Why Navigation Apps, Working Properly, Can Make Traffic Flows Worse — And What To Do About It

from the commons-is-our-friend dept

Techdirt has just written about how advanced digital technology can be used for less-than-benign purposes, simply because it is a tool that can be applied in both good and bad ways. A fascinating analysis by Jane Macfarlane in IEEE Spectrum explores something similar: how new technology being used as designed, and with only the best intentions, can nonetheless give rise to potentially serious problems. The article is about how the increasingly-popular navigation apps like Waze, Apple Maps, and Google Maps are “causing chaos?“:

City planners around the world have predicted traffic on the basis of residential density, anticipating that a certain amount of real-time changes will be necessary in particular circumstances. To handle those changes, they have installed tools like stoplights and metering lights, embedded loop sensors, variable message signs, radio transmissions, and dial-in messaging systems. For particularly tricky situations — an obstruction, event, or emergency — city managers sometimes dispatch a human being to direct traffic.

But now online navigation apps are in charge, and they’re causing more problems than they solve. The apps are typically optimized to keep an individual driver’s travel time as short as possible; they don’t care whether the residential streets can absorb the traffic or whether motorists who show up in unexpected places may compromise safety.

One of the problems is that navigation apps use fairly crude models when working out the best routes. Often, they fail to take into account local details. Macfarlane’s article mentions things like extremely steep inclines, and roads where schools are located or that have a larger-than-usual number of pedestrians milling around. Another issue is that navigation apps are selfish — they don’t care if they cause knock-on problems for other drivers elsewhere:

Consider cars crossing a thoroughfare without the benefit of a signal light. Perhaps the car on the smaller road has a stop sign. Likely, it was designed as a two-way stop because traffic on the larger road was typically light enough that the wait to cross was comfortably short. Add cars to that larger road, however, and breaks in the traffic become few, causing the line of cars waiting at the stop sign to flow onto neighboring streets. If you’re in the car on the larger road, you may be zipping along to your destination. But if you?re on the smaller road, you may have to wait a very long time to cross. And if the apps direct more and more cars to these neighborhood roads, as may happen when a nearby highway is experiencing abnormal delays, the backups build and the likelihood of accidents increases.

Things are made worse because rival services not only don’t share traffic data with each other — leading to incomplete knowledge of flows, and sub-optimal route recommendations — they also don’t share their data with city transportation engineers who are trying to optimize traffic flows and minimize danger for everyone. That’s a big problem because the older models used by the authorities to keep everyone safe made assumptions about road use that was based on static factors like nearby population density. Those no longer hold when navigation apps introduce new dynamics — for example, by sending lots of traffic down residential streets that are normally quiet. Transportation engineers may therefore make decisions about traffic control based on erroneous assumptions that exacerbate problems, rather than relieve them. As MacFarlane points out, these knock-on effects of navigation apps have led neighborhoods and citizens to fight back against the unexpected and unwanted traffic flows:

In the early days of the problem, around 2014, residents would try to fool the applications into believing there were accidents tying up traffic in their neighborhood by logging fake incidents into the app. Then some neighborhoods convinced their towns to install speed bumps, slowing down the traffic and giving a route a longer base travel time.

A town in New Jersey, Leonia, simply closed many of its streets to through traffic during commute hours, levying heavy fines for nonresident drivers. Neighboring towns followed suit. And all faced the unintended consequence of their local businesses now losing customers who couldn?t get through the town at those hours.

These are clearly unsatisfactory ways of addressing the new problems otherwise benign navigation apps are causing. As the article notes, the way forward is for all the services in this sector to share their information with each other, and with city governments. This would provide more accurate data, and allow optimal routes to be calculated for everyone. Crucially, it would allow city transportation engineers to work with navigation apps, rather than trying to respond to the barely-understood patterns they cause.

