After a long day teaching at Ohlone College in Fremont, Rose-Margaret Itua often spends 40 minutes just waiting to get on the highway. It’s only a mile – a straight shot down Mission Boulevard to 680. But in the four years Itua has been teaching at the college, this short stretch has become maddeningly slow.
“We could be in one spot for about two minutes – no movement at all,” says Itua from behind the wheel. “And then we start crawling again.”
A few years ago, Itua would sometimes use Google Maps to direct her through less busy streets. Now, she says there’s no point.
“I guess I'm not the only person doing that,” Itua says, laughing. “Other people are doing the same thing and so everyone is getting stuck on the alternate route too.”
“Now I don't bother,” says Itua. “I just stay here.”
Navigation apps like Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps determine the speed of traffic using location data from people's phones. Then they send drivers on the fastest available route. If traffic is bad on the highway, they'll often send drivers onto local roads.
This is getting to be a problem in Fremont.
Fremont sits at the intersection of several highways that connect Silicon Valley with East Bay cities and the suburbs of the Tri-Valley area. As the region grows, those highways have had to accommodate more commuters. In recent years, Fremont's local roads have piled up with drivers too.
Unsurprisingly, residents are upset about the increased traffic on their streets. I spoke to one elderly woman who says it’s gotten so bad that she tries not to leave the house after 2 p.m.
But there’s a more subtle consequence of our growing reliance on navigation apps.
Worse traffic overall
According to Alex Bayen, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, navigation apps might make for slower traffic overall.
“Routing people in the way that is best for them,” Bayen says, “doesn't mean that traffic overall is moving more efficiently.”
This is the opposite of the message that the companies building these apps want to send. A spokesperson for the navigation app Waze said in an email that the “application is designed to spread cars out across the grid and alleviate traffic.”
Bayen says that apps can have that effect – initially. But as increasing numbers of drivers rely on their phones for directions, “you see massive amounts of people who are changing their routing patterns.”
And when throngs of drivers use the same apps, traffic can build up in ways that the roadway system wasn’t built to accommodate.
For example, as Itua approaches an entrance to the freeway, she sees a procession of cars coming off a side street. We found earlier that the app Waze was sending drivers that way.
Those cars trigger a traffic light, causing Itua to wait longer on Mission Boulevard. They go ... then we go. They go ... then we go.
“There’s more stop-start-stop-start,” Itua says.
Taking Waze’s route might be smart for individual drivers, but it gums up the traffic system for people on the main road. It’s not so great for the Waze drivers either, who are lined up at same light.
Bayen says this illustrates the principles of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician made famous by the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Nash demonstrated “that what's best for you might not be best for society,” says Bayen. “And that's essentially what's happening with these apps.”
As more and more drivers use apps, says Bayen, the problems are “definitely going to get worse.”
Using map data to fight back
Noe Veloso, the Principal Transportation Engineer for the city of Fremont, pulls up Google Maps on a computer.
“We've been able to use these apps ourselves to determine exactly what they're doing,” says Veloso.
Mapping applications are something of a double-edged sword for transit planners. On the one hand, the apps add to local traffic. On the other hand, city planners now have access to free information about where traffic is, and where drivers are being told to go.
Veloso plugs in a common route for drivers heading north from Silicon Valley. Google Maps recommends that the driver exit the freeway, wind through Fremont neighborhoods, and then get back on the freeway.
“This is a great example,” says Veloso. He says that because the city figured out that this route is popular, they’re implementing a new turn restriction to discourage drivers from using it.
He hopes the new sign will keep more cars on the highway.
So far, the city has installed three turn restrictions based on information gleaned from online maps. We drive out to see one of them.
But when we get there, a black BMW rolls up and makes an illegal right turn, ignoring the sign. Apparently street signs are so 20th century. In the digital age, you need the computers to know there’s a sign there too.
“A lot of Google Maps users are still being directed to this route,” says Veloso. “And so they've come all this way, if there are no police officers to enforce it, they will take their chance.”
Fremont recently joined a data-exchange program with the makers of the navigation app Waze. It’s called the Connected Citizens Program.
In the exchange, cities provide information about closed roads or added signs, and Waze offers cities up-to-date, anonymous traffic information. More than one hundred public agencies worldwide have joined the program, including San Francisco, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which covers all the Bay Area, and Caltrans, which covers the whole state.
Through the program, Veloso’s team let Waze know about this sign. The app was swiftly updated, and Waze no longer sends drivers here.
But even though Waze is owned by Google, it took Google Maps more than three months to update to recognize the new sign. When I was with Veloso in January, they hadn’t yet.
“We as a staff kept putting in multiple notes to Google,” says Veloso. “‘We made this change onto our roadway system. Please update your system.’”
He was informed that Google Maps and Waze have totally separate operations. While Google Maps remains secretive, Waze is sharing its data.
Imagining a smarter transportation network
“Exchange programs are really good. I think it's really a win-win,” says Bayen, the UC Berkeley researcher. “Being able to exchange data is a very good step towards being able to understand the problem.”
But understanding the problem of traffic is only the first step towards solving it.
“What we want is really a general collaboration where the state, the city, the regions, work with all the companies involved,” says Bayen.
He suggests creating economic incentives for drivers to reduce traffic, such as a road user fee for every mile driven, or a bonus for driving during off-hours.
We could even have automated cars that follow the best traffic route for society, not just individual drivers.
It’s hard to imagine Americans giving up the right to drive where we please – and we’d have to reckon with the potential invasion of privacy. But these kind of solutions become possible in a world where growing numbers of cars are connected over the internet. Besides, nobody likes traffic.
Back on Mission Boulevard, a light turns green, and Rose-Margaret Itua finally makes it onto the highway.
She likes to make the best of any situation. So when her engineering students complained to her about the traffic coming to school, she gave them an assignment. She told them to research new “connected cars” technology, where cars communicate with each other with traffic lights.
“So actually, the traffic brought out good,” says Itua. “There’s always a silver lining behind every cloud.”
Even though mobile technology makes Itua’s drive worse now, she believes that in the long run, it will make it better.
“We're engineers,” she says. “We don't complain. We look for ways to solve the problem.”