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.
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.