The unintended effects of mobile apps


We wonder every day what we would do without certain mobile apps. Two that come up often are Google Maps and Waze (now owned by Google). Every day, drivers put their faith in these apps to provide the most direct, traffic-minimized route to their final destination. In many cases the routing is counterintuitive, but for some reason the efficiencies work.

But what may be a benefit to the driver has in fact come at the expense of the residents in certain areas.

This came up when I was waxing poetic to a friend about how Waze saved me an hour on a trip to Philly. He asked if I had ever considered what the effects were on the “shortcut residents.”  I said that in my selfish desire to get to my final destination I had not consider the effect on the neighborhoods that I was driving through. In fact, in many cases I enjoyed the change of scenery.

My friend went on to say that Waze had turned the bucolic back street where his mother lives in Salem, Mass. into a major thoroughfare. After decades of obscurity, the street had been “outed” by the Waze algorithm.

I quickly came to learn that the residents of that street in Salem were clearly not the only ones feeling the painful side effects of Waze and Google Maps. In reality the problem is endemic and the emotions run very high in some towns.

In fact, with every invasive technology comes a movement to block or divert negative effects on the citizenry. In some cases the victims decide to leverage the Waze technology itself to get temporary relief from the congestion problems.

In doing so, the residents of the shortcut streets post numerous alerts about fictitious construction or road hazards that would dissuade the Waze algorithm from directing traffic through that area. Residents find, however, that they can only game the system for so long because the programming geniuses at Waze built validation checks into the system to prevent just this kind of problem. The technology uses such factors as whether there is a moving vehicle creating the alert and what the precise point of origin was for a Waze user posting an obstacle.

This takes on a broader context when looking at the conflict between the most efficient transportation routes versus the routes that cities and towns would prefer drivers to use. Whereas the ability to game the app is limited for the long term, many cities and towns have gone old school to solve the Waze problem by putting up street signs restricting right and left turns on certain streets during heavy volume hours of the day. This restriction eventually gets baked into the algorithm by the in-vehicle app reporters and the validation systems used by Waze.

The challenge is somewhat paradoxical in terms of urban transportation strategy. Most cities are trying to reduce the volume of traffic on certain roads and streets during rush hours. On the other hand, urban planners are focusing on reducing traffic in neighborhoods in order to preserve the quality of life.

The debate will continue in smart cities whether it is better to have less traffic on major thoroughfares because it is being dispersed on to other streets using apps like Waze. Many would agree that in the ideal world there would be severe limits on traffic entering urban areas during high density hours — which many Scandinavian cities are implementing — so that traffic apps would no longer be necessary until driving outside the city limits.


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