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The way we get from point A to point B has changed dramatically, thanks to GPS-enabled navigation apps like Waze. That's spelled W-A-Z-E. It uses crowd-sourced traffic data to find the quickest possible routes. Traffic-choked cities and their drivers have embraced the idea. The Los Angeles area with nearly 2 million users is the app's biggest U.S. market. But as Meghan McCarty from member station KPCC reports, that popularity may have unintended consequences.
MEGHAN MCCARTY, BYLINE: Every weekday at the crack of dawn, Leon Sturman begins his morning routine - put on a pot of coffee, listen to the news. Then...
LEON STURMAN: It's five after 6 and we have to move the car before traffic starts.
MCCARTY: Sturman lives in Sherman Oaks near the top of a hill which separates the San Fernando Valley from West Los Angeles. His is a narrow, widening street typical of the canyon neighborhoods that usually provide a haven from the buzz of urban life.
But this one runs parallel to one of the most congested corridors in the country - the 405 freeway. And by 7 a.m., Sturman's street begins to resemble it.
STURMAN: Take a look down the block. How many cars are there? Thirty cars already just waiting as far as the eye can see.
MCCARTY: If Sturman doesn't move this car from the garage to the street before the hordes arrive, backing out of his driveway becomes an ordeal.
His neighbor Preet Dhillon has also changed her schedule to avoid the morning rush. But she says the issue is bigger than just personal inconvenience.
PREET DHILLON: And I thought what if there's a fire engine one day or what if, you know, there's a serious matter?
MCCARTY: Dhillon grew up on this street, and she says the gridlock is a very recent phenomenon.
DHILLON: This is since Waze, yeah.
MCCARTY: Navigation apps like Google Maps weigh various factors when generating routes from traffic conditions to distance and trip complexity. But Waze prioritizes avoiding traffic. That's earned it a reputation for sending users on twisty-turny routes through residential neighborhood back roads like Preet Dhillon's in Sherman Oaks.
DHILLON: Technology's a great thing, but I don't know what you do in situations like this.
MCCARTY: Residents like Dhillon in affected areas have pushed the city to block off access with no-turn signs or speed bumps. One city councilman proposed pressuring Waze to change the way it routes traffic to avoid small neighborhood streets. Representatives from Waze declined to comment for this story. But the tech company does share data with the LA Department of Transportation.
BRUCE GILLMAN: I can't say any one reason for an increase in cut-through traffic.
MCCARTY: Transportation Department spokesman Bruce Gillman says even if the app could be changed or roads blocked off, the underlying traffic problem isn't going anywhere.
GILLMAN: Apps that help people get around traffic and detours and traffic on freeways, etc. may be new but cut-through traffic is definitely not new. And it's certainly not new in Los Angeles.
MCCARTY: Cutting through the back roads to avoid the 405 has been Valley resident Dustin Ma's strategy for years. Now he drives for the ride-hailing service Lyft and depends on Waze when his old shortcuts are backed up.
DUSTIN MA: It opens up considerably more options. Everywhere is a nightmare, so I'm just trying to shave minutes or time.
MCCARTY: Ma feels for the locals, but ultimately, he says, the situation was inevitable.
MA: Because if it wasn't Waze, it would be a Google Maps or it would be some other GPS platform that would come up with this. So I would just say it's technology, and it's evolution.
MCCARTY: Ma says so long as there's traffic, there will always be drivers searching the back roads for a way out. For NPR News, I'm Meghan McCarty in Los Angeles.
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