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LA wants Waze to stop sending drivers down small side streets

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The city is proposing a new pilot program to control cut-through traffic

Residents say Waze and other apps direct drivers onto side streets not equipped for high traffic volumes.
Al Seib/LA Times via Getty Images

With Angelenos from Encino to Echo Park complaining of a rise in disruptive cut-through traffic on residential streets, Los Angeles officials are trying to secure new data-sharing agreements with companies like Waze and Google Maps.

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday directed the city’s transportation department to attempt to persuade digital mapping companies to participate in a pilot program that would limit the streets that drivers are instructed to use in a given area.

Under the terms of a pilot program, transportation planners could work with app developers to ensure drivers aren’t instructed to take streets designated as local thoroughfares, access roads, and small hillside arterials.

Transportation staffers say it’s particularly important that drivers avoid these roads during special events, natural disasters, and school pickup hours.

Transportation engineer Brian Gallagher has suggested the Encino hills or the area around the Hollywood Bowl as potential test sites for the pilot.

At transportation committee meeting last month, Gallagher explained that, during peak hours when major corridors are clogged, mapping applications often divert drivers onto streets poorly equipped to handle high traffic volumes. On particularly narrow roads, this can create “standoff situations” or delay emergency vehicles.

“If there’s just one vehicle, they can pull off at the next driveway and pull over [for an emergency vehicle],” said Gallagher. “But when it’s a queue of 20 or 30 cars, all those vehicles cannot just pull over.”

If the pilot is successful, a similar program could be employed in other parts of the city—but it may be tricky to get companies to agree to the idea. Since the streets at issue are public, mapping companies can decide whether to include them in algorithms used to plan the rides of customers.

Transportation officials have gotten around this in some cases by making changes to specific streets. In Echo Park, parts of Baxter and Fargo streets—two of the city’s steepest thoroughfares—were divided up last year into one-way segments.

Changes like this can make streets relatively useless as shortcuts, making it less likely that driving apps will direct users to take them. But making similar adjustments on every narrow road isn’t feasible, and transportation officials say a pilot program would address these problems more directly.

Los Angeles’s small bit of leverage comes from the ongoing negotiation of agreements to share information about street closures and potential slowdowns with the companies. The city agreed to share data with Waze in 2015, but that deal expired in 2017 and hasn’t yet been renewed.

Per the City Council’s instructions, transportation officials will make the pilot program a condition of new data-sharing agreements.

Lacking data from the city, companies can rely on user reports and publicly available information to piece together what’s happening on LA’s streets. But Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for LA’s transportation department, has expressed optimism about the possibility of reaching a deal with mapping companies.

“I think there is an interest in understanding how we can partner,” he told the transportation committee last month. “The question will be: Do we agree on the terms of what these pilots look like?”