why delhi’s buses are so deadly: an economic analysis

Both the Hindustan Times and the Times of India publish a running tally of how many people are killed each year by Delhi’s Blueline, those rickety private buses that prowl the city streets like wolves in a horror movie. Despite the volume with which they roar down the street—you hear them coming from a quarter-mile away—they still manage to pounce on an astounding number of victims. At least 115 people were killed by Blueline buses in 2008.

A Blueline bus during last year’s monsoon.

The Blueline’s grim numbers stem entirely from two perverse economic incentives: the driver’s salary is wholly dependant on how many fares he picks up, and each bus is in direct competition with every other bus on the route.

The Blueline buses are privately-owned, not city-run. While a city-run service would prioritize getting its citizens from A to B, a private driver is less focused on customer service than on overtaking the next bus down the road. After all, the faster he drives, the more competitors he passes, the more passengers he picks up, and the more money he makes.

The safer he drives, the more buses will pass him, and the less money he earns.

Blueline buses are not typically driven by their owners. Instead, thousands of drivers rent their buses from a smaller group of owners at a cost of three or four thousand rupees a day plus maintenance. With passengers paying between two and ten rupees a ride, drivers are forced to pick up a few hundred people before they can even begin to consider buying lunch.

Which is why the last thing a Blueline driver ever wants to do is come to a stop. Every move he makes is done with the intent of keeping the bus in motion: slowing just enough so debarking passengers can jump off, then picking up speed as the new passengers run alongside the bus, swinging themselves up and in as the conductor screams at them to hurry. And before the last passenger is fully aboard (sometimes pulled in by his fellow passengers), the driver is already shifting gears, spewing mocking black smoke at hapless would-be passengers still running after the bus, and bulldozing the bus back into traffic.

Some Blueline buses are so rusty that their side panels have holes in them. Their brakes squeal, their headlights don’t work, and their tires are balding and patchy. This, again, is economics: the driver has no incentive to invest in a bus, so a bus is driven until parts fail. Everyone involved hopes the failure is not catastrophic—if wheels have to detach, let’s hope they do so at low speeds—but preventative maintenance is not really in anyone’s economic interest.

With one hand on the wheel and the other triggering the horn (the one part of the bus that *is* kept in good repair) the driver invokes Ganesha for luck and Lakshmi for money and every other god in the pantheon for keeping families on scooters out of their way. But with an estimated 2,200 Blueline buses careening across Delhi on any given day, it’s no wonder the newspaper reports are almost identical every day. After an accident, the driver tries to flee, an angry mob beats him, the police impound the bus, the driver is thrown in jail, the owner of the bus is not mentioned. Sometimes the driver escapes, in which case the mob finds its release in setting fire to the bus.

And while the Delhi government has pledged to replace the Blueline with modern city-run buses in time for the Commonwealth Games, newspapers report of a cabal of “powerful people” who own the majority of the Bluelines, and who aren’t going to let the city cut them out of the transit racket quite so easily.

All of which is to say: look both ways. Or maybe just don’t cross the street.

38 responses to “why delhi’s buses are so deadly: an economic analysis

  1. No wonder Dave insisted he walk to the book store with me! Didn’t know I was taking my life in my hands

  2. There’s a ” (double-quote) at the end of each link which results in a “page not found” message.

    It’s not just the economics of the business that causes this problem. The real issue is the corruption which results in laws and regulations being ignored. It’s possible that the same “powerful owners” actually manage to get the drivers off without any penalties at the end of the day and this is something that nobody bothers to track.

  3. jenny and dave

    Thanks Rajesh — we fixed all the links. Shame on us!

  4. I just spent the last couple of hours going through your blog, and I love it! Makes me very homesick:)

  5. Maybe just liberalize fares and end the license-quota-permit raj. That way you will have more Bus/Transport Companies with a stake in maintaining their brand value.

  6. Why not provide strong disincentives to the driver to prevent deaths?

  7. Maybe each death will financially ruin driver and owner.. then they would think twice before being reckless

  8. I don’t think this is a private vs city run problem. There are a lot of private buses running in Mumbai too, but none of them are as reckless.

  9. @chica: Mumbai does not have private buses for intra-city transport.

    The argument being made here is about the incentive-penalty system. There’s large incentive and little penalty for private bus drivers.

  10. Nice post.

    I’m in Bangalore and Delhi doing research on transportation systems. From the DTC / Delhi Govt. people that I’ve talked to it doesn’t seem like they will be taking over all of the buses. Political winds change and they will throw it out to the private companies.

    For the time being they are going to be reducing the number of vendors and standardizing the requirements for vehicles and attempting to regulate – but they will not reduce the number of privately owned vehicles. There is no political will for this.

    By reducing the number of vendors, they are hoping to have more control. In Delhi, there are few driver-owned buses, most are owned by a company and leased to drivers for the say.

    How I see it, there are several issues in play:
    1.) Yes. Private buses make more money if they drive insanely fast and break traffic rules. Viva the Indian entrepreneur and capitalism!
    2.) Younger drivers / Younger conductors on the private lines ensure that shit gets out of line quick. Older DTC (government) employees have a kush job not to lose.
    3.) Might makes right on the roads here. In crowded urban areas, buses are the top of the food chain.
    4.) There is minimal enforcement oversight to keep private buses in line. Combine that with little individual / or company responsibility – potent.

