Delhi’s deadly Blueline comes to… New York City?

About a year ago, I wrote an essay explaining why Delhi’s Blueline bus fleet (the privately-owned menace that scores a yearly death count rivaling a Stallone movie) was so deadly. It was economics, I theorized: each bus driver is in competition with every other driver on his route, which means his biggest incentive is to pass the bus in front of him; reckless driving and shattered lives inevitably follow. But for the many areas of Delhi not served by the Metro and underserved by public buses, there’s no other economical option.

This system is not unique to Delhi.

A recent New York Times article showed that Delhi’s Blueline is simply one (admittedly extreme) example of a worldwide municipal phenomenon. And this pattern seems to spontaneously replicate itself wherever a few initial conditions come into existence: high population density, poor public transit, private leeway to address public failings, and weak government oversight. Including, as it turns out, New York City.

Yup, I used the same picture last time, too.

The Times article was about the rise in competition, violence, and recklessness among the private vans that ferry passengers to and from New York neighborhoods that mass transit doesn’t quite satisfy. As in Delhi, the city nominally regulates this system: the routes are predetermined, licenses are required, and rules do exist. But like Delhi, the system has evolved faster than it can be controlled — and it’s begun to assemble itself into the shape and structure that Delhi has taken to the extreme.

Commuter vans are a familiar sight in many city neighborhoods, linking parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx not served by subway lines to subway stations and also to the financial district in Manhattan and to a large mall in Nassau County. The routes, which are defined by the city’s Transportation Department, are meant to supplement the public transit system, not compete with it, though that is not always the case.

There are nearly 300 van drivers in New York who abide by the rules, paying thousands of dollars a year in licensing fees and insurance. They are outnumbered by hundreds of drivers who work the same routes, but have no permits and no insurance, and whose numbers have increased as the economy has soured.

Picture from the New York Times.

I rarely saw these vans when I lived in New York; I was always lucky enough to live near the subway. The one time I distinctly remember seeing them was in 2004, on a crowded strip of Flatbush Avenue, far beyond the parts of Flatbush I normally traveled. We’d just moved back from London, and I was driving to return the U-Haul Jenny and I had rented to move out of storage. The reason these deep Brooklyn vans stuck in my mind is because they appeared almost identical to what we’d seen on a visit to Cairo a few months prior to that moment. In both Cairo and now in New York, the vans idled curbside, half-full of passengers, with competing drivers shouting in rapid-fire slang the names of their destinations. I couldn’t make sense of what they were shouting — like in Cairo, and like I’d come to see in Delhi, the system had evolved its own vernacular.

To support this point, I just read this article about Cairo’s “microbus” system. If you change “microbus” for “Blueline” they might as well be talking about Delhi:

Microbus drivers! The very words elicits disapproving reactions from taxi drivers, private car drivers, pedestrians and the municipal authorities, police and the traffic authority. The reactions range from suspicion to open hostility and even envy. Taxi drivers complain that microbus drivers compete to pick up passengers, speed, and therefore are among the leading causes of accidents. Microbus drivers generally constitute a major menace to public well-being and safety in their view.

A microbus in Cairo. Image by Flickr user richardavis.

Cairo, Delhi, New York — if I’ve come across these systems in my own travels, then they surely must be assembling anywhere there are lots of people, few transit options, and limited government intervention into private solutions. These are spontaneously identical structures, these disparate fledgling Bluelines; the desires of commuters and of drivers independently assemble into mirror systems. And they set in motion predictable effects. From the New York Times:

Anthony Henry’s commuter van rolled west along Merrick Boulevard in Queens, packed nearly to capacity with nine passengers. It was 6:50 on a Friday morning, and the path ahead of him was clear until suddenly it wasn’t: A van with a wobbly left rear tire, illegally plying the same route, burst in from a side street and barely cleared a car parked at the corner to pull ahead of Mr. Henry.

“Look at this guy right there, picking up my passengers,” Mr. Henry, 47, said, clicking his tongue as the van swooped to the curb and scooped up two people waiting. “It’s a war out there.”

Compare that to the article about Cairo:

Last month there was a particularly nasty accident on the Corniche at one of the main entrances to the suburb of Maadi, eight kilometres south of Cairo. Survivors said they had asked the driver several times to slow down. Belongings were strewn across the street. Mercifully, the death toll was not high, but two lives were lost, and several passengers sustained serious injuries after the bus swerved off the road. Few emerged from the incident unscathed. Survivors said the driver took the curve too fast, trying to race ahead of another microbus alongside.

In each city, each driver on the route is in competition with every other driver on the route. Sound familiar? The Times’ article hints at the danger, destruction, and fatalities New York’s version could eventually come to:

… Beyond a financial threat, their legal competitors say the unlicensed van drivers are a growing safety menace. “They’ll run red lights, they’ll drive against traffic, they’ll cut you off.”

