Anyone who has used Waze to navigate a soul-crushing commute in Los Angeles can see just how the community-driven navigation app works: On any given night, the app might direct hundreds of cars down an obscure street to avoid a crash or gridlock nearby. Now, residents of quiet neighborhoods are pissed at Waze, and apparently ready to do something about it.
Recent reports say that Waze is making life hell for people who live on the small residential streets the app reroutes drivers down. According to TMZ, a reputable source for transportation news, residents are so fed up that they download the app themselves and report congestion on their own streets to screw with Waze’s directions and trick the algorithm.
TMZ’s story doesn’t reveal any specifics so I wasn’t able to find any residents to confirm this, but it wasn’t too surprising at first blush. At the Making LA conference earlier this month, LADOT general manager Seleta Reynolds confirmed that her department had been getting complaints about Waze from homeowners who thought their streets were being abused by the app’s navigation.
“These types of apps are great for finding restaurants, museums and other tourist attractions,” she says. “However, often these apps end up sending drivers through residential neighborhoods to save time but this creates ‘cut-through traffic’ where people live, play, ride bikes, and walk a lot.”
One potential problem, according to Reynolds, is that if certain streets get too crowded due to Waze popularity, it might cause the city to make unnecessary infrastructural changes, she says. “We hear complaints from people who would like us to install traffic-calming measures such as speed humps or more stop signs when they feel overwhelmed with vehicles ‘cutting through’ their neighborhoods.”
But gaming the app to change where it directs drivers is not going to work, says Julie Mossler, Waze’s senior director of communications. She gave a few reasons why.
One reason seems pretty obvious: “If it got to the point where it was congested and slow, we wouldn’t be using that street anymore,” she explained. Most of the data Waze collects is passive, culled from drivers who have the app open on their phones as they drive, without reporting anything at all. So Waze would easily be able to see the speed limit that the street is moving at and confirm whether or not it was actually gridlocked.
Plus, although it might feel like Waze favors certain streets over time, that doesn’t mean all the drivers following its navigation will be funneled down a single street. The app updates in near real-time, so not all the Waze users traveling the same general direction at the same time will be taken down the same route. “Not everyone gets the same directions,” Mossler says.
Waze’s algorithm also prioritizes information from users who have been contributing to Waze for longer periods of time. So a few homeowners who download the app just to report fake congestion wouldn’t have enough clout to change the data. “The algorithim is going to trust the person who uses us all the time,” says Mossler. “So if 10 homeowners got together and tried to report an incident, the next 10 who are passively going by are are going to negate it.”
What’s more, for the app to collect data, a user actually has to be moving at the same rate of the surrounding traffic (otherwise Waze thinks you’re parked somewhere). That means those homeowners who are supposedly trying to fight the traffic on their own streets would have to get into their cars and drive around the block in order to have their “reports” count—adding to the congestion.
We do know it’s possible to manipulate Waze’s algorithm—there was an instance of two hackers who claimed to create a fake traffic jam on Waze by impersonating smartphone users. But it’s highly unlikely that these angry neighbors are hiring computer scientists to orchestrate faux accidents on their streets.
While there are certainly some Angelenos who are frustrated with Waze, they’re probably channeling their anger in the old-fashioned way—by calling up the city and complaining. But if this is happening, we want to know. Have you heard of a particular instance where people successfully messed with Waze’s directions?