The Amazing Chinatown Bus Network

The Chinatown buses have run on a highly efficient distributed network since 1997. They are also a crazy time.

|
Nov 27 2014, 2:20pm

Image: ​Susan Sermoneta/Flickr​

Everyone has that moment after moving to New York (or any city, really) when you feel like maybe you understand what's going on, just a little bit—or at least more so than some other person.

I lived on the Upper West Side for a little while in 2007, and for me, that moment came when a woman in her 30s stopped me around Broadway and 90th and anxiously asked for directions to 88 Broadway, which she had reasonably assumed would be somewhere around 88th Street. She had a rolling suitcase.

I knew immediately what had happened. She was at least 40 minutes off course; I wondered if she had enough time to get all the way to Chinatown.

"You want the other Broadway," I told her.

Image: Alice Daer/Flickr

Last month, the New Yorker published a story about how Chinese migrant workers can be given a restaurant job and shuttled to a random city—Chicago, San Francisco, Rockville, MD—within days of their arrival.

The impressive Chinatown bus network, which provides frequent, low-cost transportation between major cities as well as smaller towns that lack other options, is what makes this possible.

88 East Broadway is, or was—before the New York City Police Department stepped in—one of several pick-up and drop-off points at the edge of Chinatown under the Manhattan Bridge.

It is not a bus terminal; it is the address of a Fujianese restaurant. Passengers line up along the sidewalk until a long bus appears. Employees of the bus company, who identify themselves only by yelling and stalking around purposefully, will start jostling people to board. There is the initial surge toward the lower-level luggage storage, and then the herd rushes to get a good seat. Thanksgiving is prime time for these buses, which are pulling up and pulling away constantly, as confused passengers trying to figure out which 5:30 is theirs. It's like a river of salmon.

The first Chinatown buses started running from New York to Boston in 1997, serving Asian immigrants who needed to get to jobs, visit family, or go shopping. These early operators introduced a few innovations. The buses picked up at the curb, not at a bus station. They dispensed with advertising and customer service. As a result, they were very, very cheap.

The first such bus company was Fung Wah, which began as a charter service and then started offering regular routes. Soon, other companies started competing for the Northeast Corridor—Sunshine Travel, Travel Pack, Dragon Coach, Lucky Star. Eventually, there were fierce price wars; longtime passengers may remember when the price of a ticket from New York to Boston dropped to $10 around 2003. There were also reports of gang violence on the routes, instigated by competing bus companies.

Image: ​JP Chan/Flickr

It was probably around 2006 when I first heard about the Chinatown bus from some of my more grimy, itinerant friends. I'm guessing it was the same word of mouth buzz that brought in a lot of other broke college kids and people outside the Chinatown community.

The buses travel from Chinatown to Chinatown, the story went. They are packed and sweaty. If you get there late, they'd sell your ticket to someone else. The drivers all look like they're 17 and have been awake for 48 hours. It is unbelievably cheap.

There was also an urban legend about people carrying chickens on the bus; I never thought that made any sense. Stories about people smoking on the bus, drivers screaming on their cell phones, random stops in the middle of nowhere, dropping off a passenger who was having a medical issue in the middle of nowhere, Connecticut—those I believe.

I once took a bus to Virginia, same route as always. At some point on Route 1, in the middle of the night, the driver pulled over and had us all get off and board another bus with no explanation. Was there something wrong with the bus? It would have been inappropriate to ask. I don't think I've ever seen anyone ask a question on the Chinatown bus. You forfeit all that in exchange for the cheap fare.

We got there on time anyway.

I've actually had my worst bus experiences on non-Chinatown buses. I've also had a lot of bus experience in general. I once took a 24-hour bus once in Sumatra. There were mosquitos on the bus; that was worse than anything I've experienced on a Chinatown line. Just trapped at high altitude with a buzzing bus full of mosquitos, and Indonesians laughing at you for slapping at them.

Once, in line for the Greyhound, I had what started out as an ordinary conversation with the man behind me about the merits of bus versus train. He was saying he would never take Amtrak again. The last time he took Amtrak, there were delays, and no one would tell the passengers what was going on, and then they put dope in the food… this was shortly after the horrific Greyhound stabbing, in which a passenger carved up his seatmate because he thought the man was an alien.

Another time, on a Bolt bus to Boston in a blizzard: the driver was pulled over for speeding, the heat wasn't working which meant the defroster didn't work so the driver had the windows open the whole time, and there was no WiFi (although there is never really WiFi). That was my most miserable bus ride. We did not arrive on time.

As Chinatown-bus.org, put it, "There are good companies in Chinatown bus and all bus companies in the US; there are bad companies in Chinatown bus and all bus companies in the US."