A Blueline during rush hour. Image by Flickr user parveennegi1979.

When I wrote my essay last year, Delhi was pledging to eliminate the Blueline in time for the Commonwealth Games. A quick look into the status of that pledge reveals setbacks, if not outright failure. It’s not surprising: the same pressures that drive Delhi’s death toll have also made a few men extremely rich, and busting a cartel is difficult even in the best of circumstances.

There’s a lesson here. Order has to be imposed before the system moves to the next phase: consolidation of power.

In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see if New York’s media evolves a response to this stimulus to mirror the way Delhi’s media has. This, too, is a self-replicating pattern of response: outrage stokes sales. If New York City were to continue in Delhi’s extreme direction, you could expect the New York Post to start publishing a dramatic daily death count of its own.

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10 responses to “Delhi’s deadly Blueline comes to… New York City?

  1. I’m pretty sure I saw this in Boston’s chinatown, but I can’t be sure… all I know is a lot of people were shouting and a lot of other people were sittting in vans looking bored

  2. Dave,
    The reason why deaths happen due to these blueline buses in delhi a lot more is not just due to the way these businesses are run and the competition. Its due to poor law enforcement and an inefficient judiciary. There are far too many hit-and-run cases where the drivers are never caught, the owners of the bus are not charged with a case (thanks to their political connections), and if they are, we all know what happens to cases in indian courts. What are the chances of that happening in NY, where every driver has a license issued by the state, cameras everywhere, and neither the driver nor the private van owners can get away as rampantly as blueline drivers and owners do in india? Its not so much the order imposed on the business that prevents these accidents to happen, as much as it is the general traffic law enforcement. If a hit-and-run case happens, the probability of the person who committed the crime getting caught and conviction in court is very high. That fact acts as a deterrent to the drivers as well as the owners of the businesses. In india, since one can get away with it more often than not, it happens a lot more.

  3. Beyond a financial threat, their legal competitors say the unlicensed van drivers are a growing safety menace. “They’ll run red lights, they’ll drive against traffic, they’ll cut you off.”

    Oh, and licensed taxi drivers are polite and obey traffic laws?

    The taxi cartels never like competition – no cartel ever does.

    Like Prakash says, if you have problems with unsafe vehicles and vehicular manslaughter, the problem is not “they’re not licensed”, but “they’re not being punished for the violations”.

    The State needs to impose order, alright, but not via a cartel scheme, which is what “taxi licenses” always end up being.

  4. The reason why NYC has so many of these unlicensed vehicles, especially in poor neighborhoods, is because the supply of taxi medallions (which let you operate a taxi) are so restricted. With the supply of taxis restricted, the taxis can afford to operate only in the wealthy areas.

  5. The city doesn’t let enough people legally operate private transit, and then is shocked when the grey and black market services that arise to fill the need have dubious behavior.

  6. Where have you been? This has been going on in Brooklyn and Queens for at LEAST 25 years. I see someone stuck close to Manhattan at all times. And I know the dollar van system very well. Just one thing: the demand for them in Queens isn’t based on a lack of mass transit as much as a lack of SPEED in mass transit. It’s not unusual for people who are running late to put their lives on the line to catch up on their subway connection.

  7. We do it like that “blue line” in Mexico City but the collision and death rates are much, much lower.

    First, there is an effective insurance and liability system. Traffic cops will indeed cite and fine drivers if they act irresponsibly. If they act very, obviously irresponsibly, anyway. Drivers responsible for collisions will be punished.

    Second, there is a culture of cooperation. Drivers stop at the most common transfer points and the first to arrive collect passengers until his bus is full. Only then can the next driver move up and collect passengers.

    I think the New York and Dehli trouble is just a result of corruption and bad government in Dehli and New York. It doesn’t take much — gosh knows Mexico isn’t famous for good government — but some effort toward efficiency and honesty makes free market jitney vans work much better than any city bus system.

  8. Nice article

    As Delhi is my home town, my parents lives in Mumbai and I am living in NYC from last 2 yrs. I can relate to what you are saying. Now I read every day in new paper here about the decreasign quality of subways…now you can see vomit, human shit and over crowd every where in NYC. Also if you go to Midtown Manhattan, you can see the blueline kind of vans connecting Midtown to Jersey City and other parts of Tri-state area.

  9. Pingback: this sunday: walk the dying flower markets of Delhi « Our Delhi Struggle

  10. The reason why blueline buses in New Delhi operate in such way and cause deaths is not just that the Owners of these bus fleets have strong political connection with netas/mantris(ministers). This was the case in past, now these owners themselves are netas and/or Member of Parliaments, so who’s gonna complaint?
    Any one look for trouble? ;)

    This is the reason why these killer bulelines have not been removed from delhi road for Common wealth games to be held in Oct 2010. The ministers themselves don’t want to remove otherwise their black income will stop.

    I like your blog.

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