Towns cracking down on GPS app shortcuts

By Danielle Haynes  |  Feb. 20, 2018 at 6:25 AM
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Feb. 20 (UPI) -- With the growing use of GPS apps on cellphones and even built into newer vehicles, cities around the world are trying to find ways to limit how the navigational companies route drivers through their communities.

More than a billion drivers rely on apps like Waze (100 million), Google Maps (1 billion) and Apple Maps to tell them how to get where they're going.

But it's not just about avoiding getting lost. Some drivers still use the technology to, say, get to and from work or school, in order to avoid the headache of a traffic jam or closed roadways. The apps use real-time traffic data to reroute drivers around long delays, sometimes taking vehicles through little-known bypasses or residential streets not normally used by a large number of vehicles for a daily commute.

"There are a lot of roads that I would not have gone down otherwise, but Waze is telling me to go down this shortcut," one unnamed commuter told WBZ-TV in Boston in November.

But some of the people who live on those streets are trying to stop commuters who don't live or work there from taking the detour.

The latest example would be the town of Leonia, N.J., a town with a population of just under 10,000 about a quarter-mile from the George Washington Bridge. A new ordinance went into effect there in January leveling a $200 fine against non-resident drivers who use the town as a shortcut.

"They should stay on the highway," resident Carlos Gomez told WCBS-TV in New York. "Why bother us?"

Leonia Mayor Judah Zeigler said he hopes the legislation will inspire the app makers to remove the city's side streets from their rerouting algorithms.

"They will do that once this legislation takes effect," he said.

But with Google Maps, at least, those roads won't be removed from the apps so much as restrictions will be factored in.

"Municipalities and agencies responsible for managing roads and reducing traffic are free to take measures according to their individual needs (e.g. speed humps, changing speed limits, adding traffic lights)," a Google representative told UPI. "Google Maps will then strive to reflect that reality completely and accurately in our map model. And our automated routing optimization algorithm will inherently take those parameters into account in every route created in Google Maps."

It may be up to drivers to be aware of local laws when driving through the side streets of towns like Medford, Mass. There, the city installed signs limiting drivers from accessing at least two streets during morning and evening rush hours. Other signs tell drivers they can't make right turns during high-traffic times.

"For the residents, it's a safety issue," Medford Sgt. Charles Hartnett said in November.

In Freemont, Calif., principal transportation engineer Noe Veloso told USA Today the city worked with Waze's Connected Citizens Program to inform the app of new restrictions along certain streets that were being inundated with rerouted drivers. He said the company told him that the only way to ease traffic on normally quiet residential streets was to make them less appealing to drivers trying to get home.

Veloso said that new restrictions in the city have eased traffic on some city streets, but he's worried those drivers will be funneled to other residential streets in town.

"We're just trying to find a balance, to eliminate some of the time savings that's sending people into our streets," he said.

In some cities, street layout may complicate rerouting even further. In hillside communities in Los Angeles, the roads aren't on a grid system, meaning there aren't quick, parallel streets to take when one become clogged.

In 2015, then-City Councilman Tom LaBonge told the Los Angeles Times traffic often gets jammed in certain areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

In some cases, residents have taken to trying to trick navigational apps into believing roads are closed or jammed with heavy traffic. Waze, though, said it's able to detect fake reports when other users don't confirm the problem areas.

And it's not just U.S. cities reporting problems with rerouted GPS users in residential areas. In December, Caroline Russell, a member of the London Assembly, said she's received complaints from residents about an increase in cars on the street.

To her, it's a health issue.

"We have a huge congestion problem, and apps which provide a cut-through, simply move that problem into areas where people are living," she told Britain's The Telegraph.

"It might be good for a few drivers, but it is much less healthy for the residents in those streets. A lot of these streets have so much parking you can't even get two cars down, so you get jams, and a build up of pollution."

The newspaper said some communities in the city are considering ways to block roads so that only residents can access them.

Ultimately, though, Waze said it believes all published roads are free for everyone to use in order to ease jams.

"We use the streets within reason. We find the open road and spread cars across the grid, which lowers the risk of unsafe driving behavior," spokeswoman Julie Mossler told USA Today.

Waze told USA Today that when Boston cooperated with the company to use data to time traffic lights, the city saw an 18 percent reduction in congestion month over month.

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