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If You Want To Vamoose in DeLuxe Style, You're in Luck--NY Sun
2006-02-14

If You Want To Vamoose in DeLuxe Style, You're in Luck

By DANIELA GERSON - Staff Reporter of the Sun
February 14, 2006

For travelers in search of a cheap bus ticket, once almost impossible to find outside of Chinatown, there is now a growing market servicing Midtown. And often the new bus lines are run not by Chinese immigrants but by chasidic Jews.

Betty Ungar, the mother of 10 children, said she got the idea of starting a low-fare bus company while on vacation.

"It was so expensive," Mrs. Ungar, 50, said of traveling on a conventional bus line. "I decided I could do something better and at a much better rate, and I did it." Her service got started, she said, nearly four years ago.

Two years ago, Sol Wollner, 50, like Mrs. Ungar a chasidic Jew, also opened a low-fare bus company serving Midtown. He gives a different story of how the concept traveled north from Chinatown. Each day for six months, Mr. Wollner, who formerly worked with Mrs. Ungar and is now the manager of a competing line, said he would leave his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and spend a few hours in Chinatown.

"We were watching the Chinatown buses to see what they were doing there, the service they were giving," Mr. Wollner said. At 5 a.m. some days, to late into the evening others, he would chart when buses were leaving full. "I saw what was needed in order to get into this business. Just to jump in, and be another competition, I was not going to do that."

Mrs. Ungar and Mr. Wollner are now engaged in litigation, but regardless of who is really responsible for bringing low-fare buses to Midtown, their respective businesses, Washington DeLuxe and Vamoose, have both played a part in expanding the market. Other, Chinese-owned, companies appear to be taking notice and are joining them in Midtown, with the newest, P2P Circulator, starting a service between Philadelphia's Chinatown and New York's Penn Station last week.

Lila Kahn, the marketing manager at GoToBus.com, a company offering online sales for low-fare buses, said she has seen a trend toward professionalizing of services and competition beyond price.

"It used to be just the guy who was driving the bus was pulling up to the curb and taking your money," Ms. Kahn said of the first Chinatown buses. Recently though, more have ticketing offices, companies have approached her with plans to offer WiFi on the buses, and generally, "the low-cost carriers are offering tighter operations."

The first Chinatown bus, Fung Wah, started $10 shuttles between New York's and Boston's Chinatowns in the 1990s. Since then, there has been an explosion in low-cost carriers around East Broadway in lower Manhattan. While the Boston prices have gone up to $15 one way, at any hour of day or night, fares still are being yelled from bus drivers and attendants for service to most major cities on the East Coast and even beyond.

The Chinatown bus lines have also attracted negative publicity, with operators charged with murdering one another and buses exploding in flames. Although the safety ratings for the companies are for the most part "satisfactory," the highest rating given by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there has been a recent push for greater regulation. Senator Schumer led a drive last year for federal regulators to intervene, calling the conditions "egregiously low" under which some of the companies operated.

Many of the passengers on Vamoose and Washington DeLuxe said they felt they could trust the newer companies more than the Chinatown buses - and communication was easier. The customers on the Jewish-owned buses tend to include more older, non-Chinese adults, as well as many college students and young professionals who originally patronized the Chinatown buses. On a recent Vamoose trip to Washington, a middle-aged New Yorker was taking his regular trip to visit his boyfriend in Virginia, a Cape Verdean family traveled together, and two young women loudly discussing their plans for Shabbos.

"Sometimes the physical aggressiveness of the Chinatown companies is a bit overwhelming. When I was younger I once was physically separated from my sister and we were put on different buses," a lawyer who frequently travels between New York and Washington, Nicholas Arons, 30, said. Ultimately, however, even though the schedules are better with the Chinatown buses, he said it's the location and the reliability that bring him to Midtown.

One downer for frequent travelers is no trips Friday evenings or Saturdays: Both Washington DeLuxe and Vamoose schedule their last trip on Friday evenings before the Jewish Sabbath begins.