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Could apps help ease traffic congestion or will only rush-hour tolls work?

FILE: Traffic on the northbound and southbound lanes of the 110 Harbor Freeway starts to stack up during rush-hour traffic on Feb. 5, 2013 in Los Angeles
FILE: Traffic on the northbound and southbound lanes of the 110 Harbor Freeway starts to stack up during rush-hour traffic on Feb. 5, 2013 in Los Angeles
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Drivers have been using apps like Waze and Google Maps to try to beat traffic for more than a decade now and in many places, gridlock has just gotten worse. But a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests navigation technology could help. 

The idea is to speed up traffic flow, not by reducing the number of cars on the roads, but by spreading them out on different routes.

Yannis Paschalidis, the study's lead author and a visiting professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, found that current traffic congestion levels could be cut in half simply by more evenly distributing cars on alternate routes.  

"The objective is for every user to minimize time on the road," Paschalidis said.

Most drivers choose their paths based on previous knowledge of what is most direct, not on the prevailing conditions at any given time.

Even those who use apps with access to current data, like Waze or Google Maps, are generally motivated by individual concerns and are not choosing routes based on what will help male traffic flow better for everyone else.

"When humans make decisions, we tend to be selfish. Whereas in the future, if machines are making decisions for us, there is potential for solutions that are more socially optimal than just individually optimal," he said. 

Paschalidis said apps or autonomous vehicles that route themselves could do a better job of looking at the traffic congestion holistically and spread it over different streets to collectively reduce congestion.

But not so fast, say some transportation experts like Matthew Turner. The Brown University professor helped author a study called "The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities."

Turner and others have found that any time officials free up more space on the road, say by building more lanes or spreading traffic onto different streets, congestion relief is only temporary. This is because easing congestion actually encourages people to drive more. 

"Maybe the catchier sentence is, 'If you build it, they will drive,'" Turner said.

He said the only proven way to reduce congestion is to charge higher tolls during rush hours, using what's known as congestion pricing.