Navigating through the politics of Fremont traffic

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- It's 2:45 in the afternoon in Fremont. Interstate 680 is clear and residential areas remain free of traffic. In about 15 minutes, that will all begin to change.

Traffic will dominate the landscape of this community.

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"Oh my God, you should see on Fridays. It will start as early as 2 p.m.," explained Swathi Boreda, a Fremont resident who moved here just over a year ago.

Traffic finally begins to clear up by 7 p.m., sometimes later.

Most of the people on Interstate 680 are following apps likes Waze and Google Maps to reduce their commute time.

"This is a real-time depiction of what Google is recommending to their users," explained Noe Veloso, Principal Transportation Engineer for the City of Fremont.

He monitors this activity daily.

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It's close to 3 p.m. and Google maps is telling commuters to get off Interstate 680 and cut right through the center of Fremont by using Mission Boulevard, just to save three minutes.

After months of trying to reach out to Google, the company finally responded to Fremont's concerns.

"They also told us that their algorithm and their program would not recommend users getting off of the freeway and onto city streets unless there was at least a five-minute time savings," added Veloso.

Fremont made changes to deter commuters from cutting through neighborhoods. Red lights are now longer and signs indicating no turn on red were placed in key intersections.

Because now going through Fremont requires additional traffic time, it forced Waze and Google Maps to incorporate these changes into their algorithm.

"And at one point this short cut will get so congested that it will be better for the people to stay on the highway," explained Theo Cabannes, a PhD student working with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley.

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The institute is collecting Fremont's traffic data to help them understand their congestion patterns.

They told us that 10 years ago, before these apps, cutting through Mission Boulevard would have saved 10 minutes, but now their data shows commuters only really save one minute by taking Mission Boulevard before getting back on I-680.

Even commuters say they don't trust their traffic apps. "I was trying to take a detour for 680 coming off and back again but it's not working out," said Vipul Maheshwari, who commutes from Pleasanton.

I asked Veloso... now what? Do they go back to Google and say you are wrong? "We don't think they care," was his response.

We reached out to Google Maps and Waze, which is actually owned by Google but are separate companies. We called and emailed but never got a response.

In the meantime, residents are resisting the actions of commuters by setting up cones to deter those people who still try to cut through here even though the sign clearly points out that it's a private road, keep out, dead-end.

"It makes them slow down, first of all, that is my biggest goal. Slow down because my kids are here," said Boreda.

Another neighbor weighed in. "At the end of the street, where I am, I've actually blocked off my driveway with garbage cans. The city said I could do that," Julie Raimondi told us. She's lived in Fremont all of her life.

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Alex Bayen, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, says this kind of congestion affects the quality of life in Fremont and has a huge economic impact on businesses.

During the commute hour, Downtown Fremont has empty stores and plenty of parking because locals know to stay away.

"I'm not getting a lot of people coming into the business so it's all just traffic, nobody actually stops in. People think it's busy but it's actually not," added Nawal Hassouneh, owner of Asfurah, a small clothing shop.

Other cities in the same situation are taking action. The Los Angeles City Council has asked the city attorney to work with the app companies to find ways to deter drivers off main thoroughfares.

And the town of Leonia in New Jersey has found a radial solution. Commuters used it as a short cut to get to the George Washington Bridge into New York City until police began handing out tickets to non-residents. Locals have a yellow tag that allows them to travel freely, but commuters are fined $200 if they are caught driving through there during specific times.

City officials in Fremont say what Leonia is doing is probably not legal.

"Because we know the end result is that it will be challenged...we want to do things legally and hopefully in a collaborative fashion with Google and Waze and partner with them instead," Veloso told us.

Bayen of the Institute of Transportation Studies believes the only way to negotiate with these giant companies is to show them there is strength in numbers.

"Down the road, cities will unify. Cities will come up with actions at the state level or even at the federal level in order to make specific actions of apps illegal," concluded Bayen.

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