California Commute: New traffic apps may be pushing cars into residential areas


Veteran Los Angeles drivers who know the shortcuts between the San Fernando Valley and the neighborhoods over the hills to the south still find the steep, zig-zagging side streets of Sherman Oaks daunting. Make one wrong turn, residents joke, and you will be lost in a canyon somewhere.

Now, the fast-growing popularity of real-time traffic apps, such as Google Maps and Waze, are steering more and more of the county’s 6 million cars around congested freeways and boulevards, and through residential areas such as Sherman Oaks, where traffic is lighter and there are few stoplights.

Many commuters say that Waze has made driving a more pleasant and serendipitous experience. But residents along once-quiet streets that parallel Los Angeles County’s freeways have begun to complain that commuters dodging sluggish morning traffic are zipping through their neighborhoods, veering around corners and rolling through stop signs. And some of the worst of the traffic, they say, is being diverted to streets that are too small to be commuting conduits.


At 7:30 a.m. on a recent Monday, more than two dozen cars were backed up at a Sherman Oaks red light where a hilly, twisting residential street intersects with Mulholland Drive, blocking the driveways of more than a dozen houses. In less than an hour, more than 150 cars passed by, a direct result, residents say, of new navigation technologies.

Clearly, the ease of navigating unfamiliar side streets offered by GPS-linked systems has added a new, increasingly controversial wrinkle to Los Angeles’ traditional trickle-down theory of traffic: If the road you’re on is jammed, try find a smaller, less traveled parallel route.

Janna Wong Healy, a writer and USC professor, said she can tell if the nearby 405 freeway is jammed by looking toward Woodcliff Road, a narrow, curving road lined with modern houses and lush landscaping. On those mornings, neighbors say, the line of cars is sometimes a mile long.

“It used to be that people would get on Sepulveda if the 405 was bad, and if Sepulveda was bad, they’d get on Beverly Glen,” Wong Healy said. “Now, they come straight to us.”

In neighborhoods such as downtown and Santa Monica, drivers hitting congestion on an arterial can make a quick turn onto a parallel street. But in hillside communities such as Sherman Oaks and the Hollywood Hills, there is no street grid to redistribute traffic, and the limited number of routes over the Santa Monica Mountains creates choke points, said Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge.

A Department of Transportation spokeswoman said it wasn’t clear how many of the hundreds of complaints it receives a year were linked to Waze. She added that it’s impossible to connect any increase in traffic volume with a single cause. Traffic has become worse overall in the last few years, she added, as the population has grown and the economy has improved.


Waze has about 2 million users in Greater Los Angeles, spokeswoman Julie Mossler said.

The app sends users on a variety of routes to “avoid generating congestion of our own,” Mossler said in an email. “It simply wouldn’t be effective to route a large amount of Wazers down the same residential street.... We haven’t seen any data to suggest that Waze has been used excessively higher on one residential street than normal.”

Whatever the cause, things have gotten noticeably worse lately, said Robert Howard, who lives off Loma Vista Drive. The twisting north-south route is a new favorite cut-through for drivers avoiding Coldwater Canyon Drive — itself an alternative to the 101 Freeway. “I know this sounds paranoid,” he said, “but there’s nowhere left to hide. There aren’t any smaller roads nearby. We’re it.”

It’s easy to tell which drivers don’t live in the neighborhood, he said, because they drive “like crazies,” rolling through stop signs, taking corners too quickly and not pulling over on narrow streets to let oncoming traffic pass.

Some news reports have suggested that Westside residents may be banding together on Waze to report fake accidents on their streets, hoping drivers will be redirected elsewhere. But Waze said its app quickly ferrets out phony reports: A wreck or road closure that isn’t confirmed by other users disappears from the screen and isn’t factored into future turn-by-turn directions. Traffic and collision reports are given more weight if they are sent in by experienced users, as opposed to an irate homeowner who just installed the app.

In the Hollywood Hills, LaBonge said, people have resorted to an analog fix: dragging trash cans into the street to stop cars from zooming past. “I don’t necessarily want to call them vigilantes, but we have some Johnny Justices on our hands,” he said.

It’s illegal to stop the flow of traffic without a permit in Los Angeles. (Blocking the road with trash cans, for example, carries at least a $250 fine.) If drivers are speeding, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said, residents can request that a district office investigate. Among other options, officials could add a four-way stop or a traffic light.

About a year ago, Amanda Dominguez began noticing long lines of expensive cars crawling west along Eighth Street through Boyle Heights, past the Estrada Courts public housing project. She suspects that commuters are relying on GPS navigation to route them away from congestion on the 5 Freeway, which is just to the north, and toward downtown Los Angeles.

An increase in traffic near Christopher Dena Elementary School worries her. “I wish we could keep drivers away from kids,” she said.

That isn’t such a far-fetched idea. Waze began trading traffic information with Los Angeles County in October. The app passes real-time data on crashes, stopped vehicles and other road hazards to a county data clearinghouse, which in turn shares information on planned road closures and construction detours.

In the future, armed with richer data from cities, public agencies and even sports teams, apps could warn drivers to slow down as they approach a school, or steer them away from the 110 Freeway during a USC football game.

But for now, some neighborhoods are likely to see more — not fewer — commuters passing through as the new apps become an increasingly ubiquitous feature of Los Angeles’ car culture.

Have an idea, gripe or question? Times staff writers Laura J. Nelson and Dan Weikel write California Commute and are looking for leads. Send them along.

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