Thanks to smartphone apps like Waze and Google Maps, motorists are finding quicker ways to reach their destinations and avoid stand-still traffic.
But those shortcuts, which often divert drivers from busy highways to local roads, are creating headaches for Westchester municipalities, many of which are seeing increased traffic and speeding in residential areas.
“The criteria [the apps] use is the quickest point from A to B,” said Dave Paganelli, Yorktown highway superintendent. “I think that’s a problem.”
For example, Route 35-bound motorists coming from Route 202—and vice versa—are directed by both apps to cut through Hallocks Mills Road rather than remain on 202, which shaves just 0.3 miles off their commute.
Nearby towns like North Salem have experienced similar problems, said Town Supervisor Warren Lucas.
“We have people going the strangest ways you can ever conceive just because Waze tells them to,” Lucas said. “It’s absolutely insane. And it saves everybody a minute and every road in town has a thousand cars on it.”
In North Salem, with a population just north of 5,000 people, there are sometimes more cars on the road than residents, Lucas said.
“The apps are killing the town,” Lucas said. “The roads fall apart faster.”
The wear and tear created by increased traffic, and the cost to repair them, is only one downside to the apps. By failing to factor in things like topography, they also create hazards during severe weather events.
Last winter, Paganelli said, a fast-accumulating snowfall during the evening rush-hour commute sent highway motorists into a panic. Rather than stay the course on a backed-up Taconic State Parkway, many sought quicker routes home on local roads. In
Yorktown, dozens of drivers were diverted through the hilly and narrow Baptist Church Road, which is also a low-salt area because of its proximity to the watershed.
“We ended up with 15 cars [stuck] there, which hindered our ability to clean the road,” Paganelli said. “It created a major problem for us in even reaching the areas.”
In addition to finding its users the shortest commute, Waze alerts motorists to construction-induced lane closures; school zones; traffic light cameras; and traffic hazards like fallen trees and potholes, all of which are reported by fellow drivers.
Like a digital flashing of the high beams, users can also report areas where police officers have been spotted. That aspect of the app doesn’t bother Lewisboro Police Officer Andrew Llewellyn.
“It doesn’t affect the way I patrol in town, whether or not they mark us,” Llewellyn said. “Really, most patrols you try not to sit still anyway.”
By the time he’s been “marked,” Llewellyn said, he’s most likely moved to a new spot. Also, such reports tend to slow down other drivers.
“If anything, they’re helping us out,” Llewellyn said. “They’re creating digitally more officers on the road than there actually are.”
But by alerting the general public to their location, Yorktown Police Chief Robert Noble said, this “tagging” of police cruisers can also create a safety hazard for his officers. It also wreaks havoc on roads not meant for high-volume traffic.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Noble said. “It’s a gift for the people driving and it’s a curse for the people who live on the local roads.”
Yorktown residents can use the app to their advantage and fight back against speeding, Noble said, by reporting police cruisers where there aren’t any. Such a report will be removed if enough users give it a “thumbs down,” but it could have a temporary traffic-calming effect, he said.
“People need to slow down on the roads,” Noble said. “Plug in a police officer in locations even if they’re not there.”
Rather than view it as a hindrance, Llewellyn prefers to use the app to his advantage.
“We use it to see where all the traffic is,” Llewellyn said. “So, when I-684 is backed up and there’s more commuting on Route 22, we might be in that area because of speeding and traffic issues.”
Paganelli said Yorktown’s powers-that-be are aware of the issues created by the apps and are working toward solutions. In fact, the town’s traffic safety officer has been tasked with contacting Google and Waze directly regarding the use of side roads like Hallocks Mill as shortcuts.
But towns frustrated by the increased traffic have may only have one recourse: improve conditions on the roads from which traffic is being diverted.
In Lucas’ case, the culprit is I-684, which is owned and maintained by New York State. Maintained, however, might be too generous a word.
“They haven’t touched the road since the early ’70s,” Lucas said.
Fixing I-684, he estimated, is a $1.5-billion project. Working together with leaders from neighboring towns like Bedford and Somers, Lucas and the I-684 consortium are working on plans for the expensive project.
“How hard is it to get $1.5 billion? Very hard,” Lucas said. “But you won’t get anything without a plan. So, the first step was to put a plan in place.”
Lucas holds no grudges against Waze. In fact, he uses the app himself. “It’s an awesome application. It puts me on side roads I didn’t even know existed.”
In the long run, Waze may end up proving to be a benefit.
“What this application has done is told us that our roads are inferior and our roads need a lot of work and help,” Lucas sad.
Put simply, Lucas, said, “684 can’t handle the traffic anymore.” Until it is fixed by the state, North Salem and other local communities will continue to pay the price.