Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
One councilmember is pushing the city to partner with the app to reduce congestion on residential streets.
As L.A.'s infamous I-405 widening project dragged on, the 2010 arrival of Waze felt like a godsend to the city's perennially road-locked drivers. The app's real-time, crowd-sourced traffic information and route generation brought a slightly shorter drive time and an element of serendipity to the commuting grind. It caught on fast: Waze now reports that more than 700,000 Angelenos use the app in a day, with more than that 1 million active users in the metro area.
But the backlash is upon us. For the past several months, complaints from residents that Waze is bringing bumper-to-bumper morning traffic through once-quiet neighborhood streets have been flooding city council offices. The reports come mainly from relatively wealthy, I-405-adjacent parts of the West Side and the San Fernando Valley. But it's not just NIMBYism—the concerns are as much about safety as the added noise or nuisance.
ABC News reported last December:
Mila Reeder ... agrees that in the 30 years she has lived in her Sherman Oaks home, traffic has never been this heavy.
"There are no sidewalks on the narrow curvy streets near my home and with the number of cars driving by in the morning people are always about to be hit. It's really dangerous," Reeder told ABC News.
In his State of the City speech last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti formally announced a data-sharing partnership with Waze, where city and company will trade information about road closures, street repairs, and accidents in order to improve congestion for all. That led City Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who represents a large swathe of the San Fernando Valley, to motion for a change (via his office):
In light of the mayor’s announcement of a data-sharing partnership with Waze, the City may be able to leverage the partnership to reduce the impact of routing efficiency apps on neighborhood streets by, for example, regulating the number of added daily trips or other means.
Does the L.A. Department of Transportation have a responsibility to reduce congestion on its streets—particularly residential streets without stoplights, crosswalks, or even marked lanes? It absolutely does. Homeowners are now paying the social costs of congestion, pollution, noise, and road safety that neither Waze nor its drivers are.
But it's also pretty hard to prove that the surge in traffic is directly related to Waze. Yes, the app offers drivers new routes that avoid heavily trafficked main arteries. But representatives tell CityLab that's also why it doesn't make sense to attribute the surge to Waze: Its algorithms are designed to avoid congestion. What seems more likely is that drivers are learning new routes through Waze and its cousin Google Maps, then traveling those routes the next day, but with the app turned off. (Commuters are creatures of habit, after all.)
Then again, Waze is likely capable of knowing how many people are on given roads at a certain time. They'd probably be able to adjust their algorithm to reduce the number of drivers sent to certain neighborhoods, if required. Still, in a city that's already stretching to meet its population's needs, and in a world where all kinds of GPS apps can be used to discover more creative routes, the onus is largely on Los Angeles to make its roads and neighborhoods safer and healthier for all.