Are you a Wazer? I'm now a Wazer. Last week I Wazed my way around Los Angeles, my first time experiencing the Israeli-made navigation app just purchased by Google for $1 billion.
With its crowd-sourced data that alerts drivers to construction, accidents and other road nightmares, could it really rid my life of L.A.'s infamous traffic jams?
It's Friday afternoon, nearly six o'clock, in Beverly Hills. I need to pick up a smoke machine from Siren Studios in Hollywood, and a pretend rifle from a prop store on Venice Boulevard, for a photo shoot Saturday morning. With closing time at seven, it's a mission I would expect to fail even with a police escort. Yet today I am steaming through West Hollywood as if by osmosis, guided by Waze.
No gridlocked Santa Monica Boulevard for me, as my path across the city looks like the app's quarterly sales chart, zigzagging northeast on an unstoppable purple arrow.
Here's how it works: Users report traffic jams and accidents to the smartphone app, which helps it to re-route you to a faster path. "It's like a personal heads-up from a few million of your friends on the road," its website says. In L.A. it results in romantic sojourns along empty side streets littered with newspaper and detritus, swapping the city's clogged major arteries for her smaller capillaries. Once the app took me through the Beverly Hilton parking lot to get to my office, during my daily horror-commute from Hollywood to the Westwood Gateway on Santa Monica Blvd. near the 405.
I admit, the interface feels like a video game made for quirky Tokyo teenagers, rather than a serious tool. Other Waze users and their cars appear on your map like cartoonish avatars; the logo for upcoming traffic looks like little caterpillars; and crashes are displayed with Batman-style "Ouch!" bubbles. I was especially annoyed to pick up a cartoon "candy" bonus on the corner of Melrose and Robertson.
But I scoop up my smoke machine just in time, crossing WeHo in a supernaturally fast 20 minutes, helped by 7,015 Wazer pals.
The real joy of the app is that you whiz along, watching non-Wazers stuck on parallel streets, doing what L.A. people do in traffic: Rapping, shaving or scarfing frozen yogurt. I once saw a woman giving herself a facial on Veteran -- a full green facemask. I know it is verboten for a blow-in like myself to complain about L.A. traffic, but I have idled in some of the world's worst gridlock: my native London's curséd M25 motorway; the Ratchdamri Road, Bangkok; rush hour Mumbai. Yet nothing compares to a West L.A. morning.
But now my fellow commuters are no longer the enemy. The Waze website says, "Nothing can beat real people working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic." And, as I discovered, by being of service to others (reporting construction or PT Cruisers on fire) and showing gratitude instead of resenting other drivers, the result is a calmer drive and good road-Karma. On Saturday, a fellow Wazer tipped me off about a radar-toting traffic cop hiding in a bush in the Valley. We gave each other a digital high-five -- two anonymous strangers, united in beating an evil speed trap.
The idea of this free app is rooted in nature. Fish travel in large schools because a thousand pairs of eyes are better than one at spotting something naughty like a hungry barracuda. If honeybees return to the hive with pollen and find a traffic jam at the hive entrance, other bees inside the hive help open the bottleneck.
By seven o'clock my errands are complete and I'm headed home, following secret routes that only a native would know: Malcolm Avenue in West L.A. is a race track; Selma cuts a cheeky corner off Sunset that saves 10 glorious minutes. In fact, my morning commute is now 25 minutes, not 45. Obama doesn't drive this quickly through Los Angeles.
I do have one suggestion to developers: Wazers score points for tip-offs and traffic reports, but these points should translate into real-world prizes like gas discounts or frozen yogurt. I've earned 8,914 points in my first week. I should get a facial.
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