|Chinatown buses travel by word of mouth - Albany Times Union
By ANNE MILLER, Staff writer
First published: Friday, October 29, 2004
The Chinatown bus appears at the University at Albany campus daily, an apparition that emerges without fanfare and disappears without notice. Those in the know toss their bags in the bins under the coach, hand the driver $20 and climb aboard.
Recently, college students with New York City ties have adopted this little-known, cheap transport that was once the domain of Chinese immigrants. Last Friday, the bus made two stops in Albany for about a dozen black and Latino students going home to Brooklyn, two Asian students, a local high school musician and a Burmese monk who tutors refugees now living in Rensselaer. The last two were picked up on Broadway in downtown Albany, a few blocks from the Greyhound bus station.
The company rarely advertises. Word-of-mouth fills each trip, with some seats going to people who spotted the bus on the road and asked around. Just don't ask the driver -- he only speaks Chinese.
Bus routes from Manhattan's Chinatown began operating in the late 1990s, when several companies started discount routes among the Chinatowns of New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.
The emerging price wars spurred federal and state scrutiny that resulted in revoked licenses and sparked violence that led to a murder conviction.
In the past year, the bus services, which use both mini-buses and full-size coaches, appear to have settled into more respectable business practices. They expanded across the state and the country -- to Los Angeles, Detroit and even Albany. In the Capital Region, the bus with the Chinese lettering stops twice daily on Monday through Thursday and three times daily on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The companies, however, continue to encounter bumps in the road. Dragon Coach, for example, lost its operating license Monday because the company's insurance lapsed, said Dave Longo, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., an agency that oversees safety and licensing violations on interstate bus and truck lines.
A similar lapse occurred in May, and the license was reinstated a month later, Longo said. He noted the company does not present a "huge" safety concern -- none of the company's citation involved accidents.
In Longo's experience, bus services with those types of violations "may possibly be operating on a shoestring because they don't pay their insurance premiums on time."
Although the license was revoked, the company's Web site continued to offer tickets for sale.
A woman who answered the phone at the Dragon Coach office in Manhattan, and declined to give her name, said the company would not answer questions.
The company operates out of the same address as Dragon Expressways, which has not had a valid operating license since 2001, though that is the name on at least one coach bus on the Albany route.
Last Friday, when the Dragon Coach bus still had a legal right to operate, students said the service gave them more chances to visit home.
"I would have taken Greyhound, but Greyhound is expensive," said Latoya Glover, 18, a University at Albany freshman bound for her Brooklyn home. Greyhound would have cost her $67 round-trip. A Dragon Coach seat cost $40, payable in cash to the driver or online with a credit card for a $1 fee each way.
Shaker High School senior Dan Roninson said a woman who works with his parents told him about the bus. The 17-year-old, a budding saxophone player, skipped his last class that day so he could see Dave Holland at a city jazz club and stay over to check out New York University.
For him, like other travelers, the cost was key. "I'm paying for everything myself," he said.
Most travelers don't know the history.
"In the beginning, Chinatown bus was not run as a formal business," said Jimmy Chen, who runs a reservation service for the bus lines. Chen has a doctorate in computer science from Purdue University and an online business that caters to Chinese-Americans, including the Expedia-like reservation service.
The founders of the bus lines worked in restaurants, hated it, sought other ways to make money and started transit lines, Chen said. The business competition grew fierce.
Last year, the bus battles turned physical. According to news reports, buses mysteriously caught fire; one line's owner suffered a smashed pelvis when a bus allegedly was backed over him; the driver of that bus died from a gunshot wound last year; and, also last year, a bus owner stabbed his partner to death. The investigation into the shooting has been sealed, said a Manhattan district attorney's office spokeswoman. In the stabbing death, the man pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
"They lose money and when they lose money, they find other ways," Chen said of the violence, though he declined to elaborate. "Nowadays, more of the bus owners (have) become more educated. I cannot say it's going away, but definitely much less."
The Dragon Coach buses on the Albany run never registered with the state, said Peter Graves, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. Lacking a state permit means the bus cannot run an intrastate route, meaning every trip must pass through another state.
"They cannot legally operate between Albany and New York City by just taking the Thruway," Graves said.
On last Friday's Albany run, the driver detoured into Paramus and gassed up at a New Jersey Hess station before turning toward the Big Apple, though that does not always happen, according to DOT records. Graves said his department fined the company $2,500 in March for an uninspected vehicle that ran a trip entirely within state lines.
U Eithareya, the monk picked up in downtown Albany and is a refugee from Burma, said the bus has been known to miss the downtown stop promised by the schedulers. "Sometimes do not come," said the 48-year-old, who speaks few English words. "The money very cheap," he said with a shrug, when asked why he makes the attempt.
On the Friday trip he took, the ride went smoothly. The students gossiped, watched movies on laptops or attempted to study. Eithareya read a book in Burmese. Almost everyone had fallen asleep by Exit 18 on the Thruway, about an hour into the ride.
The coach pulled into midtown 3 hours later, thanks to the out-of-state detour and traffic. The driver double-parked near 32nd Street and Broadway and threw open the luggage bay door. Students stood in the street to retrieve their bags.
The bus pulled away, with only two passengers bound for Chinatown. As quickly as the students disappeared into the midtown crowd, the bustling street swallowed the bus. Miller can be reached at 454-5697 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.