Residents and local officials in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles are getting frustrated with Waze and its habit of directing people to take Baxter Street to avoid traffic. This is a little different than the usual neighborhood vs. commuters story that the rise of navigation apps has created; Baxter Street has a grade of 35%, twice what is legally permitted by current street construction standards, and residents say that the result of commuters unfamiliar with the street using it now is accidents and chaos.
This is Baxter Street:
While Baxter Street has its own unique considerations, this is playing out as a standard NIMBYs-vs-progress tale, and I think that’s just missing the point.
One of the weaknesses of navigation apps is that they have trouble distinguishing between the fastest route somewhere and the best route somewhere. “Trouble” in this case means, they simply can’t do this.
My experience with Google Maps (my navigation friend of choice) is that it will regularly suggest that I take routes that I know have problems. For example, if I leave my office and want to head somewhere west of there, Google Maps will tell me to leave the parking garage, make a left onto the side street where my office is, and then take another left onto the main street. The main street has three lanes of traffic in each direction, is often highly congested, and has drivers speeding when it’s not blocked. Taking a left there is not pleasant. It is a bad choice. So I ignore Google Maps, take a right out of the garage, and circle around the building so I can make the left at a traffic light.
This is not the most direct route. It may or may not be the fastest route on any given day; it depends on how long it would take me to make that hellish left and where in the light cycle I arrive at the controlled intersection. But the maximum difference there is 2-3 minutes, so I take the route that is easier and safer. It may be a hair longer but it’s the best route.
Looking at that video of Baxter Street, it’s hard to frame the Google vs. residents argument as a clash between the needs of commuters and locals. I believe that most of the people passing through the neighborhood who just want to avoid as much traffic as they can would not choose to drive on a narrow, badly-paved street that’s more like a mountain pass to save two minutes. It looks like a hair-raising, white knuckle experience if you’re not used to it the way someone who lives on it would be.
What the residents asking Google to adjust its algorithm are doing is providing user feedback about how Google’s product is actually working in use. Google should listen to them and make Waze work better for users and the people in the neighborhoods they’re driving through.
If that sounds too hard or complicated… come on, this a company that’s building self-driving cars, personalizing searches, and sifting through massive amounts of user intent data. They can do this.