps it will also create more savvy transportation users who understand that we have other ways to get around.

H/T to cyclist John H in Florida.

15 Comments

  • December 15, 2014 - 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Excellent intro, based on economic theory instead of the usual “I’m not happy. The government needs to do something!”

  • December 15, 2014 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    ..er, just to clarify: not you in particular, but people in general (e.g. those that live on the formerly quiet streets)

  • rick
    December 16, 2014 - 8:19 am | Permalink

    Many of those quiet street lack sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights, proper storm water drainage. Respect the neighbors.

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  • Tom
    December 16, 2014 - 12:19 pm | Permalink

    The problem with cut through traffic is that its done to save time. The typical driver is worried that their detour might actually cost them time vs the main route, so they are slicing off every second they can, sometimes partially lost and checking the map while driving.

    Speeding recklessly through residential streets only suppresses the locals ability to use active transportation. This is what strategically located diverters are for. Diverters together with traffic calming protect the local residents ability to use active transportation by creating greenways. This enables residents to get where they need to go even though the main routes are clogged.

    On the other hand, enabling residential cut through traffic with apps likely does not decrease the main thoroughfare congestion. As has been demonstrate so many times, the traffic demand only then increases to fill the extra capacity and you end up where you started.

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  • December 17, 2014 - 11:27 am | Permalink

    If you don’t want cars speeding down your side-streets, maybe they should be designed like side-streets instead of wide boulevards? Introduce more crosswalks, bicycle lanes, speed bumps/traffic calming, etc, and you won’t have cars incentivised to run through like that.
    Suggest that to residents; then we’ll see if residents don’t want cars speeding down ‘their’ roads, or just don’t want *other people’s* cars speeding down their roads.

  • December 17, 2014 - 12:57 pm | Permalink

    BTW, Waze doesn’t encourage speeding (unlike Strava!) Their route-finding algorithm is based on obeying the laws. I suspect it’s the quantity of traffic that annoys the residents of side streets as opposed to a small percentage of speeders. (Can you imagine the uproar if there was a “Strava for cars”?!)

  • Bike-Scoot
    December 17, 2014 - 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Most traffic calming is generally well supported by residents (with the usual exception of street parking removal). Its the city that is usually the road block, as cities prefer spending money on (futile) LOS “enhancements” instead, based on ongoing misconceptions. Because of this, street calming takes an organized effort to push the city for change, and many neighborhoods are not all that organized.

    Santa Cruz is better off than most cities in this respect. If you want change, you need to show up at the meetings though. See link.
    http://www.santacruzneighbors.org/index.php?SectionID=45

  • December 17, 2014 - 1:30 pm | Permalink

    @Bike-Scoot – fair, I shouldn’t have made out like the residents are the problem. I think of those quiet but wide, wide residential streets in West Hollywood/West LA that google maps sends me through…I’m gonna drive through them if they’re there, but if I was a resident in those parts I know I’d be wanting some traffic calming. I can think of a few East-West streets around my own South Central which could benefit from it too.

  • Bike-Scoot
    December 17, 2014 - 1:41 pm | Permalink

    @AlphaRoaming. Is there data showing that known cut through residential streets have the same rate of speeding as ones that are not? Is there data that shows residents care more about traffic volume than speeding? The Santa Cruz Neighbors organization lists speeding as one of their top five concerns.

  • December 17, 2014 - 1:54 pm | Permalink

    No data that I know of. Fair enough question though, including for the Santa Cruz Neighbors, who need to decide what the problem is and what they want. Speeding can be enforced…traffic volume is a trickier subject.

  • Pete
    December 19, 2014 - 4:28 pm | Permalink

    “Speeding can be enforced…traffic volume is a trickier subject.”

    Unfortunately that’s tricky to do, especially during peak times when LEO are busy enforcing elsewhere. In my neighborhood Barcells became a popular cut-through as traffic increased on Homestead, particularly after they added a light at the Central Park library. The street is not wide by design, but only when parked cars are present (on both sides). Otherwise when people enter from Kiely they gun it. It’s such a low-priority street the city won’t consider speed bumps (I’ve talked with appropriate city personnel), and regarding residents not wanting the treatments – I’d venture to guess about 1/3 of the speeders live here.

    I’ve been known to use more unconventional ‘enforcement’ techniques, such as the time I ran in front of a guy doing ~40 forcing him to slam on the brakes, or when I sprinted after a kid driving Mom’s SUV and caught him at the lights, convincing him I was an off-duty police officer who’d be running his plate when I got back to the station. Vigilantism for fun and entertainment…

  • December 19, 2014 - 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Sounds similar to a half joking discussion I had with a neighbor. If the city won’t put in speed bumps and red curbs in the nearby school zone, perhaps the materials could be purchased at Home Depot and “installed” after dark! You could also use cameras and post the license plate numbers on the web. Word will get around

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