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Mapping Apps Like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps May Make Traffic Conditions Worse in Some Areas, New Research Suggests (theatlantic.com) 283

From an Atlantic story, originally titled "The Perfect Selfishness of Mapping Apps": 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.

In some happy universe, this would lead to socially optimal outcomes, too. But a new body of research at the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies suggests that the reality is far more complicated. 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. "This problem has been vastly overlooked," Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, told me. "It is just the beginning of something that is gonna be much worse." Bayen and a team of researchers presented their work earlier this year at the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting and at the Cal Future conference at Berkeley in May 2017. They've also published work examining the negative externalities of high levels of automatic routing.

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Mapping Apps Like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps May Make Traffic Conditions Worse in Some Areas, New Research Suggests

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  • Selfishness? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cerberusss ( 660701 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @03:52AM (#56282387) Homepage Journal

    [quote]Commuters armed with mobile mapping apps, route-following Lyft and Uber drivers, and software-optimized truckers can all act with a more perfect selfishness.[/quote]

    Selfishness? Just because people are using the information that's available to them? Perhaps the government should start planning transportation according to smart people instead of sheeps. Madness, to accuse people of selfishness when it's obviously lack of planning that's the problem.

    I'm not saying that building more roads is the solution. Lots of governments are about to go bankrupt on road maintenance alone. However I think technology can save us here. When I was young, I thought we'd have special equipment alongside roads, so we'd have self-driving cars. But that hasn't happened, and tech companies are now fixing this problem themselves, using AI to drive on imperfect roads.

    • Re:Selfishness? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Knuckles ( 8964 ) <knuckles@NOsPAM.dantian.org> on Monday March 19, 2018 @04:12AM (#56282405)

      "Selfnishness" means to optimize for themselves. It's a well established term in economics, biology, etc., without a moral subtext

      • That's as may be, but phrases like "socially optimal outcomes" still make me think of re-education camps.
        • Re: Selfishness? (Score:3, Informative)

          by Knuckles ( 8964 )

          That's your own psychological problem

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Selfishness? Just because people are using the information that's available to them?

      Yes. The fact you can (a) physically do something and (b) it's not illegal does not make it selfish.

      Perhaps the government should start planning transportation according to smart people instead of sheeps. Madness, to accuse people of selfishness when it's obviously lack of planning that's the problem.

      Oh I see, you think you're "smart" and "not a sheep" because you managed to download an app. You also like to lord it over th

      • Re:Selfishness? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Zocalo ( 252965 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @05:37AM (#56282535) Homepage
        It's not "selfish" in the context of human attitudes towards achieving a solution to a problem, it's in the context of game theory - the alternative would be to choose the option that leads to the greater good, even if it means you personally benefit less than the alternative option. Assuming that the paper is correct, then the problem we have at the moment is that the software tools need to evolve to a point where they can dynamically determine the optimum number of cars to direct off a congested highway to achieve the most efficient overall flow. I guess the ideal would be that the navigational systems work in real-time to direct enough traffic off the highway that it increases congestion on the sideroads to the point that all possible routes would take the same amount of time, although that would almost certainly be NP complete, given the number of vehicles and unique destinations to account for.
        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          It seems pretty selfish... I'm guessing most of these drivers benefiting from these apps would not be happy if traffic outside their front door massively increased, but are willing to do the same to other people.

        • I think that they pretty much do this already. Traffic gets directed to the fastest route. So if there are multiple possible routes, the one with the least traffic with get preferred until such time as the travel times are equalized. I think the complaint in this article is that some roads were under-used and the people who lived there liked it that way. But now those roads are used at a higher capacity and people don't like it. As has already been pointed out, counter-measures will probably be deploye
        • the problem we have at the moment is that the software tools need to evolve to a point where they can dynamically determine the optimum number of cars to direct off a congested highway to achieve the most efficient overall flow.

          So you've never met a person before in your life?

          I have, and I can tell you that once the software starts doing this, someone will write software to get them to where they want to go as quickly as possible, and then everyone will use that software instead.

          People fully and lovingly embrace the tragedy of the commons. That's what makes it so tragic.

          • by Zocalo ( 252965 )
            Oh, I'm sure they would. One of the staple comparative benchmarks of navigation tools is to see which one can come up with the shortest/fastest route from A to B, so it's definitely a selling point for them and thus will be a focus of development. However, all the other systems would be doing the same thing - trying to find the most efficient route - and if we're not already at the point where the majority of drivers are using one of these tools then we're surely pretty close to it, and those that remain
    • Re:Selfishness? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by _Sharp'r_ ( 649297 ) <`sharper' `at' `booksunderreview.com'> on Monday March 19, 2018 @04:49AM (#56282443) Homepage Journal

      The article contradicts much of the summary:

      Bayen said that nobody has managed to do a multi-scale analysis that can determine if the apps, even if they create local problems, are better or worse for whole traffic basins.

