With services like Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps suggesting shortcuts for commuters through the narrow, hilly streets of Leonia, New Jersey, the borough has decided to fight back against congestion that its leaders say has reached crisis proportions.

Share story

LEONIA, N.J. — It is bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see, the kind of soul-sucking traffic jam that afflicts highways the way bad food afflicts rest stops.

Suddenly, a path to hope presents itself: An alternate route, your smartphone suggests, can save time. Next thing you know, you’re headed down an exit ramp, blithely following directions into the residential streets of some unsuspecting town, along with a slew of other frustrated motorists.

Scenes like this are playing out across the country, not just in traffic-choked regions of the Northeast. But one town has had enough.

With services like Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps suggesting shortcuts for commuters through the narrow, hilly streets of Leonia, New Jersey, the borough has decided to fight back against congestion that its leaders say has reached crisis proportions.

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter.

“Without question, the game changer has been the navigation apps,” said Tom Rowe, Leonia’s police chief. “In the morning, if I sign onto my Waze account, I find there are 250,000 ‘Wazers’ in the area. When the primary roads become congested, it directs vehicles into Leonia and pushes them onto secondary and tertiary roads. We have had days when people can’t get out of their driveways.”

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Massachusetts, to Fremont, California, communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way.

Waze defends its practice of rerouting motorists from congested highways through residential streets in nearby communities. And the company says it shares free traffic data with municipal planners nationwide who might, for instance, want to monitor the effectiveness of a new time sequence for a traffic signal.

Terry Wei, a spokeswoman for Waze, said the app benefited from a community of local volunteer editors who ensure that the maps stay up-to-date and reflect the local law.

While a number of communities have devised strategies like turn restrictions and speed humps that affect all motorists, Leonia’s move may be the most extreme response.

Leonia plans to issue residents yellow tags to hang in their cars, and nonresidents who use the streets in the morning and afternoon will face $200 fines. Its Police Department has already alerted the major traffic and navigation apps to the impending changes, which will take effect on Jan. 22 from 6 to 10 a.m., and from 4 to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Some residents outside Leonia have chafed at the impending street closings, posting variously snarky and incredulous comments on news sites like NJ.com: “Terrible, shortsighted idea. How about the rest of N.J. fines Leonia residents for using all the other roads in the state?”

Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, pointed out that the state has ultimate authority over local roads. “I’d rather they put up temporary barriers,” he said. “To give people summonses who might be lost or might be frantic trying to get to an appointment on time — I do worry about this type of strategy. Every town can decide that we don’t want certain people to come through our community.”