Residents of Leonia, New Jersey, are fed up with traffic apps that treat their small borough as a shortcut to the nearby George Washington Bridge. Starting Monday, officials began banning out-of-town drivers from using 60 streets during morning and evening rush hours, and threatened violators with a $200 fine.
Critics of the move question its legality, as well as the legality of similar efforts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Ultimately, the bans raise questions of ownership. Does the city own those streets? The state? Or do they exist in the public right-of-way?
Leonia — set in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, encircled by Interstate 95 — has seen more than its fair share of congestion over the years, the New York Times reported last month. But apps like Waze and Apple Maps, which use crowdsourced data to suggest shortcuts to frustrated commuters (often rerouting cars onto small side streets) have exacerbated the problem.
“Without question, the game changer has been the navigation apps,” Tom Rowe, Leonia’s police chief, told the Times. “In the morning, if I sign onto my Waze account, I find there are 250,000 ‘Wazers’ in the area. When the primary roads become congested, it directs vehicles into Leonia and pushes them onto secondary and tertiary roads. We have had days when people can’t get out of their driveways.”
And the traffic isn’t just a headache for locals — officials say it’s also created a safety issue, CBS Local reports. With bumper-to-bumper stalls clogging, tiny residential streets, even emergency vehicles have a hard time getting from points A to B.
This week, Leonia residents will begin displaying yellow tags on their cars, signaling to police that they belong on the “shut-down” streets. The road closures will show up on the Waze app as restricted access streets, according to a Waze spokesperson.
Borough officials claim the new measure is legal, but it could be tested in court — especially if it sets a precedent for other traffic-app weary towns across the country.
As Slate reported last year, residents in Alabama who’d tried to erect “No Thru Traffic” signs in 2011 were disappointed to learn that their efforts couldn’t be enforced — on the principal that everyone had access to public streets. A similar debate emerged last year in Atlanta after the collapse of Interstate 85.
In May of 2017, however, city officials in Los Altos Hills, California, chose to erect prohibitive signs on three popular short-cut roads anyway. The move had the intended effect of influencing how Waze directs traffic (the app no longer instructed users to take those routes). But other cities have been slow to follow suit because of the enforcement issue.
In Takoma Park, [Maryland], public works director Daryl Braithwaite told me the city doesn’t put up “No through traffic” signs because they are impossible to enforce. Unlike turn restrictions, where violators can be easily observed, seeing who has business in a neighborhood would require extraordinary scrutiny by the police. “You’d have to stop every car,” she said.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.