I first took a Chinatown bus to Boston back in 2000. A friend had told me to just walk under the Manhattan Bridge, near East Broadway, and look for the buses. I can’t remember which company it was, but a lady sitting at table on the sidewalk sold me a ticket to Boston for 18 dollars, and even assigned me a seat. The bus was about 2/3 full and I was not assigned a seatmate.
I know it’s a cliche that white people like to talk about how they were always the “only white person” at any given event, but in this case, I can say it was absolutely true: the first time I took the Chinatown bus from NYC to Boston, I was the only white person on the bus. When we stopped at a rest stop McDonald’s in rural Connecticut, people were doing double takes as a bus full of Chinese grandmothers and myself walked by.
At the time, an 18 dollar bus to Boston was a revelation bordering on unbelievable. In 2000, if memory serves, a round trip Greyhound ticket from NYC to Boston was around 85 dollars. This was just after Greyhound semi-merged with Peter Pan in 1999, and coordinated schedules and fares. Although they were technically two choices to go between Boston and New York, there was really no choice at all. Greyhound/Peter Pan had a monopoly that verged on collusion. They knew that by forming an alliance they became the only game in town and could set fares to whatever price they saw fit. The Boston/New York route is one of the most frequently traveled commuter trips in the United States and to have a monopoly on its bus service was a goldmine in the making.
To suddenly have access to a bus that was less than ½ the cost of Greyhound/Peter Pan was amazing. Not only that, but they showed DVD’s of kung fu movies and weird Hong Kong variety shows, got you there in less time, and loaded and unloaded in actual neighborhoods, as opposed to bus stations (East Coast bus stations and Chinatowns were probably equally seedy, but the bus stations are a lot more boring).
The first few years I took them, the Chinatown buses were unpredictable. Every once in a while, you’d stop off in Providence, Rhode Island. Or the food stop would be at a suburban Chinese food buffet restaurant somewhere in Connecticut. The bus might not have a working bathroom. Or would break down for a few hours. There wasn’t always a clear line to board the bus, or even a sense that someone was in charge. Getting on a Chinatown bus at the end of a holiday weekend was like trying to board the last helicopter out of Saigon. But, the ticket was less than 20 bucks. As the years went by, you could see the customer base get more and more diversified as the word got out among college students and other frequent bus travelers in the North East. As the customers became less Chinese, gradually so did the movies shown on board. By 2003, the customer demographics for Fung Wah and the other Chinese bus companies was essentially the same as the one for Greyhound. The buses, that had started to serve only the Chinese immigrant community going between northeast cities were now major players in a large market. At one point, as at least three different Chinatown carriers vied for business, fares were lowered to 10 dollars each way. Going to New York City was now cheaper than seeing a movie.
The competition was so fierce, that it lead to rival bus company affiliates blowing up buses and murdering each other.
Greyhound was also running scared. Around 2004, Greyhound actually printed up some anti-Chinatown Bus/Pro-Greyhound fliers and had people hand them out by the Chinatown bus stop in Boston. The fliers highlighted the superlative service record of Greyhound’s buses and drivers and the supposed sketchiness of their Chinatown counterparts. This was clearly the actions of a company shellshocked from watching thousands of dollars of daily business walk across the street.
It took a few years, but Greyhound got their act together and realized that frequent bus travelers, especially those in the demographics of Chinatown bus patrons, only cared about the bottom line and Greyhound still charged more than double what the Chinatown buses did. They finally got smart in 2008 and started their own budget bus line, BoltBus. BoltBus offered tickets starting at $1 and traveled between cities in the Northeast. They were soon joined by UK company Megabus, which also began traveling between cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and at similarly low prices. Suddenly budget conscious travelers had an alternative to high priced Greyhound fares and the admittedly bare bones Chinatown carriers. BoltBus and Megabus offered cleaner, newer buses with bigger seats and more dependable Wi-Fi. But, they had their drawbacks as well. They were much more based around internet sales and harder for someone to just walk up day-of and buy a ticket.
Just as the Chinatown buses took market share away from Greyhound, BoltBus and Megabus took business from them. But, I took all of the above carriers in the last 5 years, and very rarely was I traveling on a half empty bus with any of them. There was clearly enough business to go around.
The high profile of the Chinatown buses drew interest from more than just thrifty travelers; soon the authorities were looking into the buses as well. From about 2004 onwards, the Chinatown bus companies were subject to frequent investigations by Massachusetts and New York police and transportation officials, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Finally, in March 2013, the Chinatown bus companies were shut down for good by the Feds.
Whether it’s because of political connections, as some hint at, or simply because they run a tighter ship, the Chinatown bus companies that pioneered curbside bus service have now been eclipsed by companies like Megabus and BoltBus. Unlike the flat 15 dollar fee offered by the Chinatown buses, Boltbus and Megabus both stack their prices, with midweek daytime buses often going for less than 15 dollars, and conversely with primetime weekend buses going for as much as 35 dollars. So, 15 years after the introduction of Chinatown buses, a round trip weekend ticket to Boston can cost almost as much as Greyhound used to when they were the only choice available. And just as the Chinatown buses were being shut down, Peter Pan and Greyhound announced they were starting a new bus service operating out of New York City’s Chinatown called “Yo! Bus.” Until a few weeks ago, they were the only bus service going to Boston leaving from Chinatown.
But, in November one of the larger Chinatown carriers, Lucky Star, returned, albeit with a reduced schedule of a handful of buses a day, and with fares of 25 dollars each way on weekdays and 30 on weekends. Coincidentally, this is about what Yo! Bus charges. It remains to be seen if they can compete with those prices. Was the appeal of the Chinatown buses based solely on the fact that their prices were drastically lower than their competition, or can they survive charging market price?