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The invasion of the anti-traffic jam apps

07.06.2019

By redirecting traffic onto smaller roads passing through towns, mobile app Waze is causing disturbances for certain residents.

With 10 million users in France, the Waze app has quickly become a mainstay of the route planning market. Its real-time access to traffic data and the sharing of information between users have left conventional GPS devices to gather dust in the back of glove compartments. The community-based app, which was acquired by Google in 2013, doesn’t stop at simply getting you from A to B: it gets you there as quickly as possible, even if this means going off the beaten track.

Escaping traffic

Cars are bumper to bumper. Roadworks have ground the motorway to a standstill, and the traffic jam stretches as far as the eye can see. Just as you’re wondering how you’re going to get through the next few hours stuck inside your car, your phone beeps with a message of hope. It suggests using side roads to avoid congestion and save time. Without thinking twice, you take the next exit off the motorway, along with a cohort of twenty or so other drivers, presumably also Waze enthusiasts. And so begins a ramble down country roads, passing through tiny villages at 20 mph punctuated with pedestrian crossings and speed bumps to keep you on your toes.

It’s a scene that’s becoming all too common near major highways.

“When I see 30 cars hurtling down the little streets in the town centre, it’s a sure sign that they’re using Waze! But it creates dangerous situations because the roads aren’t built for that,” reads one post in a forum for disgruntled locals.

 

Residents only

It can quickly become problematic when a dense flow of traffic is sent down these small roads at rush hour, as Lieusaint, a town in Seine-et-Marne, found out. The centre of this 12,000-strong community in the outer suburbs of Paris had become an alternative route for Waze users, leading to congestion in the middle of residential areas. So the mayor decided to do something about it, having traffic lights installed and making some roads one-way to make the detour less efficient for Waze’s algorithm. But he didn’t stop there. He also demanded that the start-up take measures to adjust the traffic easing deviation that was causing so much disruption in Lieusaint. And it did. The secondary route that Waze suggests at rush hour still goes through Lieusaint, but on main roads rather than residential streets. According to the mayor, traffic has halved since these steps were taken. In an interview with BFM, he encouraged more local authorities to do the same and “mark their territory”.

And other towns in France and beyond are indeed following suit, exploring solutions such as municipal orders blocking access to certain roads at rush hour, speed bumps and stricter speed limits in an attempt to beat the algorithm.

Opening the discussion

The consequences of algorithms like the one used by Waze are an opportunity to open up dialogue between local officials and mobility service users and operators.

What are the options for local authorities or residents in a community that has become part of a detour recommended by Waze? Who can they contact with a view to keeping dangerous situations in check and restoring peace and quiet?

Making the algorithm more transparent is emerging as the logical first step to working together. For local authorities, understanding how it works and what information is used in the calculations would pave the way to aligning it with their traffic plans. But how this teamwork will be structured remains to be seen.

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