On reliably asking for help

Last evening while I was trying to teach the wife to ride a geared motorcycle, a middle-aged woman accosted us. She told us that she was a teacher from Hiriyur (Chitradurga district) and had lost all her money and needed help for her bus charge to go back to town. This sounded suspiciously similar to the couple from Nagpur with a similar story that I’ve encountered a few times, and so I told her off, rather rudely I must say.

She seemed to be taken aback, and hurled some curses on me as she walked away, and then my wife pointed out that there were some things about this woman’s story that made it sound genuine. So now I wonder (given that it is a finite possibility that I might be stuck in an unknown city without money) what one needs to do in order to reliably ask for monetary help – given that fraudsters abound (if I had been convinced that this woman wasn’t a fraud I would’ve helped her out, so let’s take that as a given).

Here are some points that I can quickly think of:

  • Location – would you think someone who would come to you in a residential area (Jayanagar) where not too many people were walking around, and ask for help if they really wanted money? Wouldn’t they rather try at bus stops, or even get on to buses and try get the ticket off a conductor or a fellow-passenger? Or considering that this lady had to make an inter-city journey, wouldn’t it be more reliable for her to have somehow got to the bus stand and asked someone there?
  • Persistence – after I’d told this woman off, she just kept hanging around, and refused to go after I told her in no uncertain terms that I’m not helping her out. Wouldn’t you expect people who are really in need to be more rational and try and look for other sources rather than hanging on to the one person she sees on the street?
  • What you ask for – again ties back to the first point that it might be easier to convince people to buy you a ticket than give you money. Or if you were to walk up to a shop and ask to use their landline phone? (mobile doesn’t work, since that’s a well-known method of swindling mobiles; was once tried on me in Bombay)
  • Abuses – when you are really in need, and someone doesn’t help you out, you don’t loudly abuse them when you go. You’d rather quietly slink away and try your luck elsewhere .

I must say that the woman was rather “respectably dressed”, and before she started abusing she spoke “good Kannada”. It’s just that I wasn’t convinced she wasn’t a fraud so didn’t give her any money.

In any case, what signals would you look for when someone were to come and ask you for monetary help? And what signals would you try to give out if you were to ask for monetary help?


Crowding out with public transport

This is an idea that’s been in my head for a while. About whether it is possible to nudge people who normally travel in cars to use public transport by simply flooding the roads with buses. The motivation for this comes from the hassles associated with marking and enforcing bus lanes, a form of public transport that is generally considered superior to subway trains in terms of cost of implementation and effectiveness.

So the idea is that as the number of buses on the road increases, the average speed of cars comes down. And after a point, the number of buses on the road means there’s enough supply that one can travel comfortably in them. And there will come a point when people will give up their cars in favour of buses since they can now spend the time more usefully rather than waste it by concentrating on the road.

Of course, this point is still far away for a city like Bangalore, though the BMTC has been making efforts, with initiatives such as the Bus Day. Still, now I’ve begun to have my doubts about it. About whether just increasing bus connectivity and frequency and quality will be enough to take cars off the road. I’ve begun to think if the comfort of not having to drive but travel at the same speed is enough to compensate for the cost of walking to and from bus stops and waiting for buses. The other cost of traveling by bus is that once you get into a bus you travel by a fixed route rather than adapting to daily traffic flows.

The important thing here is the distribution of waiting time for catching a bus. If a passenger is convinced that he is very likely to get a bus within a certain span of time with a very high probability (using vague words to avoid putting random numbers) he is likely to wait for a bus. However, if there are no such bounds, then the passenger might choose to travel by an alternate means of transport.

Still it needs to be seen. From what I know, all cities that currently boast of great public transport actually built a lot of the basic public transport infrastructure before the boom of cars in the place. I can’t recall off the top of my head any city that has actually nudged passengers from personal cars to public transport after cars had become default mode of transport (if you know of such cases, please let me know). In that sense, this nudging towards public transport is still a hard problem to solve. Nevertheless, I still think it might still be a good idea to try crowd out private transport by public transport.

Bus Day and Extensions

So in Bangalore, the fourth of every month is celebrated as “bus day” when people are encouraged to give up on their privateĀ  transport vehicles and opt for the BMTC bus. So far, what the BMTC has been doing is to increase frequency of buses on certain corridors so that people who travel those routes are further encouraged to use buses. Hopefully soon there will be a time when public transport in the city is so good that every day is a bus day.

Problem with getting everyone to use public transport is that certain routes are extremely “illiquid” in the sense that there just aren’t enough passengers who want to travel between a particular pair of points for the BMTC to put a bus on that route. Even if they do put a route, it is likely to be extremely infrequent and not really serve the purpose.

Problem with growth of bus services in Bangalore over the years (starting with Jayanagar-Yeshwantpur) is that bus services are usually point-to-point. There hasn’t been much effort in terms of developing interchanges, and the only good interchanges that make sense currently are Majestic, Market and Shivajinagar – all of which are in the center of the city. Given the geographic expansion of the city, it doesn’t really make sense to go to the center to change buses. We need interchanges everywhere.

And the lack of viable interchanges is what I think makes bus transport much less popular than it should be (yeah, we still need lots more buses than we have right now). For example, my office is on intermediate ring road, behind the Dell office. And there is not a single bus from my office to the center of the city (majestic/market/shivajinagar) because of which it is extremely tough for people who work in my complex to commute by work. There are buses on the road that our office is situated on, but none that connect properly to buses that go to the city center, which also makes interchange difficult.

Similarly at Hudson Circle (“corporation”). There are bus stops all around the place but the problem is they are so far away from each other and it takes so much crossing to get from one to the other that this junction is not as good an interchange as it used to be a few years back! Encourages inefficiency in terms of having to go to one of the bus stands for changing buses!

The current system of segmentation of buses (in terms of various classes of service) is commendable and I think the air-conditioned premium service is doing a lot of good in terms of taking cars off the road. However, in order to get more people to use the system, what we need is a network where it is possible to go from any stop to any other with the minimum amount of time being spent in terms of waiting. Traffic is already bad so it is bad enough that we spend so much time just commuting, and one of the main reasons people are put off from taking buses that added to this commute time is the waiting time!

And once this system of convenient interchanges and “structured liquidity” (if a market is illiquid, there is a set of buses which are each operating on liquid routes and which together through convenient interchanges serve this market) is put in place, then my grand idea of flooding the city’s roads with buses in order to crowd out cars can be implemented.