When I am about to set out on a drive across Los Angeles, I have to make a decision: what kind of drive do I feel like?
No, I do not have a collection of sports cars to choose from. I just have a selection of navigation apps.
I could go with Google Maps, which is the safe and reliable option. Or I could let Waze direct me and go on an urban safari, its pathfinding algorithms leading me through undiscovered neighbourhoods and obscure backstreets.
Most cities have traffic problems, but Los Angeles poses an unusual challenge to both driver and navigation app. After analysing more than 1,000 cities around the world, Inrix, a transportation software and data provider, reckons LA is the most congested. Last year, LA commuters spent a total of 104 hours stuck in traffic during peak times, Inrix estimates — longer than anywhere else.
On a typical 10-mile trip across the city during rush hour, Google Maps often suggests to me that it would be faster to cycle than drive. (I have not yet been brave enough to go further than a couple of miles on my bike, though, and even that prompted gasps of amazement from the people I was meeting.)
How it works
While Google Maps tends to stick to the freeways and main thoroughfares, Waze gets far more adventurous in its efforts to avoid the jams. It is not afraid of sending me straight across a four-lane road without a traffic light to help. As we weave through side-roads, it frequently suggests daunting left turns across incoming traffic.
What has become clear in the past few months, though, is that courage is rewarded. Waze really works, even if I need a few of those saved minutes at my destination to recover from the dizziness of its zigzagging routes. Waze is also sprightly to respond to a crash or other delay mid-journey.
In a city as sprawling and pedestrian-unfriendly as LA, what and how you drive is a much bigger part of people’s identity here — far more so than in San Francisco or London.
I am starting to think that this extends to your choice of navigation app, too. Driving can be an isolating experience compared with walking or using public transport, but there is a strange feeling of community that comes from being part of a stream of cars all taking the same, improbable path around town. We are all winning at traffic together.
There is no more visible and physical manifestation of the power of algorithms on our world than a flurry of Wazers lining up for the same awkward turn or zooming down another poorly lit alley.
But Waze has been the target of many an angry suburban resident. LA neighbourhoods such as Sherman Oaks, whose lawns and malls sit at the busy intersection of freeways 405 and 101, have become case studies for Waze’s side-effects.
“Since Waze came along, the traffic in front of my house backs up to a continuous 20 vehicles between 7am and 9am waiting at a stop sign,” one Sherman Oaks resident told the LA Times in 2015. “We had a peaceful residential home before Waze. Now we live on a pretend freeway.”
Two years after this anger put this LA neighbourhood at the forefront of Waze protests across the US, Ron Ziff, the head of Sherman Oaks’ neighbourhood council, says little has changed. Yet he does not blame Waze alone for local congestion.
“People look out their window and see cars and this disturbs them,” he says. “They don’t recognise what the underlying problem is, which is we need more and better transportation for people to get to work . . . We are nearing a crisis point.”
Far from trying to counter Waze, LA’s mayor has struck a partnership with the Google-owned company. LA is one of more than 100 cities from Jakarta to Mexico City that participates in its Connected Citizens Program to share data about traffic and road closures, inform infrastructure decisions and accelerate incident response times.
What most neighbourhood groups, drivers and city councils do not realise is that Waze is just the beginning of the algorithmic reshaping of our roads. If and when self-driving cars arrive in the coming years, they will be relying on the same automated pathfinding systems as Waze and its peers.
Unlike us, though, the robot cars will have no fear about taking awkward left turns and will not blush behind the wheel when they drive through a quiet residential street.
When I lived in San Francisco, barely a day went by without seeing a self-driving car (albeit in testing mode, with a human behind the wheel). I am yet to see a single one in LA, probably because traffic density poses a much greater challenge to the robots’ sensing systems.
I suspect it will be years before autonomous cars join battle on LA’s roads. In the meantime, I will be relying on Waze, hoping that guilt about driving through someone’s back yard will be outweighed by the thrill of beating the traffic.
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