Man vs. machine

Transportation is a necessity of life, but it can also threaten it. Perhaps no form of transportation earned this reputation better than India’s Blueline buses. These buses, which numbered around 4,000 at their peak in the mid to late 2000s, were known killers.

When transportation machinery isn’t used correctly, or if the circumstances ensue chaos, transportation becomes hazardous. That said, who is really at fault: man or machine? Although India's Blueline buses are the labeled killers, the circumstances in which they ran accounted for more danger than the bus fleet in itself.

History of the killer buses

So, where did this killer fleet of buses come from and what makes them so dangerous?

Bluelines, also previously known as Redlines, were introduced in India’s capital territory of Delhi in 1992. The Delhi Transportation Commission (DTC) staff went on a sudden strike and so the state transport authority gave permits to a large number of transporters who wanted to run buses in the city. These buses were known as India’s Redline buses.

Soon, the roads in the capital were decorated with the Redline buses, providing relief to daily commuters who had grown tired of the unreliable DTC buses. But the relief was short lived, and with a lack of direct control from the government, the Redline quickly became the new problem.

Operators began running the buses on their own terms to their own benefit. The operators would only employ buses on routes with a large number of potential passengers. Operators would also choose to keep their fleets off the road during the afternoon and late evening, running them exclusively during peak hours when there was more business.

And lastly, since more rounds the bus made meant higher ticket sales and a larger profit, there was competition among drivers that resulted in speeding, dangerous driving, and fatal accidents. In fact, accidents became the norm for India’s Redline. At the worst of times, the fleet took the lives of between 8–10 people per day.

The Delhi government eventually changed the color of the buses from red to blue, which proved to be ineffective, as the Bluelines killed almost 120 people each year. Neither pedestrians, nor the passengers on board, were safe from harm with these buses on the streets. Even children got hit by the buses, or worse, were pulled under the wheels on the side of the road and crushed.

Blueline bus in Delhi circa 2007. Photo from Flickr user stevekc
Blueline bus in Delhi circa 2007.
Photo from Flickr user stevekc

Man vs. machine

The Blueline “killer buses” accounted for a lot of fatalities over its 20 year run, but here’s the real question: Are the buses to blame, or are pedestrian and traffic fatalities just an inevitable part of transporting a ton of people in a busy city? Is transportation just plain dangerous? Let’s compare a few things.

Blueline buses operated in Delhi, the largest metropolitan area in India, home to an estimated 24 million people. The largest metro area in the United States, New York City, doesn’t come close to Delhi’s population, but it will do for comparison. New York City is “only” home to about 8.5 million people. Delhi is also larger is square miles and includes neighboring cities and nearby towns.

Here, we’re keyed into another factor that may have contributed to the “killer buses” problem: Delhi is densely populated with a rising population. Delhi’s estimated 24 million residents is up from 16.7 million in 2011. Delhi is challenged with rapid growth, and, on top of that, it’s said the area is struggling to improve its commercial and residential infrastructure. The Blueline buses killed over 100 people per year, so how does that compare to New York City?

Some Delhi housing. Photo from Flickr user stevekc
Some Delhi housing.
Photo from Flickr user stevekc

Between 2012 and 2014 there were 497 pedestrian fatalities in New York City, accounting for more than half of the total 889 traffic-related fatalities in the area. Although it’s hard to make an exact comparison, because there are many variables accounting for these numbers, there’s one general conclusion we can make from the data: Traffic fatalities happen everywhere.

Man or machine?

So, in the battle between man vs. machine, who should we put our faith in?

Although Delhi’s buses caused a lot of controversy and pain for hundreds of people, the buses weren’t exactly to blame. Perhaps it was the overpopulation, the lack of government oversight, or reckless driving, but the vehicles certainly did not single-handedly earn their reputation as killers. The drivers and the systems in place behind the buses were the real culprits.

So that begs the question, would transportation be safer if it had a mind of its own? If we didn’t allow for human error, would transportation be more reliable—and more importantly—would it be safer? In this epic transportation battle, should we put our faith in the “machine?” What about a vehicle that runs on artificial intelligence (AI)?

Although it can be hard to trust that autonomous transportation will always work correctly, artificial intelligence doesn’t drive recklessly or under the influence. In other words, although there’s cause for concern with autonomous transportation, there may be more cause for concern when a human is behind the wheel. India’s Blueline buses happen to be a really good example of that.

So, what happened with the Blueline buses? Starting in 2008, the buses began to be phased out and by 2012 the last Blueline bus was off the streets of Delhi. The city was challenged again to provide an alternative transport system to the almost 4,000 buses that had navigated the capital for almost two decades. Today, Delhi’s transportation situation isn’t ideal, but it’s better off than when the Blueline buses reigned the streets.


Related links

(Video) “Killer buses” explained:

(Article) How Delhi’s buses turned Killer:

(Article) Delhi transportation today:

Fast transportation facts:

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer