Recently I started a new job at a major corporation where I write product descriptions to be printed on packaging for wireless routers, just like I'd once dreamed I would as a little boy. After years working at small ad agencies I’ve been surprised at how much I’m enjoying the corporate life in spite of my distaste for corporations in general. Everything is new, clean, and meticulously organized, everybody’s friendly but also restrained enough that we don’t get on each other’s nerves, and my desk is steps away from a company-subsidized cafeteria that will sell me an all natural grass-fed beef cheeseburger for $3.05. If I knew I could get working conditions like these I’d probably be down to sign up for a job on the Death Star. (Depending on their 401k situation.)
The one drawback is that my office is about 20 miles away from my apartment – 20 miles of the worst traffic congestion you’ve seen in your life, unless maybe you’re from India. Trying to drive anywhere in LA from 8 to 11 AM and 4 to 7 PM is like trying to get your car out of a stadium parking lot after a football game. Except after a football game, eventually the crush of cars disperses – in LA, one traffic jam just bleeds into the next from your point of origin to your destination. Every morning it takes me a good 45 minutes to get to the office. Coming home in the evening takes nearly an hour and a half on a bad day.
A few years from now this sort of thing won’t be such a big deal. After work everybody’s just going to hop into their self driving cars, crack open a beer, and noodle around on their phones as their AI drivers inch through packed freeways. But by the time that’s a reality I will have spent the equivalent of months hunched over my steering wheel staring at brake lights.
It eats me up thinking about all the time I’m wasting sitting in my car, even if I’d just fritter that time away on the Internet anyway. Hoping to outsmart traffic, I downloaded Waze, because their slogan has Outsmart traffic in it and because I was looking for some real-time crowdsourced shortcuts to speed up my commute. There’s tens of thousands of drivers in LA contributing traffic information to Waze, and I figured between all of them we might be able to figure out a way for me to get home in less than an hour.
Right away I got the sense that Waze was hard at work, because each day it took me on a different journey to and from the office. Every time it told me to jump off the freeway and then get back on a few blocks later, or sent me down a sidestreet through a dodgy neighborhood, I’d smile smugly to myself, thinking of the horrible traffic disasters I was skirting. “Ha-HA! I’m going to get there SO much faster! Suck on my big data, losers!”
But after a week or two the novelty started to wear off when I noticed that these time saving detours, while a great way to see a lot of cool, off the beaten path pockets of town, weren’t really saving me any time. One day I let Waze guide me home by way of various surface streets, leafy residential avenues, and a series of increasingly narrow and potholed roads winding up through the Hollywood Hills. The following day I ditched Waze and got on the gridlocked freeway instead, only for it to take me the same amount of time to get home as it had the day before.
I think that Waze really genuinely believes that it’s helping. If the app calculates that it can save me 16 seconds by having me cut through a neighborhood for one block, it’ll do it – even if that means right after I have to spend five minutes at a stop sign trying to make a left turn onto a busy street. Maybe, by the end of the trip, Waze’s various detours will have shaved four minutes off what my commute would have been otherwise. The amount of research, development, and technological wizardry that went into saving me that four minutes is impressive, but on some days it takes me ten minutes to find a parking space so that accomplishment is kind of lost.
I had expected Waze to be like driving around with a super efficient robot hivemind navigator. It wound up feeling a lot more like I was being guided by some kind of klutzy Zooey Deschanel type, sending me on eccentric little shortcuts that save me no time but teach me important lessons about how life is really about the journey.
What I’ve come to realize is that tens of thousands of drivers aren’t just contributing information to Waze – they’re making use of that information too. So the second somebody finds a low-traffic route it gets swarmed by other Wazers until it’s not low traffic anymore. I think the app could be greatly improved if everybody was allowed to contribute traffic information but I was the only one who was allowed to receive it.
Until they release that patch, though, I’ve given up on trying outsmart traffic. It can’t be done. Every other person on the road is trying to figure out the fastest way to get home too – it’s not like there’s some magic, commute-halving shortcut that everybody else just happened to miss. Trying to outsmart rush hour traffic in LA is like trying to outsmart the ocean while you’re drowning in it.