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What if we could reduce traffic congestion by 30 per cent in less than a year, without doing a damn thing? No multibillion-dollar subway systems, no major lifestyle changes. Just one-third less time spent sitting in traffic jams.

This is not the transportation-policy equivalent of a late-night weight-loss infomercial. This is, in fact, exactly what happened in most major urban areas in the United States last year.

Unfortunately, it required a stunning run-up in oil prices, followed by a worldwide economic collapse. But the results suggest that there is a less painful way to achieve the same results: "road pricing" or smartly implemented tolls for drivers.

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Last year, Americans drove 3 per cent fewer kilometres on urban interstate highways, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. The decline was initially clearly linked to higher gas prices.

In the second half of 2008, however, prices fell. But the recession started to bite, and layoffs meant more Americans had nowhere to go on weekday mornings, so the numbers did not bounce back up. While 3 per cent sounds small, even a tiny reduction can have a big effect on traffic congestion.

According to a study published by INRIX, a company that monitors U.S. GPS traffic data and feeds real-time congestion information to radio stations and services like OnStar, traffic congestion in major U.S. urban areas fell by 30 per cent in 2008.

INRIX measures congestion by comparing how much longer it takes to drive somewhere in rush hour than it would in the middle of the night when the road is pretty much empty. However, INRIX said its data show that in major U.S. cities in 2008, it took 9-per-cent longer to get somewhere in rush hour, down from 13-per- cent longer in 2007 - a 30-per-cent drop.

When roads are jammed to capacity, they are unstable, and traffic can freeze up dramatically with the slightest decrease in capacity, such as a disabled car.

Which brings us to tolls. If you charge tolls - as they do in Stockholm, London and a growing number of places - and charge more in rush hour, you will persuade some drivers to carpool or defer their trip to save a few bucks. Then, for a small fee, those who have to drive in rush hour get to keep moving.

Tolls would mimic the recession effect, but we would reap the benefits - better flowing traffic, less pollution - without the pain. The hundreds of millions in toll revenue could be used for public transit, or to maintain the roads, or both.

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It's not clear if this U.S. recession traffic effect is happening here. Statistics Canada numbers show a string of even larger declines in kilometres driven on our roads in 2008, no doubt because of gas prices. But we started driving more in the third quarter of last year. Some argue we should just raise gas taxes. If we had the guts to do this dramatically enough, European-style, some people would drive less. But it might not make as much difference to when we drive, which is key to unlocking congestion.

To do that, we need to make burning gas in rush hour, not just burning gas, more expensive. Only tolls will do that.

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