The way people move and experience urban roads are usually governed by practices, primarily produced by drivers, policymakers, city planners, and laws and regulations.
However, advancements in technology-enabled transportation, such as using big data and algorithms to plan and optimize things, have led to new platforms that can generate new knowledge about the city, which are increasingly becoming used to govern traffic and mobility. Deciding which roads human drivers use — here we notice overriding the right traditionally upheld by humans. Theoretically, it is called the right to the production of space, the concept borrowed from Henri Lefebvre’s theories about urban space. In other words, this algorithmic spatiality caused by navigational apps, such as Waze, has taken over many drivers’ rights in deciding which routes to take.
Talking about the case of Waze, the app suggests new ways to look based on the current conditions of roads and traffic. It can divert heavy traffic to side roads that have seen lower traffic. Creating a new spatial reality might conflict with what the people got used to experiencing. Later, we will discuss how algorithms that create this knowledge could have a long-term impact on social power and contribute directly to (re)producing urban space, neglecting the existing realities.
As a part of long-established practices, urban digital products are responsible for representing space. For example, digital maps are designed to show cities’ paths, points, and landmarks, which usually happen by contributions from Architects, policymakers, city planners, and others. With the emergence of platforms and algorithms, we started seeing digital actors shape space to represent new knowledge created by them with no or little visibility on what and how this knowledge operates. Even more, in that way, we started thinking that urban space represents digital products, not the other way around!
“We cannot say that code represents space any more than we can determine that space would be a simple representation of the code.”Kitchin and Dodge, 2014
Waze acts as an exemplar of this digital/space entanglement. It creates a new politics of space, and one crucial aspect of this politics is related to the notion of ‘rights’ — taking it to spatial context, we can say it includes ‘the right to the city.’ The fundamental rights usually have been upheld by different human actors; actors could be political (municipalities), economic (city developers), professional (planners and architects), and local experts (residents).
In the case of Waze, residents worldwide have criticized its algorithmic approach to the city. Their critique is that Waze diverts traffic to inner neglect neglecting the existing social settings, and disrupts sustainable urban reality by turning peaceful local neighborhoods into hurly-burly areas. In contrast, human agents such as city planners might consider contextual and historical social concomitances when proposing a change in urban reality.
“Waze app is turning overnight… a quiet neighborhood into a major thruway”Levi-Weinrib, 2016
What makes things more controversial is when algorithms start directly affecting social and cultural realities, residents know little about how they work and why that change is proposed; it is seen as a black box. Consequently, Competition for their right to the city has been observed, but this time they are fighting non-human actors.
Residents resorted to a course of reactive actions in the neighborhoods affected by Waze, trying to reduce its impact on the city. From using social media to propose filing a class-action lawsuit against Waze. And more, others physically blocked roads to prevent algorithms from recommending their roads to drivers and using the Waze app to report fake accidents on surrounding roads to make the app falsely account for their roads being blocked.
What is seen from these events is that residents were trying to reassert their right to the city primarily in two ways — First, they reasserted that this spatial challenge is communal and collective, not personal, despite the algorithm providing route recommendations on private and personal space. Second, residents resisted digital media and its impact physically rather than virtually by turning the struggle back to the physical world. Here, residents tapped into dimensions of space that Waze has almost no way to access, the ground!
“It is common knowledge that public roads are by construction open to everyone”Waze, 2018
Waze’s response to residents’ appeal underlines that the right to use the roads is universal, and residents have no superior rights over local roads. This language of legality and rights shapes Waze’s tenet of dealing with residents’ accusations. Not only does Waze subscribe that directing traffic jams to a side road is ‘legal,’ but they also went beyond that by delegitimizing residents’ claims. They say the Waze app distributes traffic jams more equally.
Furthermore, they hinted at the ‘hidden agenda’ of residents who try to exacerbate the ‘unequal distribution’ of traffic jams by keeping them away from their backyard. Furthermore, Waze argues that they are creating a more egalitarian space and more efficient and convenient roads, perhaps not personally, but common to all users, not as the cause of the heavy traffic.
To wrap up, we have seen an example of how the impact is beyond the online space; it involves the offline space. And how the spatial knowledge created by Waze led to clashes between the platform and local actors in the space affected by this new knowledge. The competition is on who owns the right to the city, which was presented by the resistance of the local citizens to the new spatial reality created by Waze. Either on the platform or physically on the ground with the legal system. And how Waze defended its right to produce the space used by the claim; it improves traffic conditions for everyone.