Parks and public safety

I spent the last hour and a half working from a park near my house in Barcelona. It helped that I wasn’t using my laptop – I was mostly working with a notebook and pen. The incredible thing was that never once did I feel unsafe working in that park, and it has to do with the park’s design.

I got accosted by a human only once – by this guy asking me if I had a cigarette lighter and who walked away when I said no, and by dogs (of all shapes and sizes) multiple times. Despite the fact that I was in a park, and people don’t go to parks at 10 am on a weekday morning, there was a constant flow of people in front of me. There were, to put it in other words, sufficient “eyes on the street” which contributed to the place’s safety.

I’ve ranted sufficiently on this blog about the design (or lack of it) of Bangalore’s public parks (one with a name sufficiently similar to that of this post). The problem with the parks, in my opinion, is that they are exclusive closed spaces which are hard to access.

The sprawling Krishna Rao Park in the middle of Basavanagudi, for example, has only two or three entrances, and the number of trees in the park means that large parts of it are hardly visible, providing a refuge to unsavoury elements. This phenomenon of few entrances to parks is prevalent in other city parks as well, with the consequence that the BBMP (city administration) closes off the parks during the day when few people want to go in.

The park I was sitting in this morning, on the other hand, had no such safety issues. It helped that there weren’t too many trees (not always a positive thing about parks), which improved visibility, but most importantly, it was open on all sides, providing a nice thoroughfare for people walking across the area. This meant that a large number of people in the vicinity, even if they didn’t want to “go to a park” ended up passing through the park, because of which there was a constant flow of human traffic and “eyes on the park street”, making it a significantly safer space.

There might be (maintenance-related ) reasons for having limited entrances to parks in Bangalore, but the administration should seriously consider opening up parks on all sides and encouraging people to walk through them (after all, walking paths are an important part of Bangalore parks). Maintenance costs might go up, but safety of parks will be enhanced significantly, and it will be possible to keep parks open at all times, which will enhance their utility to the public.

Maybe Krishna Rao park, with roads on all sides and in the middle of Basavanagudi, might serve as a good pilot case for this.

Pricing railway safety

Yet another railway accident has happened. As someone on twitter pointed out,

The problem with the Indian Railways is that there is no real measure of safety. How do we know how much safer the trains and tracks are compared to last year? Given the way the Railway finances are put out currently, there is no way to figure this out. Without the railways putting out more disclosures, is there a way to put a number on how safe the Indian Railways are? In other words, is there a way to “price” railway safety?

As you are well aware, and as the above tweet points out, it is standard practice in Indian Railway accidents for the Railway Minister to announce an ex-gratia payment to the families of the dead and the injured in case of any accident. I’m not sure if there is a formula to this but one cannot rule out the arbitrariness of this amount. As I had pointed out in an earlier post on RQ, accident compensation needs to be predictable and automatic. Can we use this to price railway safety?

First of all, we need to point out that the railways follows a cash accounting system, and thus doesn’t need to account for any contingent liabilities such as ex-gratia payment (last weekend I sat through an awesome lecture by Prof. Mukul Asher (councillor to Takshashila) on public finances, and he pointed this out). Hence, it would be prudent on behalf of the Indian Railways to hedge out this contingent liability.

How do you hedge a contingent liability? By buying insurance! What the Indian Railways needs to do is to buy group accident insurance – all the ex-gratia payments will then by paid out by the insurance company, and the railways will only pay a premium to these companies, thus hedging out the risk! And this process will help put a price on railway safety!

How is that? Let us say that given the railways’ bad record in safety, and its continued promises that safety will be improved each year, the railways decides to take up group accident insurance on an annual basis. Let us say that there is a competitive bidding process among general insurers in India (both public and private sector) to provide this insurance (railways is a large organization, and insuring them will be a matter of prestige, so companies will bid for it). The premium as determined by this competitive bidding process is the price of railway safety!

We can do better – instead of buying one overall policy, the Railways can think of insuring different routes separately, or perhaps zones. This will help put a price on the safety of each route or zone! There will be some transaction cost, of course, but price discovery will happen, and we will be able to put a price on risk!

But then, this is all wishful thinking. It is unlikely this will happen because:

1. Given the cash accounting system followed by the railways, there is no incentive to hedge contingent liabilities
2. Buying insurance means increasing scrutiny. The railways will not want to be scrutinized too hard. It is currently an opaque organization and it will want to be that way.
3. Given the railways are wholly government owned and there are government owned general insurers, there might be some collusion which might  result in underpricing the risk.
And so forth…

Nevertheless, the point of this post is that it is possible to put a price on safety!