File photo of a smartphone navigation app.
Photo: DariuszSankowski / Pixabay.com
Photo: DariuszSankowski / Pixabay.com

Smartphone navigation apps could be causing more traffic backups, research suggests

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Residents of a popular Atlanta neighborhood told WSB-TV that they have seen more traffic as navigation apps have increased in popularity. 

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“It’s a very confusing neighborhood, a very tough place to drive,” said Bill Bolen, vice president of the Ansley Park Civic Association. “There’s this disconnect between common sense and the app that can lead to a bad outcome when you felt like you were going to get a good outcome.”

None of this is a surprise to Alexandre Bayen, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkley.

“What we see over the years is that, with the increased app usage, as more and more people use these apps, we see traffic jams appearing where there was no traffic before,” Bayen said.

Bayen’s team discovered that, when selfish navigation app routing sends drivers away from main throughways onto small surface streets, they can turn one bottleneck into several as drivers leave freeways for surface streets. 

>> On WSBTV.com: What does Atlanta's record population growth mean for traffic?

“The way a traffic app works is it routes you selfishly towards your destination as fast as possible, but it does not take into account the effect you have on the system,” Bayen said. 

Researchers said that more traffic on roads not built to support it and drivers making longer trips to save time can increase noise and carbon pollution, but there are ways to curb the congestion. 

“Alternating the urban infrastructure, such as adding stop signs, changing the mirroring lights, changing the signal timing plans for traffic lights-- all things jurisdictions can do very easily,” Bayen said. 

Georgia Department of Transportation traffic engineer Matthew Glasser said he’s already seen how retiming lights on state routes has affected navigation apps users and interstate congestion. Crowdsourced information from apps means they can anticipate traffic patterns in real time. 

>> On WSBTV.com: Atlanta traffic among worst in the world, study finds

“It’s been huge for us to have that communication going back and forth,” Glasser said. “Think of it like bypass surgery. Now that we have a blockage here, we can get around it.”

Bolen said his neighborhood has spent millions of its own dollars adding traffic circles and speed tables and narrowing streets.

“I’m sure it annoys some cut-through drivers but at the same time, it’s really increased the safety and lowered speed on our streets,” Bolen said.

Bayen and his policy researchers said traffic-calming measures, like those Ansley Park uses, are a practical solution. 

“Long-term, we see a lot of resistance happening already, by changing their own traffic patterns, making it harder to drive through their neighborhood,” Bayen said. 

Bolen agrees that navigation apps are not going anywhere, so finding solutions to negative impacts is key. 

“It’s not about keeping people from cutting through, just about insuring that everyone does it safely,” Bolen said.

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