    Regarding Disincentives – The operator will be torn apart by a mob if he is involved in any sort of serious incident. That is why absconding is so popular. This is India (and Delhi in particular) so don’t expect enforced anything.


  11. Seems a perfect analogy for the American health care system.

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  13. I am back in Delhi after a 3 year stay in the US. As an Indian I must comment that the lack of political will, corruption and low community empathy and civic involvement by not just those in the power but also those who put them in power is what constrains India’s real growth. Why just the Blue Lines – look at the way ordinary citizens in their shiny metallic boxed cars try to zip and zig zag across the roads, blow their horns like their life depends on it and scowl and fume at the traffic cops and lights! I believe we should not just offer technical education that teaches skills to be successful in a job but also teach how to behave responsibly and show genuine courtesy and respect to other humans on the street and elsewhere. The day India’s schools would do that and people would genuinely learn…Amen!!!

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  15. Great post!

    In Hong Kong, we too have an armada of private buses whose red tops are hard to miss and whose drivers also are given similar financial incentives to transport dangerously. However, I think the difference in Hong Kong’s case is the fact that the mafia by and large regulates this underground industry, resulting in less furious competition and perhaps, improved safety on the roads.

  16. Unless you’re downtown, there aren’t a lot of crosswalks and traffic signals. I’m sure a lot of the victims were jaywalking. What can be done about this?

  17. I feel quite the same. I wrote a blog entry exactly 2 years back on the same thing. Do read it.(http://ftsforever.blogspot.com/2007/07/who-dare-climbs.html) . Its saddening, things have not changed much since then.

  18. “the driver is already shifting gears, spewing mocking black smoke at hapless would-be passengers still running after the bus,”

    Poetic, but buses in Delhi have been running on CNG for a decade now. Black smoke has been done away with.

  19. “Which is why the last thing a Blueline driver ever wants to do is come to a stop. Every move he makes is done with the intent of keeping the bus in motion: slowing just enough so debarking passengers can jump off, then picking up speed as the new passengers run alongside the bus, swinging themselves up and in as the conductor screams at them to hurry. And before the last passenger is fully aboard (sometimes pulled in by his fellow passengers), the driver is already shifting gears, spewing mocking black smoke at hapless would-be passengers still running after the bus, and bulldozing the bus back into traffic.”

    Is this based on actual observations? I commute by bus between South, West and North Delhi. I wouldn’t ascribe this behaviour to private bus drivers on those routes.

  20. … a keen observation, wonderfully insightful …this needs to be in newsprint so more people can read it and am crossing my finger that maybe some honest powerful person might do something about it. The so called “powerful people” are none other than the local councillors and MLAs. This can be dealt with by inflicting a huge economic blow to these irresponsible citizens by starting a private company owned transportation system (like the philanthropic TATAs) where these can drive the bluelines out of business. JUST KILL THE BLUELINES.

  21. jenny and dave

    @Abhijit “Black smoke has been done away with.”

    Fair point. I got carried away with my adjectives. The smoke is kind of whiteish gray. Thanks for the clarification. And regards to your other point: my most common place to observe this was on MG Road heading south just after the sharp left turn around Qutb Minar, just after the gas station. There’s a big, busy bus stop right there where I saw that behavior all the time.

  22. Superb writeup ! I have recently moved back to Delhi after a 11 year gap ( was in Pune/Bangalore/hyderabad), and man, is the traffic frightening !

  23. Why is nobody mentioning Kolkata? The situation there is still worse than Delhi.

  24. I think you got one thing wrong — the Delhi buses definitely do not spew black smoke, since the entire fleet runs on CNG, the conversion having been forced on them by the Supreme Court a few years ago.
    The same thing happens in Kolkata… not so many deaths, though. First, because we don’t have Delhi’s wide roads. Second, Kolkata’s people are much more proactive in lynching the driver, burning the vehicle etc. Third, in Delhi, when you try to cross the road, the vehicles coming your way will actually speed up. But in this communist city, any person can simple hold up a hand and cross the road at will.
    We do have some state-owned bus services — their drivers simply drive the mandated number of trips from point a to b, without really worrying about picking up passengers (depends on the individual drivers). But they don’t kill. The much-feared traffic sergeants of Kolkata Police don’t touch them because they are scared of the unions.
    Coming back to your comment on road deaths, the government in Kolkata had tried to bring killer drivers under non-bailable sections of the penal code that deal with “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”. (At present, the driver is booked under bailable sections relating to rash driving.) This sparked great outrage from the Left unions and the move died!

  25. With 2,200 buses driving around the city at any moment it’s hard to acknowledge that 115 deaths is really that much.
    How many people bus related deaths happens in other cities around the word?

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  35. Jun 30, 2006· who states in which discount rooms in hotels are only offered by shabby hotels after some imagination along with a great deal of patience, an individual publication a room in the classy …Delhi

  36. More than 200 people dead due to the rush driving on Blue line bus drivers. Need to keep speed limit and medical test of drivers. Also attach all buses via gprs same like private taxis in Delhi so police can also track every bus sitution. It helps to reduce accidents.

  37. Great info. Lucky me I discovered your website by chance
    (stumbleupon). I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

  38. Gilbert Gustavo

    Buses are slow and have really expensive tickets. I often see alternative routes that site (http://nycbusroutes.com), but I’m riding anymore than by bus.

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