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Cheap, quick, sometimes frenzied, Chinatown buses link East Coast
2003-12-12
Friday, December 12, 2003

NEW YORK — The bitter wind blew down Canal Street in the heart of New York's Chinatown like a mini hurricane, people hunched over pushing against the force of it, papers whipping into the air.

Toward the end of the street, just before the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, a band of them had gathered on a Friday morning. They were carrying small cases, backpacks, shopping bags, briefcases, suitcases, clothes bags, garment bags. Soon a young woman stepped out from a small storefront office carrying a sign written in Chinese and English. The English version read Boston-New York, with a little double-pointed arrow in between the two city names indicating that it meant both places.

"Bus is around the corner," the young woman said, marching off like a tour guide carrying an umbrella so her charges could keep track of her.

One way between New York and Boston on the Fung Wah bus is $10, 212-925-8889, www.fungwahbus.com.Other companies include Lucky Star, 888-881-0887, www.luckystarbus.com, and Sunshine 866-848-6877, www.sunshineboston.com. Greyhound, 800-229-9424, www.greyhound.com

Around the corner was the Chinatown bus, the cheapest ($10 one way), most interesting way to travel between New York and Boston. The bus, operated by the Fung Wah Bus Transportation Co., travels almost every hour on the hour between the two cities. There are also Chinatown buses that operate to other population centers on the East Coast from Atlantic City, N.J., to Washington, D.C.

The hearty band of travelers — myself, a young couple with backpacks, several single women, an older Chinese couple — dutifully followed the woman carrying the sign to the side street where a standard coach bus stood, its engine idling in the cold air. We stowed our bags under the bus, climbed in and waited for the appointed departure. A few latecomers arrived, bought tickets at the bus door and climbed on. Soon the bus was nearly full, typical for a weekday morning, I was told.

Departs on time

The driver, a young Chinese man in a dark turtleneck sweater and sunglasses, leaned against the front of the bus as passengers found seats, then sat down behind the wheel. At 9 a.m. precisely, the door closed and we were off. Slightly more than four hours later we arrived in Boston, in Chinatown, but I get ahead of my story.

Talking with several veteran Chinatown bus riders, my experience was relatively calm by comparison. The weekends especially can be "hairy" with more people trying to get on buses and vans than there are seats.

Workers for Fung Wah, one of several bus companies that run Chinatown buses, often struggle to maintain order, warning that only those with tickets will be let onto the bus. Veteran Fung Wah travelers say the weekend crowds gathering at the corner of Beach Street and Surface Road in Boston and at Canal and Christie Streets in New York have become the norm.

"Sometimes they only speak in Chinese," said one traveler, making communication difficult.

One Fung Wah traveler bought a ticket online for a Friday-afternoon bus, was misdirected to the wrong bus by a Fung Wah worker, then eased into the front of the line for a later bus when the mistake was realized. Others report shouting matches among travelers trying to get on the buses.

The hassle, though, is worth it for many Chinatown riders.

"It's fast, it's clean, it's cheap ... it's cheap ... it's cheap," said one young woman as we made a rest stop in Connecticut. "The train can take longer and it's 90 bucks."

Price is right

Most fellow travelers I talked with on the bus that Friday morning said it was the price that made the difference. A grandmother traveling with two small children on her way home to Boston said it was the only way she could afford to travel between the two cities. A young couple with backpacks agreed.

They had a point. The cost of travel on the bus to Boston can be less than the cab fare to get to the bus stop in the first place. It cost me $12 to take a taxi from my Midtown hotel to the Chinatown bus stop.

For years, Fung Wah generally served members of the Chinese community, providing a van service and a quick and affordable way to travel from Boston to New York.

There are several levels of service. My trip was on a bus with nice seats, but few facilities. We stopped once along the way for a 10-minute break. There was a McDonald's outlet at the rest stop. Some other Fung Wah motor coaches have television screens and a built-in restroom. Vans, which are still used by Fung Wah, do not have restrooms, but make 10-minute stops along the route.

The vans can be an experience, said one Chinatown bus veteran. They seem to be driven at a somewhat faster rate of speed than the buses, the traveler said. Unsafely? Perhaps, but one report said that the Chinese drivers "have a tendency to treat the New Jersey Turnpike like Germany's high-speed Autobahn."

Weekend frenzy

Buses don't always leave on time and passengers have been forced to wait for later buses when ridership loads are underestimated, some customers say. That inconsistency, riders say, is what causes chaos before passengers board, especially on weekends.

Attempts to reach executives at Fung Wah proved difficult. At the bus stop, a knock on the door of the office went unanswered. The employee carrying the sign to the bus shook her head when asked whom to call. The driver spoke only Chinese.

A telephone call was answered by a woman who could give me bus schedules only. "Can I talk with the boss or someone in charge?" I asked. "Don't know the boss," was the answer. "Try back at 5 p.m."

No luck when I called back.

Perhaps they are reluctant to talk because the business is competitive — even dangerous. Last May, the operator of a Chinatown bus company competing with others in a bitter battle for riders was shot and killed on a street near his home, according to newspaper reports on the incident.

Over the past year, several Chinatown bus companies have competed so fiercely for riders that fistfights have broken out between rival employees, and neighbors have complained of ganglike violence, according to the reports.

There even have been some reports of a "Southwest Airlines effect," a general lowering of fares by other bus companies because of the low-cost alternatives.

Can't meet Chinatown fares

Kim Plaskett, a spokesperson for Greyhound Bus at corporate headquarters in Dallas, said "we're aware of them." She said the bus line often offers specials in heavily traveled corridors, especially in the Northeast, but have not responded directly to the lower Chinatown fares.

"When you buy a ticket from us, we offer safety, convenience and frequency," Plaskett said. Greyhound's Web site offered a one-way ticket between New York and Boston for $30, a special $20 fare to Washington, D.C., and other "student" specials.

My Chinatown bus ride ended in Boston, again on a side street. It was a convenient stop — a few blocks away was Boston's South Station, where Amtrak trains and other bus companies arrived. There is also a "T" stop, Boston's rail transit system.

Oh, and the wind was still blowing.