Portland neighborhoods fed up with traffic app detours

Multnomah County

'We've been pushing for solutions and Waze has not been responsive,' said PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some Portland residents are sick and tired of commuters using their residential streets as shortcuts with the help of traffic apps like Waze and Google Maps.

The City of Portland is also frustrated, saying it’s had to make changes at several intersections thanks to traffic apps that send cars through neighborhoods to bypass traffic jams.

KOIN 6 News decided to put the apps to the test at the intersection of SW Terwilliger Boulevard and SW Taylors Ferry Road.

Caleb Spiegel, who lives a block away on SW 4th Avenue, described the intersection as “dangerous” and said aggressive drivers pass through, looking at their phones.

“They get so used to driving it,” he said. “It’s like when you’re driving and you don’t even think about where you’re going because you’ve driven that route a million times. -That’s how they’re driving around here. They’re taking the turn without slowing down. They’re going well over 25 miles an hour.”

Spiegel has spent a lot of time recording videos of vehicles passing through his neighborhood. He even recorded a crash that he said happened when a driver rolled his car after pulling out of Spiegel’s street too fast onto Taylors Ferry.

After that crash, Spiegel reached out to KOIN 6, saying, “Somebody is going to get killed. Portland Bureau of Transportation — I’ve been calling them every day for six weeks. I’ve gotten absolutely zero response from them.”

Spiegel and his neighbors say there are three problems: speed, cut-through traffic and traffic apps that send people around the clogged intersection of Taylors Ferry and Terwilliger.

Scott Richman with the South Burlingame Neighborhood Association said the group sent a letter to the city three years ago, detailing their concerns and asking for help. They never got a response.

A KOIN 6 News crew took a drive through the area while using the Waze app. The team started driving at 4:19 p.m. The app kept them on the main route for about an hour, following SW Terwilliger to Taylors Ferry, until it suddenly re-routed them into a neighborhood by having them turn onto SW Troy Street, then SW 5th Avenue. Google Maps made a similar suggestion: at 5:31 p.m., it proposed driving through the neighborhood on the other side of Terwilliger.

Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson Dylan Rivera said PBOT has seen traffic apps directing people through residential areas across the city. Rivera said they can’t get Waze to cooperate with their requests.

“We’ve been pushing for solutions and Waze has not been responsive,” he said.

PBOT has had to make changes to several intersections, thanks in part to the traffic apps’ influence.

At SE Clinton and 17th, the city installed traffic diverters. It also installed diverters down the street at SE 32nd. At SE 34th, the city made the block between Clinton and Division one way. At NW Cornell and Westover, a sign bans right turns during certain hours. At NW Germantown and Harbor, PBOT put in a “no turn” sign.

The intersection of SE 32nd and Clinton in Portland, October 2021 (KOIN)

“We share the public’s frustration and we’ve been in contact with other cities to see if they’ve found any solutions and they have not,” said Rivera.

Waze declined KOIN 6 News’ efforts to set up an interview. A company spokesperson sent the following statement:

“We don’t have a spokesperson available, but for more background, Waze helps people navigate based on street regulations established by the city and the state. We help drivers navigate safely: altering them when they drive above the speed limit, helping them to avoid congestion and construction, and allowing them to report problems on the road hands-free.

“While some drivers learn about shortcuts from navigation, the reality is local drivers know local shortcuts with or without navigation apps. The solution to reduce cut-through traffic is to change traffic regulations, such as prohibiting left turns at certain intersections or making streets one way. These changes, of course, come with trade-offs. When local authorities make changes, Waze reflects those new regulations on our map within a day or two.”

KOIN 6 questioned the city about the traffic frustrations in Spiegel’s neighborhood. PBOT studied the area and determined the flow of traffic falls within their guidelines. Rivera said the number of drivers is “within the realm of what we expect to see in residential streets.”

PBOT also has to consider whether changes to slow traffic on one street will push the problem to another. 

The city also says there is no practical way to fix the intersection of SW Terwilliger and Taylors Ferry, which means there is little hope of change for Spiegel and his neighbors. 

“If it’s thousands of cars a day, we’d look at the potential for diverters or other safety improvements to really slow down that traffic,” said Rivera, “and then we have to prioritize. It’s a big city and we have to really prioritize.”

It’s not the answer Spiegel had hoped for.

“This is a residential neighborhood and [residents] should feel safe to cross the street,” he said.

A Portland street with local access only, October 2021 (KOIN)

The city said it has limited resources to deal with neighborhood traffic congestion and is concentrating on the worst spots.

KOIN 6 also reached out to Google and did not receive a reply. Google has owned Waze since 2013.

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