When Waze clogs the streets, can communities close them to outsiders?

By Sam Sklar

The borough of Leonia, NJ, has decided to close most of its local roads to non-residents during peak morning and afternoon periods, the New York Times reports. As Google Maps and Waze (owned by Google) have sent more commuters onto local streets in an attempt to avoid highway congestion, more communities may face a question: Should they close streets and shrink the roadway network and, importantly, can they even do it?

In Leonia, cars using the local roads must display a tag issued to residents, and non-residents face a $200 fine. State-owned roads will remain open. This move is meant to allow Leonia residents and employees to access their streets before traffic headed to New York City, via the George Washington Bridge, makes it difficult to get out of driveways or access local destinations.

Figure 1: The approach to New York City via Leonia and Fort Lee. The George Washington Bridge handles over 40 million one-way trips per year. Source: Google Maps/Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.

The move in North Jersey has come in the wake of the popularization of apps that help drivers navigate the increasingly congested highways that approach New York via northern New Jersey. When Waze detects traffic on major roads like I-95 and I-80, it will suggest to the driver to divert onto a local road to bypass the congested segment. With more people choosing this option, the smaller roads are seeing unexpected increases in traffic and causing problems for local residents.

Local residents feel this additional traffic is a nuisance and want to block it. They argue that some streets are now so congested that they can’t exit their driveways in the morning. But decisions to close roads to non-residents raises legal and policy questions about who is allowed to access these roads and what the implications are for neighboring towns. Sam Schwartz, former NYC Traffic Commissioner and Chief Engineer, notes, “These are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

Figure 2: A typical view of traffic on a Leonia street during morning rush hour. Credit: NYT/Nanci Makroulakis

Neighboring communities have balked at Leonia’s move, too. Fort Lee, infamous as the “Bridgegate” borough that directly feeds the George Washington Bridge, has warned Leonia that the insular strategy might push the local congestion issue downstream. Schwartz again worries about a piecemeal approach to congestion in Bergen County and that if “every town can decide that [it doesn’t] want certain people to come through [its] community” what about those who are unaware of the rule? Does the town issue tickets en masse, even if the rule is broken in error?

A regional understanding might be the best way to ensure that each community whose streets are subject to app-based rerouting of traffic is approaching the issue fairly to avoid conflict. Schwartz is in favor of putting up temporary barriers rather than a blanket ban, but Leonia Chief of Police Tom Rowe says they’ve tried this to no avail: “It’s basically all or nothing. It’s a very extreme measure for very extreme traffic.”

Note that this type of policy is not necessarily unique to New Jersey, as municipalities like Medford, Massachusetts (outside Boston), and Fremont, California (between San Jose and San Francisco), have also tried similar policies. All three locations share a few facts: they all serve major metropolitan areas, the network is strained, the geometry is limited, and patience is wearing thin. In the short run, the shutdown of local roads might make residents happy; but in the longer term, residents could face worsened regional congestion as traffic is forced onto clogged arterials. In dense networks, these local roads can sometimes act like important release valves.

Sam Sklar is a Program Associate at SSTI.