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  • Jeffrey Siegel

Update on Legislation to Ban Waze and other mapping apps from blocking wildfire evacuation routes

After years of complaining by Los Gatos residents (and businesses) about the Waze directed traffic that has at times brought Los Gatos life to a complete standstill, and the refusal by the Town Attorney to address this issue, the Los Gatos Historical Society, whose charter is preserving the quality of life for residents in historic Los Gatos neighborhoods, took the initiative to create a legislative action that would effectively ban Waze and other traffic-directing apps from diverting beach-going traffic through the residential streets of our historic neighborhoods.

In 2019, we collaborated with the office of California Assemblyman Evan Low to initiate legislative action that would create a new California law banning algorithm directed traffic from routing traffic within a one-mile radius of wildfire evacuation routes. Over 50% of the geographic area of Los Gatos physically resides within the Wildlife Urban Interface, home to our wildfire evacuation routes. For example, Overlook Road on the Southwest side of town is the main artery that brings traffic down from the adjacent mountain roads onto Hernandez and Pennsylvania Avenues. That all-important route is routinely blocked by Waze directed traffic imperiling the lives of hundreds of residents living on that side of town.

As a point of reference, many people died trying to flee the Paradise fire but were trapped in their cars immobilized by the traffic in front of them, and hence overcome by the rapidly approaching wall of fire. Metal melted and bodies were incinerated. It was a gruesome sight.

Wildfires can become firestorms, which move so swiftly that they cannot be outrun and create their own weather micro-climate that adds to their destructive force. The town of Paradise, the size and roughly the population of Los Gatos, destroyed in its entirety by a wildfire storm, didn’t happen in days, it happened within a few short hours. This is why it’s so critical that wildfire evacuation routes remain open at all times. Even when fully open, they can easily get over-trafficked as all residents of a burning area are fleeing for their lives at the same time. What makes wildfire risk far more dangerous, is when traffic routing apps like Waze actually direct traffic into the wildfire evacuation zone, effectively blocking residents from escaping. In Paradise, many residents fleeing residents died in their cars as the rapidly approaching fireball descended upon them as their cars came to a standstill due to the road being blocked by a long line of hundreds of cars in front of them. All that was left in the wake of the fire was incinerated bodies and melted steel and glass, that’s how hot wildfires burn.

This same life-threatening wildfire evacuation route issue occurs in Los Gatos throughout the summer and early Fall months during the height of the wildfire season. Waze (and other traffic directing apps) routes tens of thousands of cars each weekend en route to the beaches of Santa Cruz through the WUI-based residential streets in Los Gatos. Residents of Glenridge Park are essentially immobilized while the onslaught of beach-going traffic winds its way throughout residential streets including Hernandez, Walnut, Pennsylvania Avenue, and other streets. This brings the entire neighborhood and much of the town to a complete standstill decimating the quality of life for our residents and putting many residents’ lives in peril. And for those living up on Overlook, it’s even worse because there is no other way out for them, and unlike Glenridge, they live too far away from town to escape on foot.

Why would Google executives like Noam Bardin, who is responsible for the Waze business continue to allow this when a life-threatening situation has been documented and brought to their attention?

After repeated resident requests of our town attorney to take legal action against Google, which he refused to do, and seeing no end in sight to the problem, the Los Gatos Historical Society launched a wildfire safety campaign in 2019 that caught the attention of the media including multiple news outlets in the Bay Area, resulting in media coverage in both print and TV. That resulted in getting Google’s attention for a few meetings to happen with us and the town staff. But throughout all communications with Google one theme has been constant and unyielding. Google claims to have the legal right to continue routing traffic in this manner regardless of the consequences. In the legal sense, they are correct. In the moral sense, they are saying that risking people’s lives to the ravages of wildfires is a calculated risk they are willing to take and that they will deal with the consequences of lives lost after the fact. Why Google would be so callous is hard for anyone to fathom. One point that they made was they can’t stop routing traffic near wildfire evacuation routes because their users would just begin using competitive apps instead. Fair point. It is the role of government to set a level playing field that all mapping apps must abide by in the name of public safety.

This is why new legislation initiated last year by Los Gatos Historical Society through assemblyman Evan Low’s office is so critical. It’s not about punishing any one mapping app company. It’s about resetting the playing field so that all mapping apps must take into account public safety issues, something they have all turned a blind eye to up to now.

Since mid-2019, the Los Gatos Historical Society has been working with Assemblyman Evan Lows office including bringing into the conversation then Los Gatos Mayor Steve Leonardis and Santa Cara Fire Chief Tony Bowden. In these meetings, both have spoken persuasively about the public safety virtues of keeping wildfire evacuation routes free of traffic. We appreciate the leadership that both of these public servants have shown and continue to support in getting this legislation through the state’s 2020 legislative season. With great support from the Governor’s office for all aspects of wildfire safety, and aligning with the governor’s emergency wildfire safety proclamation, this legislation we have initiated is expected to be voted on in the new legislative season and hopefully becomes law before the wildfire season of 2020 commences.

When this legislation passes, it will not only improve the wildfire survival rate for residents of Los Gatos, it will mean a significant reduction in beach pass-through-traffic in our town, restoring the quality of life that we have for so long enjoyed. Sometimes a neighborhood-led organization is needed to drive the change that local government fails to achieve.

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