Drivers using the Waze app are often diverted on to small side streets that aren’t equipped to handle large amounts of traffic. (Courtesy photo)

When a benefit for individuals is bad for society

I live on a quiet street in a neighborhood of single-family homes with no commercial district.

At least it used to be quiet. In recent months, there has been a steady stream of car after car after car passing my house during the morning rush hour. There are so many, I have a hard time backing out of my driveway. I blame Waze.

The navigation app Waze is a great way for individuals to find the fastest, least congested route to a destination. It collects information on travel times, traffic and accidents in real time from users. If a major thoroughfare is stop-and-go, Waze directs cars onto side streets to avoid the congestion. That’s great for each individual driver.

But it can create a huge problem for the people who live on those side streets, people like me. As traffic increases on 19th Avenue during the morning rush hour, Waze, Google Maps, and other navigation apps direct all those cars away from 19th Avenue and past my house instead.

Many of the drivers seem to be in a hurry, speeding down the street. They’re distracted by the hand-held devices telling them where to turn. Add in residents who aren’t used to a lot of traffic in the neighborhood, and who, therefore, may not be as vigilant crossing the street as they should be, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

People have always used shortcuts to get around town. But, in the past, those shortcuts were only known to locals or to people who studied a Thomas Guide. Now, the navigation apps let everyone in on the “secret” routes. Peaceful residential streets are becoming busy thoroughfares.

Last month, in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, a charter bus driver using Waze was directed to turn off four-lane Glendale Boulevard onto the very narrow Earl Street. He crashed into four parked cars. During rush hour, Earl is bumper-to-bumper with cars following Waze’s direction to avoid Glendale. The side street was never meant to handle such a heavy volume of traffic.

The apps aren’t perfect. In the Echo Park section of LA, Waze often directs cars onto Baxter Street, one of the steepest streets in the area. When it rains, cars slip and slide, resulting in a lot of accidents. A few years ago, amid major wildfires in Southern California, drivers using Waze and Google Maps found themselves directed to drive toward the very fires they were trying to escape.

The ride-hailing industry is a major user of navigation apps. In San Francisco, Uber and Lyft drivers often don’t live here and don’t know The City as well as cab drivers do. So, the rideshare drivers rely on navigation apps to help them find the fastest way to get to their destinations.

A study released last week found that there was a 62% rise in delays and congestion on San Francisco streets in the years from 2010 to 2016. Two-thirds of that increase is attributed to Uber and Lyft. Without the ride-hailing companies, the researchers estimate congestion would have increased by “only” 22 percent.

In addition, the study, co-authored by researchers at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the University of Kentucky, noted that: “Between 43 and 61 percent of [Uber and Lyft] trips substitute for transit, walk or bike travel or would not have been made at all, adding traffic to the road that otherwise would not have been there.” The ride-hailing companies clog the streets while siphoning riders from mass transit.

There is no doubt that individuals benefit from Uber and Lyft, just as individuals benefit from navigation apps like Waze. But both ride-hailing companies and navigation apps cause larger societal problems, from increasing congestion to steering large numbers of cars onto small residential streets that can’t handle the strain. What benefits the individual may not be so good for society as a whole.

So, the next time you use Waze and drive onto a side street to avoid congestion, try to be considerate of the people who live on that side street. Don’t speed. And look out for people who are trying to cross the street or are just trying to back their car out of their driveway.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner

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