Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
Whether it’s Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps, chances are you have a go-to routing app. Some 90 percent of Americans who own smartphones get driving directions from them, according to a Pew survey from 2015, and smartphone adoption has only increased since then.
What’s also grown in that time is congestion in major cities. And while numerous factors obviously contribute to worsening traffic delays—population growth being number one, declines in transit ridership another—emerging research suggests that the mapping genie in your pocket may actually be one of them. Which is ironic, since at least one of them (cough, Waze) is supposed to “eliminate traffic” by showing you the fastest shortcut through the rush-hour morass.
I wrote about this counter-intuitive problem in a new book called The Future of Transportation, an anthology of essays published by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. An adapted excerpt also appears on CityLab. Here’s a section that describes how routing choices that shave down commutes for individual drivers can drag others down in delays:
In a 2017 talk at the Cal Future Forum, [Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies] walked through a computer simulation that showed how drivers reacted to a car crash on the highway with and without the help of a navigation system. His model demonstrated that when just 20 percent of drivers were using apps, the total time that all drivers spent in traffic actually increased. Prompted by their smartphones to use “faster routes” on surface streets, the simulated commuters clogged exit ramps as they veered off the crash-afflicted highway. The back-up they created sent ripples into the travel lanes behind them, creating delays for highway drivers. Meanwhile, they added vehicles on neighborhood roads that weren’t designed to handle the through-traffic.
So the more commuters indulge their selfish interests through a time-saving shortcut, the worse things can get for everyone else on the road. It’s a bit like the tragedy of the commons, where the streets are the pasture and drivers are the cows.
That street-clogging effect has also made navigation apps the target of fierce opposition in residential neighborhoods that have turned into commuter cut-throughs, with homeowners from San Francisco to Tel Aviv reporting false car crashes, walking around with phones to screw with the app, erecting DIY detour signs, and writing many, many angry letters to local representatives. Los Angeles, my hometown, has become a hotbed of anti-app activism, which has recently pushed the L.A. Department of Transportation to try and convince Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps to effectively remove certain neighborhoods from service. That might sound nice for people who live there, but it raises serious questions about who gets to use public space, as Leonia, New Jersey, found out a couple of years ago, after the New York City suburb started ticketing passers-through who didn’t live locally.
In so many ways, navigation apps have changed the politics of traffic: who avoids it, who suffers it, and who gets to protest it.
Have mapping tools changed how the streets feel or move in your hometown? Write to let me know, and I may include your thoughts in an upcoming edition of MapLab.
A pirate’s life for her
CityLab’s ongoing series of personal essays about the power of mapping is coming to a close soon, but last week’s entry was a special treat. Dawn Wright, the chief scientist at the mapping and GIS giant Esri, is one of the most respected oceanographers in her field. She generously agreed to tell the story of how two maps guided her career as a scientist and underwater explorer. One was the fantasy map from her favorite childhood book, Treasure Island.
I had no idea at the time as a child what cartography was, but that map fascinated me to no end: the shapes of the landforms, the colors, the arrow pointing north. Not only was I set on a permanent heading toward a love of pirates and pirate lore, I also wanted to know how to better to decipher maps, and how to make them myself. I wondered, why did most maps only show the top of the ocean? What is beneath the surface, and how in the world do you make a map of that?
A map that labeled New York City subways stops with names of hundreds of iconic women just got an update. (6sqft) ♦ A dizzying and fascinating comparison of new updates to Apple Maps, compared to Google Maps. (Justin O’Beirne) ♦ “Friendly and conventional” in the Midwest? “Temperamental and uninhibited” in the East? The personality stereotypes of America’s regions might be somewhat true. (CityLab) ♦ A super powerful telescope is attempting to map the known (and the unknown) universe in 3D. (Daily Beast) ♦ Berlin’s history, in colorful maps. (The Local)
Love MapLab? Send this newsletter to a friend. She can sign up here.
Happy Thanksgiving, all—