One of These Days Someone Will Sue Waze
How social media based traffic routing is making a mess of neighborhoods
In the San Francisco Bay Area when summertime comes, people make a beeline for the beaches as soon as the weekend arrives. In the peninsula, that means daylong traffic jams on Highway 92 to Half Moon Bay.
Down where I live in the South Bay there’s two ways to the beach — the direct route and the indirect route. The indirect route takes you down Highway 101 where you cut over to Watsonville via Highways 152 and 156 which results in a two hour traffic jam trying to get back to where 101 goes from two lanes to four. I’ve dealt with it a few times being a scuba diver returning from a dive day (it’s the only way over the mountains that doesn’t take you over 1,000 feet and into the decompression sickness zone). Most people take the direct route.
The direct route, and I use that term with appropriate sarcasm because it’s sooo slow, is Highway 17 through Los Gatos, over the summit, and to Santa Cruz and all points coastal.
For decades this route has been summer hell if you start your journey later than 10:30am. The problem is exacerbated by a combination of NIMBY areas. Los Gatos didn’t want a three lane Highway 17 going through its area so 17 drops to two lanes a mile and a half outside of town at the Highway 85 interchange. Santa Cruz residents didn’t want a three lane Highway 17 spilling traffic into its neighborhood — even though the Santa Cruz economy depends mightily on summer tourism dollars — so it has fought for decades against any ideas of 17 getting another lane. And now it would be so expensive to expand 17 over the summit nobody bothers thinking about it.
Not that either NIMBY decision affects drivers’ habits apparently. It just slows them down as they drive en mass on a highway designed for 1950s era traffic.
When the temps start hitting the 80s, the backup starts. For decades it meant backups on 17 starting miles outside of Los Gatos; all the way back as far as Hamilton Ave (where it has four lanes) on the really bad days. And it’s stop-and-go all the way over. You are guaranteed to see one or more cars on the side of the highway in the mountains with their hoods up because they overheated. The madness starts around 10am and doesn’t abate until around 3pm. By that time the return path starts backing up and it can go on as long as 9pm or later on the really hot days or a three-day holiday weekend.
As bad as it is, during all these decades things remained the same year after year. Until last year.
Previously, Los Gatos town streets barely saw any backup. North Santa Cruz Avenue was always a little heavy because some knew to cut through the town on that street in order to shave off a little 17 backup time before rejoining the highway at the end of town. But last year it was different. The backup on North Santa Cruz was as jammed as 17 and it started over a mile away. Worse, the other side streets through Los Gatos — University Avenue and Los Gatos Blvd — were similarly jammed. Los Gatos to Saratoga Rd, which cuts across 17 (with an interchange), was jammed up getting into town from Saratoga — something you would previously only see on really bad weeknight commute days.
But there’s more. Side streets and backway roads that only some of the locals knew about were now jamming up. These roads cut through residential neighborhoods. But they had one thing in common. Both wound up just north of the Highway 17 on-ramp at the outskirts of town.
After a couple of weekends of this town logjam occurring, Los Gatos police closed off the side streets with cones and put up signs pleading with motorists to use 17 to get to Santa Cruz. They continued this practice every Saturday and Sunday until the summer was over.
There is only one possible culprit for turning Los Gatos into gridlock central: Waze and services like it. The town is now officially a no-go zone for me on weekends. If I have to get to 17 to head north instead of heading south to Santa Cruz, I take a different route which bypasses the gridlock and the town entirely.
I can imagine the annoyance the residents have because of this. And there is the cost of traffic management the town must now contend with. All because of Waze.
It’s been a year since this started. Last weekend we had abnormally high temperatures. As I was driving down Highway 9 out of Los Gatos I saw a line of cars looking to make a left hand turn down one of those side streets that got blocked off last year and higher than usual traffic on 9 itself. I thought to myself, “Here we go again.”
Mark my words: Waze and similar services will one day get sued over this. Someone will eventually say “enough is enough” and pull the trigger. Whether the suit will be successful, I have no idea. But it’s going to happen.
And until then, Waze will continue wreaking havoc on a little town on the way to the beach.