Essay by Laura Bliss: “There might not be much “weather” to speak of in Los Angeles, but there is traffic. It’s the de facto small talk upon arrival at meetings or cocktail parties, comparing journeys through the proverbial storm. And in certain ways, traffic does resemble the daily expressions of climate. It follows diurnal and seasonal patterns; it shapes, and is shaped, by local conditions. There are unexpected downpours: accidents, parades, sports events, concerts.
Once upon a time, if you were really savvy, you could steer around the thunderheads—that is, evade congestion almost entirely.
Now, everyone can do that, thanks to navigation apps like Waze, which launched in 2009 by a startup based in suburban Tel Aviv with the aspiration to save drivers five minutes on every trip by outsmarting traffic jams. Ten years later, the navigation app’s current motto is to “eliminate traffic”—to untie the knots of urban congestion once and for all. Like Google Maps, Apple Maps, Inrix, and other smartphone-based navigation tools, its routing algorithm weaves user locations with other sources of traffic data, quickly identifying the fastest routes available at any given moment.
Waze often describes itself in terms of the social goods it promotes. It likes to highlight the dedication of its active participants, who pay it forward to less-informed drivers behind them, as well as its willingness to share incident reports with city governments so that, for example, traffic engineers can rejigger stop lights or crack down on double parking. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve operated from a sense of civic responsibility within our means,” wrote Waze’s CEO and founder Noam Bardin in April 2018.
But Waze is a business, not a government agency. The goal is to be an indispensable service for its customers, and to profit from that. And it isn’t clear that those objectives align with a solution for urban congestion as a whole. This gets to the heart of the problem with any navigation app—or, for that matter, any traffic fix that prioritizes the needs of independent drivers over what’s best for the broader system. Managing traffic requires us to work together. Apps tap into our selfish desires….(More)”.
This essay is adapted from SOM Thinkers: The Future of Transportation, published by Metropolis Books.