New Jersey Town Restricts Streets From Commuters To Stop Waze Traffic Nightmare In Leonia, nonresidents are not allowed on 60 side streets after New York-bound motorists trying to get on the George Washington Bridge were redirected through the town by traffic apps.
NPR logo New Jersey Town Restricts Streets From Commuters To Stop Waze Traffic Nightmare

New Jersey Town Restricts Streets From Commuters To Stop Waze Traffic Nightmare

A street sign tells out-of-towners to keep off a side street in Leonia, N.J., where officials are trying to redirect commuters on their way to the nearby George Washington Bridge into New York. David Porter/AP hide caption

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David Porter/AP

A street sign tells out-of-towners to keep off a side street in Leonia, N.J., where officials are trying to redirect commuters on their way to the nearby George Washington Bridge into New York.

David Porter/AP

Two roads diverged in a town, and the harried, GPS-dependent commuter took the road less traveled by.

But then so did everyone else.

The rising popularity of navigation apps like Waze, in addition to Google Maps, is creating a traffic nightmare for some residential communities. Drivers looking for the quickest route around rush hour traffic are being directed through small towns, creating new congestion on side streets unequipped to handle the influx of cars.

Leonia, N.J., has taken steps to try to fix the problem. The municipal government restricted 60 side streets from nonresidents to prevent New York-bound commuters from driving through the town to get to the George Washington Bridge. Except for three main roads, streets are restricted to residents and those heading to a business or residence in Leonia during key drive periods.

Since the ordinance was implemented in January, it has faced several lawsuits, and now New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is calling the decision "legally invalid."

Violators of the new restrictions could face a $200 fine, though no citations have been issued, says Leonia Mayor Judah Zeigler. He tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that the goal of the regulation was never about increasing revenue, rather it was about addressing a problem created by new technology.

"We've been working with Waze and Google Maps and others for a while, and the only way that they could remove our streets from their algorithms is if our streets were shown as restricted-access streets," Zeigler says. "We're not saying, 'Don't come to Leonia.' We just need to keep that traffic on our main streets because those are the streets that are designed to accommodate that level."

Over the past few months, the regulations have diverted traffic back to the main roads. The nearby town of Weehawken followed with similar restrictions. Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013, even applauded the effort.

"The challenge of spreading congestion across available public roads, big and small, is a universal problem and one that existed long before GPS apps," the company said in a statement. "We applaud Leonia for taking steps to further manage the complicated needs of local commuters."

Adjacent to Interstate 95, the 1.6-square-mile Leonia is nestled on the outskirts of New York City about 2 1/2 miles from the George Washington Bridge. For years, savvy commuters would break off the highway and cut through the town's main road to get on the bridge.

But the advent of new technology has diverted more drivers along that route and, when the main roads got crowded, onto residential side streets. One frustrated resident told CBS News she couldn't even back out of her driveway because of the line of cars clogging her street.

"Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, 15 minutes depending on who's gonna be nice and how much I'm gonna push up against their car until they let me out," Melissa Soesman said.

In the past, Zeigler says about 4,000 cars would enter Leonia during morning and evening rush hour. Almost overnight, that number tripled.

"When there's a tie-up at the bridge, what we found was that number increased to 12,000 vehicles," he says.

After receiving no help from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey — the agency that oversees the George Washington Bridge — and the state and county governments, the town decided to take matters into its own hands, Zeigler says. Residents and town employees were issued yellow tags to hang in their vehicles.

"It's basically all or nothing," Tom Rowe, Leonia's police chief, told The New York Times. "It's a very extreme measure for very extreme traffic. Would I prefer not to do this? Of course."

Many who drive through North Jersey are not happy about the new rule, which is now entangled in lawsuits. Attorney Jacqueline Rosa, who filed one lawsuit challenging the ordinance, told The Record in Bergen County that the restrictions are pushing traffic into neighboring towns.

"If every town did what Leonia did, it would be absolutely ridiculous," she said. "Every single person would have to use a highway to get anywhere."

In February, protesters said the restrictions hurt local businesses, and now there is argument over who has jurisdiction over local streets.

"We told them in March, Leonia and Weehawken, that they didn't have the authority to do that the way in which they did that," Grewal said last week.

Across the country, local residents in high-traffic areas are aggravated by similar problems. A city council member in Los Angeles is urging the city to take legal action against Waze because of safety concerns. Others, like one resident in Takoma Park, Md., have resorted to faking car accidents in order to confuse Waze's algorithm.

Zeigler concedes that traffic will always be a problem in Leonia, explaining that this initiative was never about reducing overall traffic. He says the flood of distracted drivers on side streets during times when children are walking to and from school also posed safety concerns.

"We are a municipality that exists 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan. We're going to have a lot of traffic," Zeigler says. "So this isn't about reducing traffic. It's about redirecting commuter traffic to where it belongs, either staying on the highway or on one of our main streets. And that's exactly what this has done."