Of course, there are important privacy issues that must be addressed. This could be achieved by combining individual data points into aggregated flows, perhaps with some obfuscating random elements added as well. Another issue is that larger navigation services might be unwilling to share their data with smaller rivals. One incentive for them is that doing so would be zero-cost way to improve the outcome for their users, not least by allowing better overall coordination. Another is that big Internet services are already being portrayed as greedy and selfish by many. Helping to create a traffic data commons for the public good would not only make them popular with their users, but would also provide them with some respite from their critics.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “Why Navigation Apps, Working Properly, Can Make Traffic Flows Worse — And What To Do About It”

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65 Comments
Agammamon says:

Re: Seriously?

No and yes. Its called a driver’s license with your address on it.

They don’t need to pay extra in taxes – believe me, the local cop shop is more than willing to pull cops off patrol (and responding to calls, and investigations, and . . . ) in order to station some there to get a cut of that sweet, sweet, revenue.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Re: Seriously?

A town in New Jersey, Leonia, simply closed many of its streets to through traffic during commute hours, levying heavy fines for nonresident drivers

The way this works is that the non-resident drivers have a legal presumption of inconvenience. That is, it is presumed that it is too inconvenient for them to come and fight the tickets.

Otherwise, there would be a dormant commerce clause problem. The U.S. Congress is given the power to regulate commerce between the several states, and that largely pre-empts local regulation of this sort. Southern Pacific v. Arizona ex rel. Sullivan, 325 U.S. 761 (1945).

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Seriously?

Then everything is interstate commerce. Going down the street to the local farmer’s market to buy something from the farmer who lives a few miles outside town is now interstate commerce, because the cops can’t tell if I’m traveling through the state smuggling drugs.

Admittedly this does seem to be the interpretation courts favor, since growing a plant in your yard is also considered a matter of interstate commerce. It’s a dishonest interpretation to justify federal jurisdiction over absolutely everything. If we wanted to have such a system, we shouldn’t pretend to have a federal system at all.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Interstate commerce; was: Seriously?

The fact that there is a lot more interstate commerce now is not a reason to redefine the term to include activities that are neither interstate nor commercial.

That ship sailed a long time ago. In Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), the Supreme Court said that growing wheat for your own on-premises use could be regulated as interstate commerce because it meant that you were not buying wheat from someone out of state.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Seriously?

Then everything is interstate commerce.

Welcome to the wacky world of Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court ruled back in 1942 in Wickard v. Filburn that a person’s mere existence affects interstate commerce. You see, back then there were restrictions on which crops farmers could grow and which markets in which they could be sold. Well, Farmer Filburn got cited by the government for growing unapproved crops. Filburn claimed that he wasn’t selling the unapproved produce in interstate commerce, so the government had no authority to regulate him or fine him. Indeed, Filburn wasn’t selling the produce in commerce at all; the produce was purely for the consumption of him and his family on the farm.

Well, the Court said that since everyone has to eat, by growing his own food, he had a negative effect on interstate commerce. In other words, he would normally have to buy food from someone else, but since he grew it himself, those purchases weren’t being made and that affected interstate commerce and brought him under the authority of government regulators.

Basically, you affect interstate commerce just by being alive, and therefore there is nothing that is beyond the jurisdiction of the federal government to regulate, despite the clear intentions to the contrary of the Constitution itself and the people who wrote it.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Seriously?

I can see the cop, Stopping someone along the road, and Bothering traffic even more..

I suggested the idea of allowing speeders..
Because of them getting OUT of the group and less people grouped up…LESS congestion happens. But this only works if there are NO street stop lights/signs.
I thought it was neat that they had a 3rd lane for carpools… It would be nice to have one for FASTER CARS.. GET out of the way.. A lane designed to THIN the crowd..Min speed FAST.
The logic works, but do Humans understand HOW to enter a FAST lane without getting hit by another idiot..

Anonymous Coward says:

My bike-friendly city is trying to punish drivers for driving. They’ve installed lanes that shift, so you have to weave back and forth to stay in the through lane. They’ve put up signs about non-through streets, literally saying tax payers can’t drive down those streets to avoid long delays unless they love there. They’ve put double yellow lines on small streets and lowered speed limits to 20 mph. It makes getting anywhere take longer and the city’s transportation department touts this as the grand vision as of everyone will just use alternative transportation despite housing prices pushing the poor further and further away from the jobs.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem with "knock-on problems for other drivers elsewhere" isn’t an issue inherent with navigation apps just because they’re navigation apps, though.

