I love Waze. I am sorry if that sounds like a product endorsement (especially now that the app has been bought by Google), but not only does this navigation app get you from where you are to where you need to go while defying traffic jams and other obstructions, but it also lets you discover whole new aspects of your urban landscape. And, if I am being optimistic, recent news that cities are collaborating with Waze to collect real-time data makes me think that we can use this technology to take back some measure of control over our landscape while streamlining government—unless the development actually means that Big Brother/Sister is coming close to coopting crowdsourcing.

When I used to live in Los Angeles, I prided myself on my local knowledge, which allowed me to thread myself from Venice, past the Santa Monica Airport, through residential streets, and up into Beverly Hills without ever getting stuck on freeways or arterial boulevards. Now Waze does it for me. I recently had to go from USC to Marina del Rey, a trip that would have taken at least 40 minutes using the freeways. Waze sent me winding past residential neighborhoods I had never seen, along the way discovering a road lined with majestic cypress trees and a hilly community tucked away behind shopping malls. I saw old movie theaters and high schools of great beauty, and found myself at my destination in 20 minutes.

In Chicago, I had to get to O’Hare Airport from the city’s northeastern fringes. Waze sent me slicing through another set of industrial and residential areas, with the added treat that I had a glimpse of the original McDonald’s. I passed under highways turned into parking lots as I sped to the airport, arriving with time to spare and a sense of how neighborhoods and parks had nestled themselves between the city’s radial diagonals. I have had similar experiences in New York, where Waze lets all of us experience the collage of different ethnic neighborhoods that make up the outer boroughs in a way that only seasoned cabbies were formerly able to do, and in smaller communities where the app takes you through hill and dale rather than on state roads’ successions of big box retail establishments.

Screenshots from the Waze app.
Courtesy Waze Screenshots from the Waze app.

Waze, in other word, is a disciplined and functional version of the dérive, or purposeless wander so fashionable among certain artists, writers, and architects. That might seem like a contradiction, as the whole point of the derive is to not get anywhere fast, but this shortcutting does have the effect of slicing open unknown worlds, if even for a few quick glances from the car. It is true, you are in a cocoon, safe from whatever perceived dangers of the neighborhoods through which you travel, or the horror of getting lost, or of wasting time, or even of getting a speeding ticket (drivers ahead of you warn you of traps), but at least this program gets you off the straight and narrow.

My idea of the ideal combination is Waze and a good, old-fashioned map. Maps let you understand the totality of places: the relationship between the natural and the human-made landscape, patterns of development evident in areas of density and focal points in neighborhoods, zoning patterns, and the rhythms of an urban area. Ironically, such maps are hard to find because of the ubiquity of way finding technology; when we moved to Phoenix this spring, we had to order one online.

My dream is that Waze could extend to be a way of knowing a place. Perhaps soon its technology will automatically pop up information (in addition to whether there is a stalled car ahead) about buildings, the history of a community, or even local flora and fauna. Then maybe Waze can go inside, and help us find our way through the mazes of hospitals, shopping malls, or even municipal planning departments.