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Navigation Apps Might Hurt Traffic Congestion More Than Help

Raise your hand if you envisioned a transportation network optimized to full efficiency by navigation apps.
March 16, 2018, 12pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Navigation apps are allowing people to make more selfish decisions while driving, spreading traffic and congestion more evenly throughout the grid. Alexis C. Madrigal's explanation of this troubling outcome of navigation apps like Waze commences with a discussion of selfishness.

In the pre-mobile-app days, drivers’ selfishness was limited by their knowledge of the road network. In those conditions, both simulation and real-world experience showed that most people stuck to the freeways and arterial roads. Sure, there were always people who knew the crazy, back-road route, but the bulk of people just stuck to the routes that transportation planners had designated as the preferred way to get from A to B.

Now, however, a new information layer is destroying the nudging infrastructure that traffic planners built into cities. Commuters armed with mobile mapping apps, route-following Lyft and Uber drivers, and software-optimized truckers can all act with a more perfect selfishness.

A new study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies inspires this discussion of a "vastly overlooked" problem. Here's Madrigal's summary of the findings of that study: "In some scenarios, traffic-beating apps might work for an individual, but make congestion worse overall. And autonomous vehicles, touted as an answer to traffic-y streets, could deepen the problem."

Alexandre Bayen, director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, is also on video discussing the study's findings, and more about what navigation apps mean for the future of traffic and congestion in cities.

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Published on Thursday, March 15, 2018 in CityLab
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