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I'm not good with directions. If it's possible to get lost going somewhere, there's an incredibly good chance I will. Navigation apps changed my entire driving experience. It made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing on the highway. I shudder to remember trips with my family relying half on road signs and half on a map we bought at a gas station.

I've used Google Maps more than once to find a quicker way to get home to beat rush hour or to find an alternate route around an accident. So, it was a big surprise to find that my beloved navigation apps might be making traffic worse.

The most recent reports of road congestion possibly due to navigation apps came out of Atlanta, Georgia.

The UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation released a study connecting the rise of "cut-through" traffic and related congestion to the increased usage of navigation apps. The study called the increase an instantaneous phenomenon and a trend.

SEE: Google Maps app is getting more Waze traffic report features that people love

The study theorized what would happen to traffic with a computer simulation. One set of drivers weren't using navigation and twenty percent of the other set was. The researchers watched two roads before and after a virtual accident was cleaned up.

The road with the drivers not using navigation cleared up faster than the road with drivers who were using apps, the study found. The drivers using apps tended to reroute around the traffic instead of waiting it out.

The decision to reroute in the model caused traffic build up on off ramps and bottlenecking on the side roads. Intersections couldn't recover, and there was still residual traffic after the accident was cleared, researchers noted.

"The situation then gets much worse because hundreds of people just like you want to go on the side streets, which were never designed to handle the traffic," Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies told the Atlantic. "So, now, in addition to congesting the freeway, you've also congested the side streets and the intersections."

Bayen and his team noticed that the increased usage of navigation apps correlated with seeing traffic jams where there previously hadn't been. California residents talked to Bayen's team about increased traffic volume in their neighborhoods.

"The way a traffic app works is it routes you selfishly towards your destination as fast as possible, but it does not take into account the effect you have on the system," Bayen said.

About 77 percent of smartphone owners regularly use navigation apps, and 87 percent of smartphone users said they mostly use the apps for directions.

Researchers are prepared with solutions because the odds of navigation apps disappearing are slim to none. Bayen said adding stop signs, changing the mirroring lights, and alternating urban infrastructure can help jurisdictions avoid some of the traffic issues caused by these apps.

Matthew Glasser, Georgia Department of Transportation traffic engineer told WSB-TV in Atlanta that retiming traffic lights has helped congestion and crowdsourced information from the apps helps to anticipate traffic patterns.

Winding up in bumper-to-bumper traffic is probably one of the worst parts of anyone's morning -- especially if you're already late. What's more irritating is once you get to to the "source" of the traffic jam, and it was merely a police cruiser idling on the side of the road or two random cars pulled off on the shoulder. I think reevaluating infrastructure is a good idea, but what will city officials do about other human behavior afterwards?

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Takeaways

  1. Researchers found evidence supporting the idea that the increased usage of navigation apps might be causing more traffic problems because drivers reroute to side roads.
  2. Since the research team doesn't anticipate people stopping app usage, they're suggesting jurisdictional changes like retiming traffic lights and adding stop signs.

Also see

Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.