What Happens When Waze Becomes Israel’s Traffic Cop

The navigation app can turn quiet, narrow streets into freeways, and prioritizes individual users over the common good

The fast lane into Tel Aviv. Erased from Waze.
The fast lane into Tel Aviv. Erased from Waze. Moti Milrod

Israel’s traffic police may still be responsible for giving speeding tickets and enforcing the rules of the road, but the country’s real traffic cop, the one directing a million drivers on a daily basis, is the Waze navigation app.

Few Israeli drivers are without Waze nowadays. The high-tech company, founded in Israel, was sold to Google for $1 billion in 2013.

Waze, mind you, doesn’t have the same considerations as urban planners when it comes to directing traffic. Beyond showing drivers how to get to their destinations, the app also offers options of routes with the shortest travel time — even if that means directing heavy vehicle traffic through side streets in otherwise quite neighborhoods where the roads aren’t made for that kind of volume.

In many parts of the country, Israelis have complained that their quiet residential streets have become popular routes for avoiding jams on some of the country’s busiest roads, and worry about the safety hazard this entails.

One example is what happened in Tel Aviv suburb Kfar Sava. In early 2015, residents of the city’s Green Neighborhoods complained of the heavy traffic passing through their narrow streets as drivers followed the recommendations of Waze to avoid the congestion on busy Route 4 nearby. City officials said they contacted Waze and requested that it change its driving recommendations, and that the company had complied. Three days later, a news outlet reported that Waze denied changing anything, although the municipality stood by its version.

Nowadays Waze directs some 1 million Israeli drivers a day. In other words, a for-profit company is directing the country’s traffic based on its own secret algorithm.

“If a program like Waze gives a certain driver information and improves things for him, it could still be creating a traffic jam that harms another 10 drivers,” states Prof. Erel Avineri, head of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation and Logistics at Afeka Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering. “Some programs calculate optimal routes when factoring in all the traffic on the roads, and try to determine the best way of distributing vehicles, so that things are better for all. But I don’t think that Waze is optimizing for the general good, but rather for the individual user. It won’t send the driver on a longer route in order to help free up a traffic jam, but if it sends lots of drivers on the shortest route, it won’t be the shortest route anymore.

“I don’t believe that Waze is interested in coming to a society-wide optimum, which runs contrary to the optimum for a single user. It’s a classic game-theory problem, since we’re competing against each other for space on the roads,” adds Avineri. “Waze isn’t looking at what’s good for the country and society, since a commercial application has no motivation to tell a user to do something that’s not good for him individually.”

Even the state is somewhat dependent on Waze. Official bodies including the Israel Police, the Magen David Adom rescue service and the company that operates Ayalon Highway, as well as local governments including those of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, work with Waze, and Waze sends them data.

However, the state has no tools to regulate Waze in its job as the nation’s biggest traffic cop. The state doesn’t even have a way of understanding Waze’s model for directing traffic. The Transportation and Road Safety Ministry’s most basic role is keeping traffic running in the most efficient patterns, but any attempt to intervene with Waze is liable to run into regulatory difficulties.

The Ayalon Highway flooded in 2013, but Waze users reported that the app was still directing them to the closed road.
David Bachar

While Waze allows users to choose the shortest route, or alternately the fastest route, the company has been hit with allegations and lawsuits in recent years claiming that it prioritizes optimization for certain users due to commercial or other considerations.

A class-action suit was filed against Waze in the Tel Aviv District Court last year, claiming that the app misleads drivers intentionally and directs them onto toll roads, even when there are better alternatives. The suit, which is still waiting for its court date, includes screenshots from the app that it alleges indicate that the app treats Route 6 and the Carmel Tunnels as its defaults, even when taking these toll roads is slower and longer than alternative non-toll roads.

Waze’s market power also enables the company to make roads disappear from maps entirely. The company operating the fast lane into Tel Aviv, also a toll road, also submitted a suit against Waze, demanding that the company start showing the road on its maps again. Waze removed it from the map in August 2015, and the toll road’s revenues dropped noticeably. Two years later, Waze put the Tel Aviv fast lane back on its maps; it’s not clear the degree to which this decision was influenced by the lawsuit.

Other companies have also filed suits against Waze. Two years ago, a group of businesses filed a suit alleging that Waze’s policy of using certain roads as defaults harms their revenues and brings them fewer customers. These companies included gas stations and their convenience stores.

Occasionally all it takes is an error by a single Waze employee in order to cause serious traffic jams. For instance, the app erroneously showed in February that Route 1 was blocked, leading to heavy traffic to and from Jerusalem, primarily on alternative road Route 443. And four years ago, the Ayalon Highway flooded but Waze users reported that the app was still directing them to the closed road.

Prof. Erel Avineri.
Afeka College

It’s difficult to explain why Waze recommends some of the routes it does — whether decisions are commercial or simply due to errors — since the company does not release data about its algorithm, says Avineri.

“How long a company with such significant influence on individuals and society can continue being a black box is a serious question,” he says. “If it turns out that the company is intervening in the directions its app gives, is that illegal? After all, it’s allowed to show commercial content, and the question is what protections consumers have against this.”

Avineri raises a theoretical scenario whereby wealthy suburbanites could pay the app to keep them off its map so that vehicles are not directed through their neighborhoods; or even a wealthy individual who pays the app so that there is no traffic outside his house.

“There are opportunities here to control information, and as long as the algorithm is secret, we’ll never know if its advancing individual interests,” he says.

The acquisition by Google has made the company even more opaque.

“There’s a monopoly on information here. You can’t really compare Waze to any other product, since there are nearly no other products. Once Google Maps was an alternative, but now Google and Waze are the same company,” he points out.

That said, Waze also offers the Israeli economy a lot. Three years ago, Avineri conducted research on behalf of the Israeli government that found that the economic benefit and time saved by drivers using smart navigation apps was worth 2.2 million shekels ($626,410) a day. The research, conducted in partnership with Israel Feldman and Jay Kaplan, made its calculations based on the value of drivers’ time. The report also found that Israel was the country with the highest percentage of drivers using navigation apps. Since then, the percentage has only increased.

Waze stated in response: “The app finds the optimum route for every driver, based on algorithms that are improved. Waze’s map is also constantly updated, including with new roads. Municipalities in Israel and around the world use Waze to understand traffic in order to improve driving conditions. There was no contact or cooperation with Kfar Sava.”