Before navigation apps and the ubiquity of mobile phones, where I live drivers would often take neighborhood routes to go downtown and avoid paying tolls during specific hours. This eventually became common knowledge for anyone who didn’t wish to pony up, until the government got around that by levying tolls on the neighborhood roads too. And even that doesn’t solve the problem of bottlenecks when drivers try to drive on specific roads at very specific times to avoid paying full tolls.

Also consider radio stations where drivers dial in to report traffic mishaps, and the DJs advise listeners to avoid certain routes. Do rival radio stations share that information with each other? Hell no. Does it risk causing issues by diverting traffic elsewhere? Definitely! The issue is humans who have a "Not In My Back Yard" attitude, not useful apps that help pedestrians, not just motorists.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The NIMBY attitude is justified in many cases. These apps are routing heavy traffic through small neighborhoods not designed to handle the traffic. It puts people in danger, and increases accidents. I don’t see things like banning non-locals as the solution – speed bumps are the better option there, even over speed limits (people can and will ignore speed limits, but rare is the idiot that ignores speed bumps 😉 ). I knew of a case like that in Houston many years ago where the neighborhood couldn’t get the city to put in speed bumps, so the residents finally paid a concrete company to "accidentally" spill concrete all down the road, forming make-shift speed bumps that successfully diverted the traffic.

The issue isn’t NIMBY, it’s selfishness – NIMBY is partly selfishness, but it also includes people who won’t get up 30 minutes earlier to provide the time needed to actually get where they need to go on time, who will risk their own lives and everyone else’s to attempt to go backwards in time on the road, be it weaving through traffic at an unsafe speed, to shortcuts at 60 MPH through small neighborhoods to avoid traffic.

Agammamon says:

But now online navigation apps are in charge, and they’re causing more problems than they solve. The apps are typically optimized to keep an individual driver’s travel time as short as possible; they don’t care whether the residential streets can absorb the traffic or whether motorists who show up in unexpected places may compromise safety.

Here’s the deal – this isn’t new. This isn’t something that showed up when widespread traffic monitoring became available.

People have always ‘just gone around’.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, but the issue would be that pre-sat nav / apps, most people would tend to stick to the routes signposted, so their chosen routes would be more predictably routed. Sure, people who know the area would take back roads and shortcuts or visitors would get lost trying to find one, but the majority of traffic would go a certain way. Now, if a majority of people are ignoring the posted routes and using whatever shortcut their phone tells them to use, it causes problems that weren’t there before. In fact, the routes that become more used may be the ones that the normal route was assigned to avoid in the first place.

Yes, people have always done this, but not this many of them in the same way.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The navigation apps have created a unique situation in the neighborhoods near the Hollywood sign in L.A.

It used to be tourists would gawk at the sign from afar at Griffith Park or one of the business district neighborhoods near the 101. The residential streets up in the hills near the sign are a mishmash of switchbacks and loops that look like someone threw a plate of spaghetti on the map. Very few out-of-towners in rental cars ever took the time or effort to suss out how to get up there with paper maps.

But with navigation apps, you can just drop a pin on the street nearest the sign and tell it to lead you there, which has resulted in thousands of cars jamming up these tight little winding roads up in the canyons, and near the sign itself blocking ingress and egress completely as tourists show up and, with literally nowhere to park, just block the street while the take a quick picture or twenty. Residents are furious, the fire department is concerned, and the city is ‘considering options’.

Some residents have resorted to self-help and have either constructed (or stolen) construction-style "road closed" signs and cones and sawhorses and put them up across the entrances to the their streets. That fools some people, but a lot just ignore the signs and continue up anyway.

I’ve heard that the city appealed to Google and Apple and had them reprogram their map apps so that when someone punches in "Hollywood Sign", the app takes them to the Griffith Observatory now instead of right up to the sign itself. Don’t know if that’s true, and even if it is, that still only catches the people who tell their app to find the sign rather than doing that pin-drop at the nearest street that I described above.

PNRCinema (profile) says:

What's interesting...

