Navigation Apps Are Turning Quiet Neighborhoods Into Traffic Nightmares
Posted December 24, 2017 4:17 p.m. EST
LEONIA, N.J. — It is bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see, the kind of soul-sucking traffic jam that afflicts highways the way bad food afflicts rest stops.
Suddenly, a path to hope presents itself: An alternate route, your smartphone suggests, can save time. Next thing you know, you’re headed down an exit ramp, blithely following directions into the residential streets of some unsuspecting town, along with a slew of other frustrated motorists.
Scenes like this are playing out across the country, not just in traffic-choked regions of the Northeast. But one town has had enough.
With services like Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps suggesting shortcuts for commuters through the narrow, hilly streets of Leonia, New Jersey, the borough has decided to fight back against congestion that its leaders say has reached crisis proportions.
In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter.
“Without question, the game changer has been the navigation apps,” said Tom Rowe, Leonia’s police chief. “In the morning, if I sign onto my Waze account, I find there are 250,000 ‘Wazers’ in the area. When the primary roads become congested, it directs vehicles into Leonia and pushes them onto secondary and tertiary roads. We have had days when people can’t get out of their driveways.”
Even before the proliferation of navigation apps, Leonia was no stranger to traffic. Ringed by Interstate 95, and in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, Leonia sits next to some of the most congested roadways in the country.
But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Massachusetts to Fremont, California, communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.
Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company.
Waze defends its practice of rerouting motorists from congested highways through residential streets in nearby communities. And the company says it shares free traffic data with municipal planners nationwide who might, for instance, want to monitor the effectiveness of a new time sequence for a traffic signal.
Terry Wei, a spokeswoman for Waze, said the app benefited from a community of local volunteer editors who insure that the maps stay up-to-date and reflect the local law. “If a road is legally reclassified into a private road,” she said, “our map editors will make that change. It is our goal to work holistically with our community of drivers, map editors and city contacts to improve the driving experience for all.”
While a number of communities have devised strategies like turn restrictions and speed humps that affect all motorists, Leonia’s move may be the most extreme response.
Leonia plans to issue residents yellow tags to hang in their cars, and nonresidents who use the streets in the morning and afternoon will face $200 fines. Its Police Department has already alerted the major traffic and navigation apps to the impending changes, which will take effect on Jan. 22 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Rowe said the borough had tried closing only a handful of streets in the past, posting temporary signs and alerting the navigation apps, but with little success. Traffic either got pushed onto nearby streets or drivers simply disregarded the signs.
“It’s basically all or nothing,” Rowe said. “It’s a very extreme measure for very extreme traffic. Would I prefer not to do this? Of course. But I would rather try something and fail than not try anything.”
Borough officials say their measure is legal, although it may yet get tested in court. Some traffic engineers and elected officials elsewhere say the move may set a precedent that could encourage towns to summarily restrict public access to outsiders.
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”
Leonia’s council, which voted unanimously this month in favor of the new ordinance, was careful to keep open three major roadways that are controlled by either the county or state.
Some residents outside Leonia have chafed at the impending street closings, posting variously snarky and incredulous comments on news sites like NJ.com: “Terrible, shortsighted idea. How about the rest of N.J. fines Leonia residents for using all the other roads in the state?”
Schwartz pointed out that the state has ultimate authority over local roads. “I’d rather they put up temporary barriers,” he said. “To give people summonses who might be lost or might be frantic trying to get to an appointment on time — I do worry about this type of strategy. Every town can decide that we don’t want certain people to come through our community.” There is also concern from neighboring communities like Fort Lee, whose place in traffic lore has been cemented by the so-called Bridgegate scandal, where members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration deliberately worsened traffic by the George Washington Bridge, famously saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, warned Leonia that its traffic-fighting strategy better not make things worse in his town. “If their initiative visits gridlock upon Fort Lee and, in particular, creates problems with our emergency service vehicles getting to and from where they need to go, they will hear from us,” he said.
But for residents like Melissa Soesman, a 44-year-old native of Leonia, the change cannot happen soon enough. The slender road she lives on, Irving Street, becomes a parking lot at least two or three times a week during the morning rush. On Tuesday, her son was a half-hour late to his college class because his car, which was parked on the street, was hemmed in by traffic.
Some mornings, Soesman has to plead with drivers to make room for her to pull out of her driveway onto Irving Street. “It’s horrific, and it’s all the time,” she said. “They will see that you are trying to get out, but they won’t let you. People are cranky; it’s the morning. By the time they are up here, who knows how long they have been sitting in traffic.”