Waze sends thousands of drivers a day through small village in France

‘Our streets are not designed to cope with this amount of traffic’ the mayor says of the so-called ‘Waze effect’

Waze aims to find the ‘quickest route’, but this means it can send drivers through smaller towns and villages in large numbers

A small village in southern France is raising the alarm that thousands of vehicles a day are being directed through its tiny streets by popular sat-nav app Waze.

The medieval village of Saint-Montan (Ardèche, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), which has just 180 inhabitants, has accidentally found itself on a recommended route for tourists driving to and from the Ardèche gorges.

Every weekend and school holiday between April and October, traffic overwhelms the village as Waze users - called ‘Wazers’ in the app - are directed through its otherwise-quiet streets en-route to the area.

Read also: Why GPS apps will not always suggest the fastest route in France

‘Waze mazes’

Created in 2008 by Israeli Ehud Shabtai, Waze is a favourite traffic app for many drivers, as it is well-known for helping to shorten journeys considerably - in comparison to other sat-navs or apps such as Google Maps or TomTom. 

Bought by Google for US$966 million (€905 million) in 2013, its stated intention is to help drivers to “outsmart traffic together”, and find the quickest route around heavy traffic, accidents, and other disruptions. It also warns drivers about police and speed cameras.

However, this means that its so-called ‘Waze mazes’ can send drivers through unexpected streets or lesser-used areas and - ironically - cause its own disruption, especially as Waze now counts almost 140 million users worldwide, of which there are 17 million in France.

Read more: Can apps such as Waze show location of speed cameras on French roads?

‘Huge traffic jams’

“At this time of year, we can see up to 1,000 cars a day. Our streets are not designed to cope with this amount of traffic,” said the mayor of Saint-Montan, Christophe Mathon, to Le Monde

“Buses and semi-trailers have already got stuck and had to reverse. These manoeuvres create huge traffic jams. Residents are having to put up with the situation, and some of them are even leaving at the start of the summer season.”

The mayor said that the main roads leading to the village already show alternative routes that avoid the centre, but “people are blindly guided by their GPS”. 

“All to save a few minutes,” he said.

The ‘Waze effect’

This so-called ‘Waze effect’ - coined by researchers in the US - is affecting increasing numbers of smaller towns and villages worldwide. They tend to affect smaller places that are close to major routes.

In France, other towns to have protested against the Waze effect include Cornebarrieu (Haute-Garonne), Blagnac (Haute-Garonne), Aulnay-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), Compiègne (Oise), Hettange-Grande (Moselle), and Lieusaint (Seine-et-Marne).

Matthieu Lestoquoy, the mayor of Camphin-en-Carembault in Nord, told Le Monde that his 1,800-inhabitant town can see up to 14,000 vehicles pass through per day, as they take an alternative route to the nearby A1 motorway.

“For local residents, such traffic generates its share of inconveniences: traffic jams, noise pollution, pollution, but also safety problems,” he said. “Residents living along this route were no longer able to leave their homes by car, pedestrian crossings were no longer respected, and three children were even hit by vehicles.”

‘Local authorities are the only ones’ who can change

When contacted about the problem, Waze appeared to suggest that the problem was up to local authorities to solve.

It said: “The app guides its users using only the public road infrastructure, based on local driving laws and legal road signs in the area. Local authorities are the only ones entitled to make certain changes, which will be relevant to all drivers using this road.”

Camphin-en-Carembault has since installed a 30 kph zone, along with two STOP signs and a traffic light, in a bid to deter people from cruising through the town. Another town - Lieusaint, near Paris - took similar measures, including installing a one-way system.

Its mayor, Michel Bisson, said that Waze was directing drivers through the town even though it was saving them “a maximum of six minutes”. He did concede that Waze had agreed to change the routes that passed near schools.

Globally, other towns suffering from the ‘Waze effect’ have also taken considerable measures. 

Authorities in the New Jersey town of Leonia closed around 60 of its streets to all non-residents from 06:00 to 10:00 and 16:00 to 21:00, to stop drivers using them to travel to and from New York City.

An artist in Germany even sought to circumvent the system; Simon Weckert took 99 smartphones, connected them to Waze, and drove them - in a little truck - along local roads. This led the app to believe that there was a traffic jam on those roads, and it directed drivers elsewhere.

However, Waze has retorted that this method would have a short-lived effect. It responded: “The routing process takes into account multiple data points [without saying how many], so even if people submit false claims, it won't have a lasting effect on routing.”

Cities and Waze ‘working in partnership’

And some cities in France have even struck up partnerships with Waze. This includes the 90-commune Métropole européenne de Lille (MEL). This means that it can share details of traffic, roadworks, and events directly with the app in a bid to control traffic.

“The results have been positive,” says Florent Berault, head of the metropolitan public data service team at MEL. He said that the partnership has also allowed Waze to stop suggesting routes near schools, and to send traffic to less-risky areas. 

“This is now a resource we can draw on to monitor, analyse and diagnose urban development,” said Mr Berault.