Is that they DON’T always take the best route either. I don’t own a car, so my wife and I Uber or Lyft everywhere now because we are totally fed up with the MBTA system. Last week, I had to go to a training seminar in Waltham MA from my home on Boston’s North Shore. Each of the four days, the driver took the way his app – usually Waze – told him to go. Boston’s traffic is nightmarish anyway, so a lot of the time, it would avoid the congested highways, and try for local streets in the towns between my home and Waltham. One day, the app sent my driver down a one-lane residential street, through an alley at the back end of what looked like a nursing home, and through an extremely tight one way underpass.We were both laughing about it at the time, about how it went REALLY out of the way to avoid cars, and ultimately, it didn’t work – there was a small line of cars trying to get through that small underpass from both sides. At other times coming home from work in Quincy, it will send drivers through the Ted Williams Tunnel, then through Logan Airport’s outlying surface streets when the Parkway is jammed. Problem is, the app never sends the drivers the direct way – once you cross the Chelsea St Bridge going the surface streets, if you turn right and stay on that road, it would bring you right to where I need to go, and that road is NEVER busy except for in downtown Revere, only a few moments of traffic. Instead, the app sends you through winding surface streets, through downtown Chelsea, and back over to Route One, which is several miles out of the way. Many times if we’d just stayed on I-93 to Route One, it probably would have taken less time, even with heavy traffic. And we learned early on not to try and suggest most drivers to take certain streets, because they get irritated and keep wanting to go back to their GPS system. We find it easier to just let the drivers do the navigating, no matter how out of the way it turns out to be. Honestly, it just gets ridiculous sometimes. But it does get us where we need to go, I suppose.

Hugo S Cunningham (profile) says:

Re: What's interesting...

Back in the 1970s, there were jokes (and not entirely jokes) about Boston cabbies detecting naïve fares from out of town, running up $30 fares coming in from the airport when an $8 fare was normal. I wonder if some enterprising navigation app might offer a special cabbie’s version for similar purposes today? "I’m sorry, this does seem to be longer than we expected. But the navigator must have some reason for choosing this route."

Anonymous Coward says:

Consider cars crossing a thoroughfare without the benefit of a signal light. Perhaps the car on the smaller road has a stop sign. Likely, it was designed as a two-way stop because traffic on the larger road was typically light enough that the wait to cross was comfortably short. Add cars to that larger road, however, and breaks in the traffic become few, causing the line of cars waiting at the stop sign to flow onto neighboring streets.

Um…. so.. they built a larger road… and expected people not to use it?
That seems like… terrible planning.

MikeVx (profile) says:

Odd routing.

I suspect that my Garmin device does not always plot the shortest route. It sometimes takes paths that only make sense if it is trying to send me past businesses. At times of night when those businesses are closed, it sends me down slightly different routes that, amazingly, pass businesses that are open late or all night. If all the systems do this, it could definitely cause sub-optimal routing.

I can’t be sure this is really happening, but it would explain the sometimes daft routing decisions the devices makes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

for some reason

Really? You don’t see the myriad benefits of a smart app over a paper map?

Could your paper map pinpoint your current location and heading?
Could it automatically guide you to your location?
Could it speak to you and tell you which way to turn and when so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road?
Could you tap a button and put the "map" away in under 1 second?
Could that paper map lead you from point A to point B anywhere in the world?
Could your map tell you at a glance how long it would take to reach your destination?
Could your map tell you where the traffic snarls are long before you get to them?
Could your paper map ensure you avoid going the wrong way down one-way streets?
Could it tell you the speed limit wherever you are even when the speed is not well posted?
Could it automatically redirect you when traffic conditions change? Or when you take a wrong turn?
Could it keep up with changes to roads, lights and speeds within a few days of the changes being made?

I’ll keep the nav apps on my phone, thanks. Even in areas that have no cell service these nav apps can still do a better job of guiding me to my destination than an old paper map. I’m glad those days are gone.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Could that paper map lead you from point A to point B anywhere in the world?"

Just to head off the obvious rebuttal – yes they could if you had enough of them, at the right scales, not out of date and you spent time plotting your destination. Which is why more compact easily updated and instantly workable solutions became popular once available.