      And

      That said, they have not proven this yet. While it’s clear that these apps can put stress on local side streets, we still don’t know what effect they may have on highways, or for traffic systems as a whole.

      So basically, someone has a theory that a counter-intuitive result which doesn't match people's experience and implies people getting off a stopped freeway makes traffic worse (but that people can't figure that out over time in a scenario which plays out frequently on their daily commute), but hasn't actually come up with evidence for that theory (at least, not in this article nor paper), but hey, look at the shiny theory!!!

    • Re:Selfishness? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by scamper_22 ( 1073470 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @05:25AM (#56282511)

      No, what's madness is you taking such offense to being called selfish.

      Most people, me included, mainly use Waze/Google Maps in a selfish manner to get to your destination quicker.

      We're not thinking about overall traffic flow....

      LifeProTip... the most effective way to deal with someone who says you're selfish... is to say... I am... now what.

      We're all selfish. Selfishness taken too far can be a problem. I wouldn't consider this a case of being selfish taken too far though.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Rip!ey ( 599235 )
      "Selfishness? Just because people are using the information that's available to them?"

      Well yes, actually. Let's go back a few years. About 20 years to be exact. In a city on the other side of the world to most of the USA. We had a power cut. City wide. In winter. For two days straight.

      I've never gotten to work faster. Without traffic lights, people gave way. Without the enforced controls that those traffic lights provide, every.single.driver assessed the immediate (visual range) traffic conditions and
    • Re:Selfishness? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @06:39AM (#56282639)

      Perhaps the government should start planning transportation according to smart people instead of sheeps. Madness, to accuse people of selfishness when it's obviously lack of planning that's the problem.

      Since the problem is massive congestion on our roadways, the problem to solve is capacity, which is sometimes difficult to budget based on estimated future use. And of course you can't forget about the greed and corruption within construction. Gotta keep pockets lined in perpetuity with never-ending maintenance and expansion.

      I'm not saying that building more roads is the solution. Lots of governments are about to go bankrupt on road maintenance alone.

      Oh, they've solved that whole budget thing around me. Every new road being built is a fucking toll road. Problem solved.

      However I think technology can save us here.

      There was hardly any road traffic last week when kids were on spring break, proving just how much of an impact school alone can be with congestion. We have high-speed internet at home, inexpensive VPN technology, and cloud collaboration. Companies have the capacity to support remote work. They refuse to do so. Same goes with high school. Millions could be saved if we converted high-school to virtual school.

      We have the technology already today to fix the congestion problem. The real problem is ignorance and refusal to embrace it.

      • Re:Selfishness? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @10:17AM (#56283267) Homepage Journal

        Same goes with high school. Millions could be saved if we converted high-school to virtual school.

        This would be a BAD idea....

        Going to school at a kid is a way to socialize them...give them the tools they need to interact with others....to create relationships, hell, to learn how to get laid!!!

        Kids today are already being more and more isolated due in large part to them not playing outside as much as kids, and with nothing but social apps and texting as means to connect with others, rather than talking in person.

        If you didn't throw them together physically in the school systems, you're exacerbate a problem we're already seeing that is having a harmful effect on the younger generations that don't have good real life, in person social skills.

      • There was hardly any road traffic last week when kids were on spring break, proving just how much of an impact school alone can be with congestion. We have high-speed internet at home, inexpensive VPN technology, and cloud collaboration.

        Well, sure, but "walking out" of your own home all by yourself to make some political point would hardly be as exciting ...

      • Remote work isn't all it's cracked up to be. Or, rather, maybe it works well for some work styles and personality types. But it definitely does not work for everyone.

        I had a job a while back where the company closed it's office in the city and put those of up who didn't want to relocate (and take a pay cut) on full-time work from home. It was nice at first. No commute, no rush, more time with the dogs. over time I put in the investment in extra monitors to match the office and a desk that was better fo

    • Re:Selfishness? (Score:4, Informative)

      by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:21AM (#56282697)

      Just because people are using the information that's available to them? Perhaps the government should start planning transportation according to smart people instead of sheeps. Madness, to accuse people of selfishness when it's obviously lack of planning that's the problem.

      Not quite. It's a problem that isn't solvable by some government design, but only solvable through some very strict control of actions (road rules and we all love those).

      Consider someone who's unhappy that the traffic is doing 50 in a 60 zone and there's a free lane to the left that is ending. He jumps in, goes to the front and then merges back. Selfishness for using the infrastructure when what he has done is cause a brake-light wave to propagate through the traffic behind him making it worse.

