The Waze App is Choking Minority Neighborhoods in Los Angeles

Los Angeles remains the most smog-ridden city in the country, thanks to a car-dependent population and mountains that act as natural smog traps. Even so, the amount of air pollution in the Los Angeles region has decreased by half since the turn of the millennium.

Over the last half century, trash incinerators have been banned, polluting steel factories have moved away, and environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act of 1970 went into effect. More recently, new federal emissions standards have decreased the CO2 emissions coming from cars, while hybrid vehicles decrease emissions by 25 to 35% or more.

Despite these signs of improvement, there’s one source of smog that’s only gotten worse — traffic. Traffic everywhere.

And increasingly, frustrated L.A. drivers are using a mobile app called Waze to beat rush hour traffic. Waze, recently acquired by Google itself, helps gridlocked drivers find shortcuts by guiding them to alternate routes to their destination. The app uses real time traffic data to find routes, and many drivers swear by it. Every month, 1.7 million Los Angelinos will use Waze.

Unfortunately, a new GQ feature on the App highlights an unintended — and dangerous — side effect of the app. GQ writer Jack Moore uses some strong language to explain:

But in one way it’s super annoying, and really f****** ***t up here in LA: Waze is turning residential side streets into highways.

The problem with Waze’s algorithm is that it doesn’t seem to care if the street it’s sending people down is a huge boulevard or a tiny side street. In the search for evading traffic, what Waze often does is move a lot of that traffic off famous nightmares like La Cienega or La Brea and onto the surrounding residential streets.

Ultimately, this phenomenon doesn’t reduce rush hour traffic — it simply expands it to residential neighborhoods. In short, “the city wasn’t designed to be driven that way,” and so “you end up with a line of cars trying to make a left onto Pico where no such left should ever be attempted,” Moore says.

So far, there’s only anecdotal evidence for this side-street phenomenon. Historically, whether it’s smog, rush hour traffic, historic methane leaks, or any other new strain of urban blight, it’s low-income and minority neighborhoods that suffer the most.

For now, the Waze app has the official stamp of approval of Caltrans. This April, Waze and Caltrans agreed to a new data sharing partnership to help improve each organization’s traffic monitoring programs.