A Penny War Drives Delhi's Deadly Streets

One of Delhi’s many Blueline buses. Photo by vm2827 of Flickr.

On October 27th one of Delhi’s Blueline buses, widely referred to as “killer buses,” struck and killed a young boy of just 11 years, the 100th pedestrian to be killed by an errant Blueline bus this year. Days before the boy’s death, a Blueline bus struck two cyclists, both carpenters returning from work, leaving one dead and the other injured. Following the incident an angry mob torched the bus in protest, but the driver came away unscathed, having fled the scene of the collision. He has since been arrested, as have many of the other Blueline drivers who have been involved in the numerous deaths plaguing Delhi’s streets.

In an effort to crack down on collisions, the police are now impounding buses driven in a reckless manner and arresting rouge drivers. But is this enough to make Blueline buses safe for the city streets? Or is there something systemic going on here that pressures the drivers to behave recklessly? After all, buses run by the state, which pays drivers a fixed wage, have only caused upwards of 25 deaths this year, a mere fraction of those caused by Blueline.

Doing a little bit of research I’ve learned that Blueline is engaged in what transportation planners call “The Penny War,” or the cut throat competition to pick up as many passengers as possible in order to maximize profits. Simply put, it’s a clear cut case of perverse incentives. When drivers are paid based on the number of passengers they pick up it’s in their rational self-interest to speed, cut people off, and weave through traffic just to pick up that extra passenger, especially when profits are so meager that every passenger counts. Needless to say, it’s this reckless driving that causes so many accidents. Mahesh Kumar, a Blueline driver puts in succinctly, telling the New York Times that, “We have to drive fast to earn more money.”

It’s as simple as that.

Stay tuned, Dario Hidalgo will be writing a follow up to this piece to explain what can be done to change the incentive structure and make “The Penny War” a thing of the past. But if you want to hear his ideas now, can you check out his paper that explains how Bogota, Colombia overcame a similar problem through the implementation of a BRT system.

Oh, there’s also a Blueline bus blog, if you’re interested.

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