      The same applies to short-cutting. Taking one of those shortcuts often may end you on a sensor light that otherwise wouldn't impede traffic. The solution to that is either to put in dead-end streets (piss off everyone) or put in place "local traffic only" rules (piss off people who are anti-government and think just because they pay taxes they can do what they want).

      It is selfish. We are selfish.

      • by torqer ( 538711 )

        contrary to you belief that last minute mergers are asshats (and some may be) but zipper merging is actually more effective.

        Zipper merging is effectively using both lanes until reaching the obstruction, then merging (calmly) into the open lane

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

      • Not quite. It's a problem that isn't solvable by some government design, but only solvable through some very strict control of actions (road rules and we all love those).

        There are several ways to improve street traffic via government design.

        • Bury sensors underneath the road at intersection, so left turn lights and in some cases straight-through lights are only triggered when there are actually cars which want to go in that direction.
        • Time the signal lights between different intersections, so drivers don't
    • It is a typical troll headline. It isn't selfishness because the drivers do not know, and in fact, as the article makes clear, NOBODY really knows, the full overall effect yet. One could argue that if we all knew it was bad overall and still did it to help ourselves it would be selfish. But the majority of drivers have not read this, and will never read this. Most drivers probably believe that using the apps helps relieve congestion.
    • Oh don't worry, governments will react. People use residential areas for through-traffic? No problem, let's make a 10mph speed limit with 4-way-stops at every intersection, huge speed bumps every other yards and whatever else is necessary to make using them as inconvenient as possible.

      You don't think that they will actually solve the problem, do you?

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @03:58AM (#56282395)

    Thanks to Waze, Dr. Bayen’s formerly uncongested secret route into work is now full of cars.

    • Re:In other words (Score:4, Insightful)

      by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:22AM (#56282701)

      It doesn't even need to be that. It could be his own street, in small quiet suburbia, once safe to let your kids run around on has now turned into a highway. Google tells me to do just that every day, rather than drive the 700m further to go down the highway it takes me through a school zone where I can run slalom between cars and kids.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      It's more than just one person getting to work a little more slowly. The road system is designed to manage traffic, for the benefit of more than just the drivers. People living in residential areas with children and pets, road surfaces that are not suitable for heavy use, keeping pollution away from more sensitive areas, preventing jams building up earlier so that people who come a bit later (e.g. bringing the kids to school) can get in etc.

      The majority of drivers used to follow the signs and other features

      • ..and as I said before, if every route must be built to support this traffic, a lot of taxes are going up in the end.
  • Spreading traffic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @04:15AM (#56282411) Journal
    The solution proposed by Bayer is to spread out diverting drivers to different routes. You'd think that happens automatically as the shortcuts fill up and the apps start routing around those blockages, but the problem is that the traffic data available to the apps tend to lag quite a bit. Drivers know this. And that's why that video of the simulation hasn't convinced me. When apps suggest a detour but the off-ramp to that detour is congested, people often elect not to take the detour even if the app tells them it's faster. And once the freeway starts moving again, I usually see that "residual congestion" at the off-ramp clear in seconds, no one chooses the detour anymore in that case and just drives on instead.
    • by Zocalo ( 252965 )
      I've observed the same thing; people will use their own local knowledge and lack of trust in the system to second guess the satnav all the time (yes, I do it too), and statistically that's got to pay off at least some of the time, but it's often impossible to work out which was the correct call (unless you overtake a vehicle that took an alternate route later on, in which case you know you'd made a poor call) to know how good your second guess was. There's also the psychological angle of it being preferabl
  • it's a software bug (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @04:28AM (#56282423) Homepage Journal

    Get over with it. Instead of sending everybody on the same route, send them probabilistically. I suspect Waze already does that, verified several times experimentally.

  • I have a very long rant about town-planning and road infrastructure. Don't make me start it.

    But there are two options - allow or penalise. If you need that amount of traffic to get to a place, you need a road, and side-roads, and feeder-roads and sink-roads that can take the capacity PLUS MORE.

    If you don't WANT that amount of traffic then you have to penalise it. Tolls. Prohibitions. One way systems. Or... yes... just making it traffic-heavy. Literally traffic is it's own limiter - if it takes you an

    • Re:Traffic (Score:4, Insightful)

      by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @07:30AM (#56282717)

      I think a big part of traffic problems is that urban planners have become ideologically opposed to cars and have begun to array urban planning tools against cars to make driving difficult. We get "traffic calming" which translates as lanes removed and parking removed in favor of dedicated bike lanes (it's also snowy and below freezing about 4 months out of the year).

      The hope is people will find driving so difficult they give up cars for bikes or transit without considering that both are a poor substitute for cars in many cases -- distance, poor transit systems, weather, need to carry packages, etc.

