LEONIA, N.J. – A small town near the world's busiest bridge is putting up the "keep out" sign for motorists seeking a shortcut to it, the latest example of the effects navigation apps are having on communities located near major chokepoints.
As a response to apps like Waze and Apple Maps that reroute some of the tens of thousands of vehicles headed to the George Washington Bridge each morning, Leonia on Monday started barring the use of side streets to non-residents during the morning and evening commutes. Violators could face $200 fines.
Local officials and police have said the decision isn't a hasty one and they've done extensive studies of traffic patterns.
Police Chief Thomas Rowe said studies have shown more than 2,000 vehicles often pass through town from just one of the three exits off Interstate 95. The town has about 9,200 residents and a police force of 18.
The three exits off a major highway and the proximity to the bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, and New York City, put the town "in a unique situation here," Rowe said. "We are a small town in a very busy area with a very small police force."
Other towns have taken similar steps. Fremont, California, north of San Jose, implemented turn restrictions during commuting hours, and several towns in the Boston area have redirected traffic or are seeking permission to do so.
Maria Favale, who has lived in Leonia for nearly 30 years, said she tried to get to her church one morning through the congested downtown and nearly gave up.
Standing outside the borough hall Monday, she noticed a marked difference: fewer cars.
"I don't know if it's because it's the first day and people are worried about tickets, but it's been great," Favale said.
More than 140,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, most during commuting hours, and when there is an accident, lane closure or other problem, it has a ripple effect. On one such day in 2014, a woman in Leonia was struck and dragged by a school bus and later died.
Leonia is about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the George Washington Bridge, where aides to Republican then-Gov. Chris Christie were accused of deliberately closing access lanes and causing traffic jams in 2013 to spite the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing him. Christie denied any knowledge of the scheme, but three people close to him either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
Leonia's traffic problems have been exacerbated in the last several years as navigation apps have exploded in popularity. The apps are programmed to send motorists to faster routes, not necessarily with regard for where those routes go, Rowe said.
"Sometimes I think they need to do a better job of seeing whether a road is suitable for cut-through traffic," he said.
That said, Rowe said Waze has been "extremely helpful and extremely cooperative" and has changed its app to reflect the road closures.
A Waze spokeswoman didn't return a message seeking comment Monday.
Rowe said his officers initially will give motorists warnings but eventually will begin writing tickets.
Some critics have questioned the legality of the street restrictions but are waiting to see how the plan shakes out. Rowe said the town has done its homework and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Virginia case involving parking restrictions appears to support Leonia's stance.
Steve Carrellas, New Jersey representative of the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group, disagreed.
"They may be able to do something, but not as extreme as they're doing," he said.
Leonia's plan has struck a chord around the world: Rowe and Mayor Judah Zeigler have fielded interview requests from France and Canada and from the major television networks.
Road crews have been putting "Do Not Enter" signs on about 60 side streets in town. Residents are exempted from the restrictions if they display yellow tags hanging from their rearview mirrors.
Rowe said if his officers never write one ticket, he'd be happy.
"Hopefully it will change people's driving behavior," he said. "That's the goal here."