Of Map Apps and Traffic Jams
I live in central Bengaluru, on a side street off a busy thoroughfare. I have known and frequented this area throughout my lifetime, and as a boy, I used to play “galli” or street cricket with other boys my age on the same thoroughfare. A sputtering Ambassador or Herald car would show up once every few minutes and slow down our game for a few seconds; once the automobile had passed, we were back to bat and ball.
Those days are long gone. In today’s choking traffic, simply trying to cross the same thoroughfare on foot means throwing one’s life to chance; Bengaluru’s motorists are notorious for speeding up when they see a pedestrian trying to cross the street, trying out an irresponsible and dangerous game of ‘chicken’ to see who flinches first.
During rush hour, even the side street I live on can get congested. In name, it is a one-way street and traffic should only be flowing in one direction. But this is Bengaluru, and traffic signs like ‘no entry’ are at best a suggestion, and never an interdiction. So, motorists zip by in both directions, often causing snarling jams on my side street. The occasional traffic policeman who passes by to try to control the traffic is truly helpless; Bengaluru’s finest are no match for the its frenzied motorists, and I truly feel sorry for the police. Being a traffic policeman in Bengaluru has to be by far the most difficult job on the planet.
Meanwhile, hoardings have begun to show up on Bengaluru’s streets. Google is plugging its Google Maps software programme on these hoardings by screaming, “You think you’re 5 minutes away from your meeting, but are you? Check Google Maps to find the best route.” — or words to the same effect. So, we now have tens of thousands of motorists fumbling with their smartphones while driving — which is as much against the law as flouting a ‘no entry’ sign is — to try and find the quickest way to their destinations. Real-time updates to traffic congestion now find their way on to apps such as Google Maps and this information is then used by the programme to re-route traffic through quieter areas.
This is by no means an Indian problem. It turns out that apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze (an Israeli firm acquired by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion) use crowdsourcing to update real time information to help re-route traffic through quieter residential areas all over the world. The New York Times recently ran a story about the town of Leonia, in New Jersey, which is a suburb of New York City which has decided to fight back against these apps, because the town’s leaders feel that the re-routing of commuting traffic through their quiet residential town has reached crisis proportions. In a situation reminiscent of many parts of Bengaluru, the traffic has become so bad that residents often have to plead with motorists to make room just so that they can exit the driveways of their own homes. Unfettered access and egress from one’s own home should be a basic right, and the fact that one has to plead for access just to get in or out of one’s home is a travesty.
Leonia started in mid-January to close 60 streets to all traffic except for vehicles which are owned by people who either reside or work in the town. The town is issuing yellow tags for residents to hang in their cars, and non-residents who use the streets during morning and afternoon rush hours will face a $200 fine. This move will surely face opposition. The right of people to ply their vehicles on public thoroughfares is as much a basic right as people wanting to get in and out of their homes — so which side does the state, which owns public thoroughfares, choose to support?
As a reader of the New York Times says in a letter to the editor, “What is needed is an examination of the core issue: the deliberate business practice by Waze, Google Maps, and other navigation apps, of routing commuter traffic through residential streets.”
On one side are giant tech corporations exploiting a public resource (low-traffic residential streets) for profit, without paying for the commercial use and degradation of these resources. On the other side are residents of these streets, who suffer very real loss and injury as a result of these business practices, in the form of mental stress, property damage, increased pollution and depressed home prices. Joined with them are the municipal authorities, which incur costs for traffic studies, engineering, implementation and enforcement.
The negative externalities caused by the advance of technology don’t confine themselves to the digital world. We are not just facing data security and privacy issues caused by the mass digitalization of our ordinary lives, we are also facing physical danger and lifestyle degradation in areas we would never had imagined that technology would affect negatively.
Some weeks ago, I wrote in this column that a large proportion of the blame for the degradation of India’s cities could be placed squarely at the feet of technology firms operating in India. The article was met with opposition from many of my friends who said that local government policies (or the blindness thereto) were more to blame and that India’s poor local governance was actually the real culprit. I was told that had we had responsible, incorruptible local governments such as western countries like the US supposedly have, we would not be dealing with such problems. Assuming local government in Leonia, New Jersey, is less “corrupt” than local governments in Indian cities provides living proof for my argument that it is technology’s unbridled rise that is to blame for many of our physical city-level infrastructure woes.
The corporate citizenship of technology firms needs to extend well beyond the tired argument that their employees are paying income and local taxes.
Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.