      I'll grant them that suburban car-centric planning is a disaster, but mostly I consider it just pseudo-planning. To this day there are suburban shopping areas where it's like 5 large tenants built buildings and lots and whatever adjoining space was left becomes a "road" which results in absurdities like requiring 4 left turns to get anywhere.

      I just figure there has to be a middle way that's not so anti-car it makes things impossible but not so pro car you wind up with a wasteland of roads.

  • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @05:39AM (#56282539)
    We have had a lot of estates changed so that they either have only one entrance, others being blocked to motor vehicles by bollards. This helps prevent them from becoming rat runs. They have also put a few "no entry except for access" signs on some as an experiment, but people following sat nav seem to ignore these - not surprising as they even ignore signs that roads are impassable [slashdot.org].
  • by jouassou ( 1854178 ) on Monday March 19, 2018 @05:49AM (#56282555)
    Traffic planners can now request 24/7 traffic data from these apps. Monitor in which areas drivers are forced to go off the routes they're supposed to, and then improve those roads.
    • Theory: see above
      Practice: Planners will see where people go to escape the "planned" routes and turn through-roads into dead ends and what cannot be corked up gets slowed down with speed limits around walking speed and speed bumps with the size of mountains.

  • Ironically, it is self-driving tech that will help solve the issues highlighted by the author. Self-driving tech means trucks will drive normal routes 24 hours / day instead of the 8 hours / day max that a human driver is legally allow to put in -- potentially cutting the amount of truck traffic on the roads during normal hours by up to 2/3. That's with no other changes or tweaks and by itself will make a huge difference.
    • Or, potentially tripling the number of trucks on the road.
      • Highly unlikely. Trucks sitting in traffic burn more fuel and cost the freight company more money than those cruising along unimpeded at 3 AM. As usual, follow the money to find the reason for why things will turn out the way they will.
        • And trucks sitting in a warehouse for 16 hours a day aren't making anybody any money. And who cares if they're burning extra fuel in exchange for not paying wage and upkeep for a driver, no longer having to worry about overtime, rest requirements, etc etc.
          • Huh? The beancounters care. They will move things towards the greatest efficiency possible at EVERY step of the process, which is their highest point of profitability. That's what a logistics company DOES -- literally, its purpose is to offer the most efficient transport possible and pass those savings along to its customers. The human drivers are all going to be gone within five years anyway and I assure you that's already on every shipper's short- and long-term rate sheets. Why would these huge compa
    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Self-driving tech means trucks will drive normal routes 24 hours / day

      Nope. Our city is in the middle of promoting high density urban villages. With condos and apartments on the upper floors and businesses on the street. You start making deliveries at 2AM and residents will burn your trucks to the ground.

  • In one thousand feet you will be at your... take a u turn. Head south and and go left on a street you already passed. Take a u... you are at your... u turn.

    Certainly contributes to angry driving.
  • I can see two types of problems which do not require much investigation to know they exist.

    One is the optimal case where information is realtime and possibly even anticipates group movement: if everyone uses one of these realtime routing apps, then traffic spreads out. It will be faster but it will use all the available routes. The other people, including the people trying to manage traffic and who want to strictly guide it along the path they want, simply don't like that.

    A second is that there is no optima

  • Who else saw this and immediately remembered the line about "but because everyone else was also trying to push forwards through the crowd"?

  • I remember reading the same crap for several years now.

    In Germany in some streets, where traffic is impossible, neighbors put all their old cellphones in the mailbox (near the street) and claim there's a complete traffic stop, to try to move the traffic to another neighborhood, which, I'm sure, does the very same thing.

  • Ever watch a flock of small birds -- how they stay together, twisting and turning in a mass concentration? Now imagine them restricted to 2 dimensions and channeled by streets, and impeded by stop signs and traffic lights, but still all going to roughly the same place. That's what car traffic will look like when everyone uses an app to get to work.
  • I saw aerial pics of my town from 1924. It was very sparsely populated. One of the few roads from 1924 is still present totally unchanged. And, it is one of the junctions that is totally backed up and congested EVERY day. Let's think about it. In almost 100 years, these lazy asshats have made zero improvements, meanwhile the area went from 1,000 residents to 100,000 residents. I have sent in 'suggestions' on how to improve 2 intersections where there are obvious solutions as to why they congest. They have i
    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      One of the few roads from 1924 is still present totally unchanged.

      Just guessing here. But that 1924 road has residents and businesses around it since .... 1924. All who have a vested interest in not having their neighborhood dug up to accommodate more outside traffic. Not that this is a good thing. Back in 1924, the gas station (for example) wanted to be on the street corner. For more traffic. But smarter developers (and gas station customers) have since realized that corner lots are absolute shit when it comes to access. The only people who aren't smart are the people ha

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