When the system makes no exceptions

Growing up, I was a seasoned bus hunter. I used to take pleasure in sprinting behind buses in Bangalore, chasing them across bus-stops or traffic signals and catching up with them. If a bus’s door was open, I would climb in even when it was in motion. If the door was closed I would knock on it, and in most cases, the bus driver would let me inside.

What kept me going was a couple of things – the adrenaline rush that each chase gave me and the unpredictable reward from doing this time after time, just like gambling does. And what enabled this behaviour that was dangerous to my own self and other motorists, was that the bus driver often colluded with me.

Here in Germany, when I am walking towards a bus stop, I would sometimes see a bus roll away and stop at a red light nearby. I do not try to run and catch this bus. In fact, my mind assumes that I never saw it. Instead, I walk up quietly to the bus stop and wait for the next one, because there isn’t one in a thousand chance that the bus driver would open the door to let me in at the traffic light. Also, if I knocked on the door, I would be confronted by 15 faces scoffing and scowling at me from the bus’s windows and an irate bus driver swearing in the soothing German tongue.

A system and the people that constitute it form a self-reinforcing feedback loop. People’s behaviour is governed by the system that surrounds them. The system itself is a synthesis of the people that comprise it. When the system makes a few exceptions to deviants, it stokes hope in the people it serves – hope that it would make them a concession and let them off the hook.

When the system makes no exceptions, there are no corners to cut. Just scoffs and scowls from disapproving onlookers.

4 thoughts on “When the system makes no exceptions

  1. More than the bus driver colluding with you, it must be the open doorways we have in buses & trains that fuels this sort of behaviour. In Bombay the passengers hanging out from a moving train will extend a heling hand & pull you in! These gestures in reality defeats the system,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since you are touching on systems thinking, I would highly recommend this book – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3828902-thinking-in-systems.

    Both Germany and India are free and open societies. Laws are framed by elected bodies of representatives. In theory, you and I can go back to India and fix problems like the ones you mention in your post.

    I have not read the rule book for bus transport in India but I can take another example with which I am bit more familiar. The traffic situation is pretty bad in India cities. People ride their motor cycles on pavements which is clearly against the law. If caught, they can be fined (given the cop in honest, but that’s another story). In this case, the system makes no exception – if you are riding a motor cycle on a pavement, you are committing a traffic offense. Same goes for smoking in public or bribing government officials. There are laws which forbid these things. The law, technically, makes no exceptions. I am pretty sure that boarding the bus outside of designated stops is also against some law, but I won’t stick my neck for it.

    In the case of traffic violations, the problem is with implementation (citizen to police ratio is way too skewed, poor policing infrastructure) and also with the incentives and disincentives in the system. If I ride my motor bike on a pavement for a year and have to pay a 50 Rs. fine, I really wouldn’t mind paying the fine. Also, it may be the case that people do not understand the risks of breaking the rules (people are bad statisticians, they think nothing will ever happen to them). In the case of buses, like your dad points out, maybe the incentive to break that rule is lack of doors, which, is an economic problem (lack of budget maybe).

    I would say that the rules are there and the mechanism to put the rules in place are also there (petitions, strikes, legislation etc.), but there are some larger social, economic and other problems that we need to tackle. Since India is so diverse and also poor, there is a need to design systems which take these factors into account and it has to come from the people of India as a reflection of their own culture and values.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, you both, for those great comments.

    Back in India, we have buses without doors, but we also have Volvo buses, which are comparable to the ones we see in Germany. What surprises me is the manner in which I viewed a bus transformed completely in a different environment.

    I am only beginning to appreciate the influence that the environment and the context has on our behaviour. I wager that the book you’ve shared elaborates upon that.


    1. The book touches on how to dsign systems which are less likely to fail. There is an entire chapter on how to avoid some of the common pitfalls. It’s a wonderful book at the intersection of rationality, ethics and the humanities. A must read for you since you seem to touch some of these topics.


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