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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/2018

Wazy Crazy

If you read this column with any regularity you will have had to wade through at least one or two of my rants about distracted drivers. This one has a little bit to do with that, but before you start thinking, “Not again!,” let me say that’s only a sub-text off the main topic this time around. Instead of Distracted Drivers, this one might be called Misdirected Drivers.

The topic this time is mapping apps, either on a smart phone or embedded in the dash of a car. We’re not talking now about the wonderful mapping software we use to plot bike routes while sitting at a desk. These are the navigation programs used while sitting behind the wheel of a car. Waze seems to be the app of choice lately, since being gobbled up by Google and now backed up by that all-powerful agency.

You may wonder: how is this a cycling issue? To answer that I will relate a little biking incident I blundered into on a ride recently. But first a little geography lesson.

If you’re familiar with the back roads of the North Bay, you know there is a bike-friendly way to ride from Novato to Petaluma just off the west side of Hwy 101 on a couple of frontage roads linked by a bike trail. It has been around for a few years now. At the northern end of this section, the route follows San Antonio Road, a pleasant, usually quiet byway that connects to either Red Hill-D Street or to I Street, either of which will drop riders right into downtown Petaluma. Construction of the frontage road and bike trail link coincided with construction of an overpass at the Marin County landfill that made access to the west side of the freeway much easier than it used to be. 

Any North Bay driver can tell you traffic jams up badly on 101 just north of Novato, where the highway chokes down from three northbound lanes to two. On top of that, the massive construction project north of that point—in fact the widening of the freeway to three lanes all the way—tends to complicate matters. It’s a rare day northbound drivers can roll through here at anything approaching full freeway speed. On the worst days it almost grinds to a halt.

So I’m riding north along the bike path-frontage road link on a Saturday afternoon and I can see that the traffic on 101 is really backed up. I am in fact making better time than the cars and I’m only going about 15 mph into a mild headwind. Frustrating for the drivers, no doubt. Then I notice a fairly steady stream of cars diving off the freeway, up the ramp and across the overpass at the landfill. I think: oh ho…local drivers who know about taking San Antonio into Petaluma!

But as I get onto San Antonio, I realize this is more than a few drivers with local knowledge. This is a mass migration of lemmings following directions from a real-time navigation app. As soon as they got backed up on the freeway, they either asked for or were given, unasked, an alternate route that would supposedly get them past the gridlock and save them a few precious minutes. 

WazeAll navigation programs factor in the conditions of the moment—heavy traffic, crashes, whatever—but Waze takes it a step further by encouraging social media-style postings of up-to-the-second input from other Waze users. So if someone submits a suggestion like, “Get off at the landfill and take San Antonio, etc into Petaluma,” then all of a sudden a whole lot of other drivers are going to be following that suggestion…even if they’ve never been on those roads before and know nothing about them…and even if the whole premise is wrong: that this will turn out to be a time-saving detour. Garbage in, garbage out.

There have been news stories for at least a couple of years now about mapping apps directing hundreds or even thousands of drivers off clogged arterials and onto neighborhood streets that had—up until the advent of the apps—been quiet roads used solely by those living in the neighborhoods. In doing research for this piece, I found several such tales out there. The folks affected in the formerly quiet neighborhoods are understandably upset. And it’s not just a peace-and-quiet issue. Quick access for emergency personnel—fire and police and EMTs—is impeded when the little streets are clogged with commuters trying to save two minutes.

That sort of neighborhood congestion could amount to a cycling issue all by itself, assuming your once quiet cruise down a residential lane ends up in the middle of a massive traffic jam. But what I experienced on San Antonio Road and I Street really makes it a biking issue.

San Antonio is a nice two-lane country road. Stripe down the middle but no shoulders. Rolling and meandering in a pleasant way through woods and meadows. Generally decent pavement. A few farms and country homes along the way. At its northern end it tees into Petaluma-Pt Reyes Road, otherwise known as Red Hill-D Street, where a right turn will deliver you to D Street and downtown Petaluma. Midway along San Antonio, a right on I Street will also take you into Petaluma. I Street (as in the letter I, not the number 1) may sound like a city street, and it is at the Petaluma end. But out at its rural end, where it meets San Antonio, it is rustic and primitive in the extreme: narrow, twisty, and hilly, with possibly the worst pavement in Sonoma County.

On a typical day, I might expect to share San Antonio Road with maybe three or four cars and I Street with one or two. But on this day, I was passed by at least 100 vehicles on each road, even including 18-wheelers. (Another few news stories about mapping apps leading people astray are the ones about truckers who follow nav advice onto some narrow and twisty back road and then go over a cliff or jack-knife their rig in a hairpin, etc.) On my Saturday ride, with so many vehicles on roads not at all engineered to handle that load, things had slowed to a crawl at least as pokey as what the drivers had been hoping to escape back on 101. It was a mess. And even if the little backroads had been up to the task of moving the traffic along, everyone still would be ending up in downtown Petaluma, with traffic signals every block, pedestrians, and all the local traffic that would be there regardless. Put simply, there is no way, no how, that either the I Street or D Street version of this bypass was going to save anyone even a minute. On the contrary, I would guess that when these fools finally got back on 101 on the north side of Petaluma, they would have been at least five or ten minutes behind the people who stuck it out in the stop-and-go on the freeway. The only way this detour would have worked is if your destination was somewhere in west Petaluma.

It was stupid…idiotic. It was techno-clever gone boneheaded. It was otherwise intelligent, supposedly competent people allowing some app to do their thinking for them, and to do that thinking badly. 

The non-stop files of passing cars and trucks didn’t ruin my ride but they made it a lot less pleasant. In spite of my having no shoulders—on roads where shoulders are not generally needed—I didn’t feel too at-risk, probably because the passing stream was only putting along at 15 mph. But all in all, it was not a good experience and certainly not what I would have imagined when I planned my route along those normally bike-friendly side roads. An acquaintance of mine who has lived on D Street for over 20 years says this is the new normal over the past three years or so, at least during certain hours of the day.

Call me a grumpy old curmudgeon, but to my way of thinking, navigation systems that will generate this sort of mess represent an offensive load of me-first social irresponsibility, with the blame partly on the users and partly on the companies producing and marketing the gizmos. (I may be wrong on this point because it’s hard to keep up with continuously evolving technologies and policies, but the impression I have at the moment is that Google and Waze and other companies in this market are essentially blowing off the complaints and concerns that are being expressed far and wide, essentially saying, “Screw you; we can do whatever we want. Deal with it.”) There is an entitled, technocratic arrogance to the notion that my convenience and my access to this mapping app trump your expectation of having your quiet neighborhood or low-traffic back road to yourself. I come first; you don’t matter. Your pissant little town doesn’t matter. Your rural countryside doesn’t matter. I am much more important than you are, so get out of my way!

Then there’s the garbage in, garbage out factor. Supposedly, these apps are very smart and get drivers through jams all the time. Perhaps that’s true, sometimes. But I have tossed this topic around with many people recently and I have heard myriad stories of being led off on wild-goose chases by these apps; taken down dopey detours that ended up being way wrong and no sort of time-savers. We all live with the expectation that our assorted technologies will get better as time goes by, but as far as I can tell, these mapping apps are currently a work in progress—not nearly as good as they are made out to be—and we, the drivers, are the crash-test dummies doing their trial-and-error work for them, working out the bugs one cocked-up detour at a time. Then add in the purportedly helpful input from Waze users. We all know the score with social media: for every three bits of possibly intelligent, helpful input, we must also accept at least 20 bits of lowest-common-denominator brain farts. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam and don’t know the roads around you, how can you tell which input is worthwhile and which is dumb?

Finally, there is the distracted driver element. Any interaction with a navigation system in your car is going to be distracting. No one is going to try and make the case that it’s not. Most people seem willing to accept that risk as part of the package modern life offers us. But now add in the social-media aspect of Waze, where a driver can submit new info about what they’re encountering on the road. Now the distraction ratchets up considerably. You have to be pecking away at your screen—either phone or in-dash—while you’re doing the herky-jerky in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I’ve said my bit about distracted driving before so won’t belabor that issue today. But it’s there, and rather than getting better, it’s getting worse. Now this brave new world of Waze or similar apps is only going to make that problem worser than worse. Isn’t technology supposed to make our lives simpler and safer, not the other way around?

If you haven’t encountered a traffic jam on what should be a quiet back road near you yet, just wait awhile. It might not be the absurd circus I bumbled into along the little lanes outside Petaluma. It might just be a creeping little feeling that there seem to be a lot more cars and congestion on this road than you remember from the last time you were there. I don’t know what the solution is. Just “hang up and drive” isn’t going to get it. If the tech-weenies build the apps, people will use them, regardless of how well or poorly they work and regardless of any downside they may be imposing on their neighbors. Perhaps the Googles of this world can be prevailed upon to refine their systems to exclude certain types of roads in their detour plotting. (That would imply a social conscience I’m not sure they possess.) In the meantime, welcome to the modern world!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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