Image: ​Lisa Larson-Walker/Flickr

The Chinatown buses are often called "curbside" operators. Greyhound is a "corporate" operator. Bolt and MegaBus—owned by Greyhound and some other large conglomerate, respectively—are "corporate curbside" bus operators that came onto the scene around 2008, after the big companies realized what great business the Chinatown routes were.

Other contenders, like the smaller Sprinterbus which operates from New York to Virginia Beach, VA, have since come on the scene. Sprinterbus advertises WiFi, although it never works, hands out tickets with assigned seats on them, and coddles every passenger with a free bottle of water. These are things the Chinatown buses historically would never stand for, but the competition has forced them to start offering perks. Many Chinatown companies now also advertise fake free WiFi and power outlets.

There's some evidence that they're capitulating on the customer service front as well. Richard Lawson, a columnist for VanityFair.com and longtime Chinatown bus rider, just took the trip home for Thanksgiving.

"A girl disappeared at a rest stop in Sturbridge, MA for like 30 minutes. We waited and waited and waited and finally she came trotting up like nothing was wrong," he told me in an email. "In the past, she would have been left behind. I've seen it happen. I guess this is a kinder, gentler Lucky Star."

Fung Wah driver. Image: ​Theo/Flickr

In 2012, the Chinatown bus network suffered a huge setback after several high-profile crashes and a crackdown by regulators that closed 26 companies.

These companies were affiliated with three "unscrupulous" networks of bus operators that broke federal safety regulations, and, after getting caught, merely changed names and kept operating, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) told The New York Times at the time.

Fung Wah, the original Chinatown carrier, had its license revoked in March 2013 after it failed to cooperate with safety inspectors. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found "systemic safety problems, including cracked bus frames, fraudulent vehicle maintenance records, widespread hours-of-service violations and the company's failure to screen drivers for drugs." The company has been trying to return to the road ever since. Its latest attempt was last month; it was ​denied.

Still, Chinatown carriers have bounced back. They now operate in 24 states and Canada, according to ​Chinatown-bus.org, the industry's authoritative aggregator. In 2009, the New York City Department of City Planning estimated that 291 interstate buses were entering and exiting the city on Sunday, the busiest day of the week. Today, Thanksgiving, is likely to be one of the busiest days of the year. A manual count on Chinatown-bus.org shows at least 308 arrivals and departures in New York.

The resurgence is a little mysterious, given that Megabus and Bolt are now just as cheap (and have suffered their own high-profile crashes). The Chinatown buses do offer some differentiating value, though, such as pick-up in Chinatown as opposed to Midtown, and pirated Chinese language movies that play on tiny screens.

The Chinatown buses also seem to pick up service in smaller towns. Just today, there are 24 buses going from New York City to Anderson, SC. Greyhound has three buses going from New York to Anderson; Megabus and Bolt have none. What's happening in Anderson? If anyone knows, please tell me. It is a town of 75,000 when you include the whole urban area and less than 1 percent of the population is Asian American. I can only guess that there must be a very premium rest stop there on the way to Atlanta.

It's also interesting that while Greyhound and Bolt's routes look like a hub and spoke-style network, with most trips originating in and returning to terminals in major cities, many of the Chinatown bus companies are still operating point to point. Back and forth, all day and overnight; each route independent, like a headless octopus.

But overall, the two models seem to be getting closer and closer. Megabus even bought two Chinatown bus companies shortly after it started, absorbing their DNA. Soon, the Chinatown bus will be basically the same thing as a corporate curbside operator, just with more frustration. ("Many of the buses were marked with different company names, making it difficult to determine which company was dispatching them," the city wrote in its 2009 report. "The only companies that accurately followed their adversed schedules were Fung Wah and Lucky Star.")

All the chaos and the Chinatown bus's spotty history give it an aura of edginess, however, which Bolt and Megabus will never have. "For some, the Chinatown bus is a liminal space where calculations of safety and risk are inverted," write the authors of "Everything but the Chickens: Cultural Authenticity Onboard the Chinatown Bus," a 2009 paper from the School of Public Planning and Policy at Rutgers. "Danger is part of the appeal."

Image: ​Shawn Liu/Flickr

I'm heading up to Boston this year for Thanksgiving (extended family, boyfriend's family) instead of down to Virginia, where I grew up. I have done something nice for myself and bought a ticket on the Acela.

It feels like I shifted social classes. Not even necessarily up, just side to side. I used to be a person who took the Chinatown bus. Now I'm a person who takes the Acela. There are (usually) no weird smells on the Acela. What am I going to tweet about?

I feel very nostalgic for the Chinatown bus. The relief of getting two seats to myself. Taking the redeye, waking up as the bus pulled into Manhattan. Eavesdropping on the guy behind me as he alternately called two girls. I was younger and broker and the Chinatown bus was an escape from the dullness of home, and then an escape from the scary city when I needed it. As Motherboard veteran Sean Yeaton put it, "Fuck...I have a soft spot in my heart for the goddamn thing."