Spurned by Google-owned Waze,  LA considers expanded traffic enforcement in the ‘digital realm’

“We feel that the City is trying to force less-than-optimal routing on drivers in order to reduce traffic for more privileged neighborhoods that have been most vocal,” wrote a Google statement of a fettered pilot program.

After Waze declined to participate in an L.A. city pilot program to control cut-through traffic issues, members of the L.A. City Council are considering a more direct workaround to exert city authority over GPS navigation apps that re-direct traffic onto small residential streets.

Department of Transportation officials said in a transportation committee meeting Tuesday that they are exploring changes to the Los Angeles Municipal Code in response to a motionfiled by councilman Paul Krekorian for a prohibition on navigation apps re-routing traffic “inconsistent with City street designations.”

Transportation officials want to expand their ability to enforce traffic laws in the digital space. The changes would require City Council approval.

“In the physical world we put up a sign that says ‘no left turn.’ If somebody got up in the middle of the night and took that sign down, we have fees we would charge that person with because it’s not legal,” said LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds. “So what we are asking for is to extend that into the digital realm.”

Apps like Waze use a system of lay-person map editors and driver tips to adjust settings and help drivers navigate public streets using publicly available LADOT. But city lawmakers said the system can come into conflict with city data, design and information.

City Councilman Paul Koretz cited the 2017 Skirball Fire as a dangerous example, after which officials said some drivers attempting to circumvent fire — which shut down the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass — were routed into neighborhoods with active fires and under evacuation orders.

In response to the proposed change, a Google spokesperson said the company — which owns Waze — is committed to working with the city on transportation issues but expressed skepticism about the city plan.

“We believe that the City’s proposal will negatively impact drivers in Los Angeles, resulting in routes that are longer and less direct,” wrote the Google statement.

It added that routes are based on street designations provided by official authorities, and “when changes are made to restrict certain roads, we update them accordingly. We’re always open to working with local governments to help improve public safety and reduce congestion, two important goals of their pilot.”

In April this year, the council sought the cooperation of Waze, Apple Maps and Tom Tom for a pilot project – possibly in Sherman Oaks – that would limit streets drivers are instructed to use. The two latter companies were receptive to the pilot but Google declined to participate.

An LADOT report on the efforts said that Waze (and thereby Google Maps) “declined to participate in the pilot project as proposed, but wants to keep open lines of communication with LADOT to pursue additional partnership opportunities in the future.”

The Google spokesperson said that after multiple conversations with city authorities, Waze leaders determined the company was given too little room to negotiate pilot details or participate on limited terms.

“We feel that the City is trying to force less-than-optimal routing on drivers in order to reduce traffic for more privileged neighborhoods that have been most vocal,” a Google statement wrote of the fettered pilot.

As part of the pilot, transportation planners would have worked with app developers to ensure drivers aren’t instructed to take streets designated as local thoroughfares, access roads, and small hillside arterials – particularly during special events, natural disasters and school pickup hours.

The proposed project area was surrounding Sherman Oaks Elementary Charter School, bounded by Mulholland Drive, Ventura Boulevard, Beverly Glen and the 405 Freeway with alternate locations in Encino, Mar Vista or Bel Air.

It’s a neighborhood where residents and community groups began complaining in early 2018, according to the LADOT report, alleging that Waze-guided drivers ushered in unreasonable congestion from man thoroughfares. Yet city efforts on the issue have been underway for years; the first city record on Waze was filed in 2014.

Google’s reticence to participate in the pilot marked the stalling of those efforts, which prompted Krekorian’s motion earlier this month.

“In today’s world, the municipal code must reflect that the City has the authority over both physical and virtual rights of way,” said the councilman in a statement.

“This is especially important during fires and other emergency situations, when navigation systems have directed drivers to streets that have been cleared to accommodate emergency vehicles. Navigation systems have their place, but only the City should have the power to control traffic.”