the selfish solution to gridlock

The laws of physics suggest that two cars cannot possibly occupy the same point in space. But Delhi drivers regularly give it a shot anyway. Coming from opposite directions, two cars will both try to pass through the same intersection at the same time, sometimes ignoring traffic signals but often having none to ignore. Either way, when they meet in the middle, motion ceases. Gestures ensue.

Behind them, cars immediately begin to route around the obstruction. Which is fine—unless the subsequent cars meet and halt just like the initial cars. Suddenly the intersection becomes a jumble of too many cars occupying not enough space, with more cars halting and more cars still coming. Seconds later, autorickshaws and motorcycles eat up the space on the periphery, and the worst has happened: total gridlock.

Despite everyone’s best efforts to clear things up by honking their horns, nobody is going anywhere.

In the absence of traffic police to disentangle the mess, it seems like a hopeless situation. Unless everyone backs up as a unified collective, we’re all stuck. Self-interest got us into this mess; only collectivism can get is out.

Except in Delhi, self-interest suddenly solves the problem it created. In this city, there’s little incentive to obey traffic laws because there’s no one around to enforce them; but the system actually works even when the worst repercussion of the asphalt free-for-all comes to a head.

In these cases, heads begin to appear between the hoods and trunks.

Motivated by a meeting they wish to keep, men wade into the fray, examining the crystalline structure of the traffic, looking for gaps, irregularities, wiggle room. Because there’s always wiggle room. Six inches here, a foot there, and this makes all the difference. It’s reverse Tetris: move one this way, move another that way, and suddenly some cars are free.

The amazing thing is this: these men don’t coordinate their actions. They don’t formulate strategies. In fact, they probably think they’re working against each other—as passengers in trapped cars, they care about helping the other cars move only insofar as it helps get their own car on its way.

That was my motivation, at any rate, when I played gridlock warden at a t-shaped intersection a quarter-mile north of Hauz Khas Market. It was a standard scenario: two cars met froze in an intersection and others quickly clotted around them. My auto driver tried to work the periphery, but another car had the same idea coming from another direction, and soon we were boxed in.

Five minutes passed, and then ten. The honking did nothing. I considered paying the driver and walking beyond the jam, but I felt some sense bizarre of solidarity with him: I got him into this, I decided, and I was going to get him out.

I exited my auto and surveyed the situation. Possibilities materialized in my head. I mapped out moves like a game of chess—“If this car goes here, and that car goes there…”—and then I took action, standing in front of this car and pointing him that way, then standing in the hole he left until my auto driver could slip into it. Around me, other heads had appeared in the traffic, and the hole one of them created for their own car cascaded back to me. Using my gestures to move some cars and my body to block others, I worked us through the jam—me grinning, my driver grinning, other drivers staring, and still other drivers following behind my auto as he followed the path I blazed out of the jam.

As we pulled away, other cars followed us into the sweet freedom experienced only by bodies in motion. Until the next stoplight, at least.

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11 responses to “the selfish solution to gridlock

  1. You did that? Wow!

    Hats off to your Sir!

  2. Houston!! we have a situation here.A bottleneck .

  3. Totally true!! Happens in Mumbai too. Not to help others or with a resolution to rationalise the traffic situation; just to get your vehicle out of the matrix. The size of the jam does not reduce but the cars definitely get replaced, that too at a very fast rate.
    Sometimes, selfishness works way better than traffic cops and lights :)

  4. this is so true and so funny………..its the only way to enjoy a gridlock and am happy you stood by the auto driver…

  5. “Sometimes, selfishness works way better than traffic cops and lights”

    I’m not sure that’s the moral I would draw from this story.

  6. Wow…this is very impressive Dave. Though understand, only a white boy can pull this off in Delhi. No disrespect meant. We both know that if an Indian tried that, he’d get run over within a minute.

  7. I would not consider eventual escape from gridlock a resounding success. Might some courtesy have avoided the mess?

  8. I have been through that once in Mumbai and once near Pune.

    When all official help fails, self help is the best help.

  9. Well, in India nobody make really a plan for the future, but only act out of the actual situation. As a foreigner you can do nearly everything and it is some sort of accepted or at least it creates new situation, which are funny for the Indians and they start to love out of desperation.

    According to recent pictures I assume that there is today much more road traffic than back in 1997.

  10. You have such a way with words, believe me when I say once I started reading your piece I had to finish it …

    Have seen the situation many a times in Punjab also, people have absolutely no patience.

    Another crazy situation is at railroad crossings when the barrier is done. For some strange reason the Indian Railroads put the barrier down even when the train is no where to be seen.

    In the space of minutes the road on either side becomes a heaving mass of all types of vehicles, all honking pointlessly. Lanes are ignored & every available spot of the road is taken. Food sellers appear also, jostling for space with the vehicles.

    Soon, a previously peaceful part of the road resembles some kind of ‘Mela’.

    Occasionally, you’ll get some smart-alec scooter / cyclists who’ll find a gap in the gate & try to sneak through.

    Once the train starts going through the crossing, vehicles on both sides start revving their engines in (false ?) anticipation & a ‘me-first’ mentality.

    Suddenly, the barrier will go up & both sides are now free to do battle will more frantic horns, each attempting to get to the other side 1st …

    ‘Yeh Hai Hamara Bharat’ – Long may it prosper !

    Asli Jat

  11. Lol.. Im sure the drivers were gaping at you and the auto driver grinning at the irony of the situation – Gora dissipating traffic! :D

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