Government Shouldn't Be Suing Waze, It Should Emulate It

Government Shouldn't Be Suing Waze, It Should Emulate It
Art Gentile/Bucks County Courier Times via AP
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Driving in DC used to be a nightmare for me until Waze replaced stand still traffic with pleasant drives through picturesque neighborhoods. Unfortunately, residents may not feel a similar delight when they see my car. They’re weary of speeders, noise, and rudeness; and they're fighting back. (I would too, if I couldn't even back out of my driveway) And so, there are rumblings about forcing companies to be "accountable", holding them liable for traffic problems, and even preventing them from reporting certain routes. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we should not be doing.

Southern California Radio recently asked their listeners, "[H]ow could Los Angeles actually hold Waze accountable? What types of regulations should be put in place?" That's no surprise: How many times have you heard someone say, "there ought to be a law?" In a country where the federal code of regulations alone takes up ten shelves of the Library of Congress, this seems to be the conventional wisdom -- even more today than in the time of widespread, privately-run public transit. Back then, anti-trust and interstate commerce regulations forced electric companies to sell their street car lines. This destroyed the profit margin of the lines, which then had to buy electricity full price from their former parents. Labor laws increased expenses, and road subsidies in the Great Depression set up public transit for the kill. Rightly or wrongly, the automobile eventually became cheaper than public transit.

As if demanding we repeat past mistakes wasn’t enough, some want to drag navigation app makers into court. Aping a Tel Aviv suburb that sued Waze, Los Angeles Councilman Paul Krekorian goaded his city's transportation department into investigating Google and Apple's liability for "causing dangerous traffic conditions in certain neighborhoods." Krekorian may know who has the deepest pockets to empty, but it takes real nerve to imply that, somehow, these exemplars of innovation are "responsible" for desperate motorists taking shortcuts to save time they'll never get back -- or the infractions of bad drivers. Who ran public transit into the ground? Not Apple or Google. Who encourages high demand for the use of highways by not charging directly for their use, taxing us instead? Google's ads may annoy, but Google can't tax anyone. Google also can’t make someone pay for someone else to use a road. Nor does it limit the construction of new roads, causing their supply not to meet rising demand on "environmental" grounds, or for any other reason. All these companies are doing is publicizing which roads are navigable.

Worst of all are the calls from people -- using their freedom of speech – to deny that right to the app makers and to do what random vandals who feed false information to the apps can't: Force the apps to ignore sensitive parts of the street grid. This might lighten traffic – for a time, until someone shady puts out the information -- at the cost of depriving drivers of some relief. Worse, it normalizes the idea that government ought to be telling us what we can and can't say.

Although we'd have more control over our streets if they were privately owned, we aren't powerless: Through homeowners’ associations and local governments, there are already constructive solutions to the problem of unwanted traffic in residential neighborhoods, like gates, red light cameras, one-ways, and speed humps. And the apps accurately report these when they are used. Waze will help us if we help ourselves – as long as we keep it free to provide reliable reports.

It is wrong to lay the blame for neighborhood traffic on Waze, unjust to sue app makers, and a serious threat to individual rights to demand censorship, no matter how limited. Rather than regulating a side-effect -- serious though it may be -- of a creative solution to a government-caused problem, we should concentrate on the cause. We should emulate, not regulate Waze: Let’s seek out alternatives instead of sitting in the government-created gridlock of a centrally-planned and regulated transportation system. Many cities once had thriving streetcar systems. Homeowners' associations can be more responsive to neighborhoods than City Hall. Public infrastructure can be privatized and restrictions on the use of private property lifted. Most of all, we must remain free to discuss these alternatives.

Gus Van Horn frequently writes for Pajamas Media and Capitalism Magazine, plus he has his own eponmyous blog

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