Los Angeles city officials are trying to curtail cut-through traffic on residential streets that they blame on Waze and other mobile mapping applications.
The City Council’s transportation committee asked city staffers Wednesday to negotiate a new agreement with apps like Waze to share data on traffic conditions, road closures, and other issues impacting safety.
Los Angeles and Waze previously agreed to share data in 2015, but Councilmember Mike Bonin said Wednesday that the results had been disappointing.
The agreement expired in 2017, and since then, LA officials have grown increasingly frustrated over rising levels of traffic on residential streets that many residents see as the result of mapping algorithms that direct drivers away from major corridors.
In April, Councilmember David Ryu wrote a letter to the city attorney requesting that Los Angeles take legal action against Waze for “creating a dangerous condition in the public right of way.”
In the letter, Ryu complained that the app “can wreak undue havoc on traffic plans, residential communities, and the safety of the residents of Los Angeles.”
So far, evidence that navigation apps like Waze make streets less safe is mainly anecdotal, but transportation officials say algorithms that seek out faster routes for drivers sometimes appear to lack key bits of information.
“When you use these apps, it’s tempting to think that they own the entire story about what’s going on in our city at any given time,” transportation department general manager Seleta Reynolds told the City Council’s transportation committee Wednesday.
“But as we saw when they’re sending people up and down a street with a 30 percent grade or sending people into the line of a fire ... it’s really the city that should continue to be managing the public right-of-way and infrastructure,” she said.
Legal action aside, however, there’s little LA officials can do to restrict the streets that navigation apps send drivers down or ensuring that app users are notified of hazards along the way to their destinations.
The city, said Reynolds, has “not yet created the groundwork and the playbook” to regulate navigation apps.
Earlier this year, transportation staffers succeeded in reducing cut-through traffic on Baxter Street, one of the nation’s steepest thoroughfares. To do that, part of the street had to be divided into one-way segments going in opposite directions—making the street less viable as a shortcut option.
Similar reconfigurations may not be feasible on other residential streets where traffic has spiked in recent years.
Transportation staffers are working on identifying these “impacted street segments,” where dangerous conditions for pedestrians or other drivers now exist.
Getting navigation companies to divert drivers away from these “impacted” streets could be tricky, but Reynolds told the committee that an agreement in which certain streets are turned “on and off” during specific times of day might be a possibility.
“The challenge is that their mission is to make it easier to drive in the city and to save everyone five minutes,” said Reynolds. “And our mission is to make it better for people to live in the city. And there are clear points of tension where, in order to meet their mission, they can’t meet ours.”