Anonymous Coward says:

City planners around the world have predicted traffic on the basis of residential density, anticipating that a certain amount of real-time changes will be necessary in particular circumstances.
I can’t speak for every city, but I’m going to say many people are going to call bullshit on this one.

8 years ago, we moved from a city which enacted the "5 second rule" on most of its intersection traffic lights (meaning if no cross traffic was detected, any awaiting cars on the perpendicular streets would be given the green to go).

During rush hour, each light was maxed out to 1:30 for the heavy use street and 30 seconds for the cross. When herding became ineffective, this allowed "breaks" between flows.

Granted, no system is perfect, but this was without doubt the most balanced system I’ve ever seen.

Fast forward to today, where I’m sitting at a light to change, which still has another 58 seconds to go despite not a single car passing by because they’re blocked up by the herd control system.

I’ve recorded and sent in video of this situation to our local city planners, and their excuse for not changing the lights was "Our system is now outsourced to a private contractor, which evaluates the traffic patterns every other year. If the flow of traffic has increased, the timing will be calibrated to meet the demand."

Yes, that’s right, our city decided to fuck over its taxpaying residents by "outsourcing" this to a private company which hasn’t adjusted the timing in the 8 years we’ve been here.

I’m sure "city planners" do use the information at their disposal, but don’t think for one fucking second these apps are the problem.

They’re not. The growing number of cities outsourcing everything to private companies who don’t give a flying shit about anything but the money they’re making sets up for apps like Wave to administer an alternative to the bullshit of having to sit at 2 minute light while no cross traffic is passing by.

I don’t use these apps because I’ve found my own way, but I can definitely tell others use it because even my own bypasses are being filled daily with more cars.

I can’t blame the apps for this. I put the blame wholly on city planners to fucking lazy to do their damn jobs.

Skylos (profile) says:

This is what regulation is for

Require routing information brokerage with a well known routing api whose characteristics are set by the locality. If you are routing traffic in the public space, you need to use it by penalty of law. Provided its online. Nobody is going to agree on the data sharing privately – you have to provide a capable api to do it from the collective/governance direction, and the requirement to use it.

And of course, if a locality screws their traffic up with bad rules, they lose the ability to set their own rules.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Waze will do this but it’s not automatic (how can your phone detect a pothole?). Users of the app have to press a few button to inform the app that there was a pothole, something in the road, a traffic accident, etc, etc. Other users can confirm or dispute the claims of others and you get crowdsourced traffic data.

If there were some computerized reporting system / API for apps like Waze to use to report this data to the city I’m sure they would have hooked into it. But there isn’t. Despite living in an age where the average household has a dozen or more computerized devices our state and local governments are still remarkably old school. Probably best to keep it that way; No taxpayer wants to pay $58 million to build a $500k data collection system.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just a big fat nope

Glyn, you’re missing a huge chunks of info. Most cities don’t have adequate info structure to handle the neighborhoods in a vacuum, let alone when connected to a large traffic eco system. Part of this is due to the fact that most roads are designed for congestion of one car per family. Another is apartment complexes are completely ignored in this equitation. Then we get services/jobs springing up, and traffic becoming a bottle neck. Even when cities/counties spend millions trying to optimize to move traffic, it usually only lasts a few years until they decided to flip on their management style.

For instance, I drive a 5 mile section of road that used to move traffic, now it’s designed to slow traffic down, waste time, and increase pollution. Kinda a bad idea.

The map apps get the data from users, and it sees how badly it runs, and in a reasonable sense sends people down a faster section of road. Which is also not designed for the amount of traffic it gets in general.

In essence, it’s not the apps fault, it’s the cities, and counties doing their jobs in a lazy, half-assed way.

My Tikkit says:

Clean Driving Record

No and yes. Its called a driver’s permit together with your address on it. They do not got to pay additional in charges – accept me, the neighborhood cop shop is more than willing to drag cops off watch (and responding to calls, and examinations, and . . . ) in arrange to station a few there to urge a cut of that sweet, sweet, income View more on https://mytikkit.com

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