02.13.10

American Long Distance Bus Transportation: Now Made in China

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:03 pm by Benjamin Ross

During my 3.5 years living fulltime in China, I set the goal of exploring as much of the country as possible. Before I returned to the United States, I had visited all but 6 of China’s 27 provinces, the majority of its provincial capitals, and tens of rural towns and villages. The way such extensive adventures were possible was by stringing multiple locations together on a single trip, and traveling between them over land. Sometimes I would start at home in Fuzhou and travel a circular path, leading back to where I started. On other occasions I would fly to a distant city, and slowly make my way back via trains and buses. A third option was to fly to one city, then travel over land to another, from which I would fly home. Due to China’s population density and predictable transportation network, this form of traveling was practical, thrifty, and allowed me to see more of the country than had I visited destinations one at a time.

It’s now been over two years since I returned to the United States, and my travels in China have left me curious as to how feasible this method of travel would be in my home country. In my early twenties, I traveled extensively through the U.S., mostly by driving. Now that I have repatriated, and given up car dependency (which I urge all to try) the time was fitting to test long distance ground transportation in the United States.

The itinerary for my recent trip to the East Coast was to fly to Boston on December 23, and then from Baltimore fly home January 7, leaving two weeks to meander down the coast. Though long distance ground transportation is the default in China, it remains foreign to most Americans, especially those not on the East Coast. While most Americans still prefer their jetliners and private automobiles, a unique marriage between China and the United States has blossomed on the East Coast: The “Chinatown bus.”

The “Chinatown bus” refers to several Chinese-operated bus companies (the ones I tried were 2000 New Century and Fung Wa) running networks throughout the Eastern United States. The buses provide frequent (sometimes hourly) transit between major cities including New York, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, with fares rarely exceeding fifteen dollars. Using Chinatown buses, I traveled from Boston to New York, and then from New York to Philadelphia, and finally Philadelphia to Baltimore, all for a total cost of 37 dollars. I did not purchase any of my tickets in advance, and my longest bus station wait was twenty minutes.

on way to Baltimore, via Philadelphia -> DC Chinatown bus.

Trips on the Chinatown bus are standard service without frills. Like China, there are no bathrooms on the bus, no wireless Internet connections, and minimal excess legroom. There are also no karaoke videos, farmers carrying bags of dead fish, or random stops to avoid police bus-overloading checkpoints. (America does have its perks.)

Aside from occasional mechanical failure, the main difficulty Chinatown bus riders report is finding the bus drop off locations. In some transit points, such as Boston’s South Station, the Chinatown bus picks up and drops off inside the official station, running ticket booths side by side with American bus companies. In other locations, such as East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown, buses operate out of makeshift bus stops and storefronts. Additionally, for those traveling within New York City, an ad hoc Chinese-operated bus services whisks passengers between the three Chinatowns for only $2.50 each trip.

The Chinatown bus service is nothing new for East Coasters. On the contrary, it has become the way to travel cheap from city to city. According to Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, the Chinatown bus began as a service to shuttle Chinese restaurant workers from Chinatown to Chinatown between Boston and New York City. Buses were patronized almost exclusively by Chinese passengers until college kids got wind of it, and began using them to return home for vacation. It was then a matter of time until the Chinatown bus phenomenon went mainstream. In each of my Chinatown bus experiences, the drivers, conductors, and ticket sellers were all Chinese, while a majority of the passengers were not.

Chinese in America have a long history of occupational specialization, first arriving as railroad workers in the 1860’s. When railroad jobs waned, Chinese entrepreneurs opened cleaners or curios shops. In the 20th Century, the invention of American Chinese food led to a boom in the demand for restaurant workers. This boom continues today and ultimately was the impetus behind the Chinatown bus’ emergence, now providing new employment opportunities for blue collar Chinese immigrants who traditionally worked primarily in the restaurant sector.

Much as Chinese restaurants influenced the way Americans eat (Lee claims the US has more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Wendy’s combined) the Chinatown bus is now reshaping transportation on the East Coast. Whereas compared to flying, long distance trains offer only of nominal cost savings, the Chinatown bus offers comparable transit times with significantly cheaper fares. Its popularity has caused American bus companies to lower their own prices in order to remain afloat against their “made in China” competition.

Will the Chinatown bus ever become a major player in the American long distance transit industry, as the Chinese restaurant has with fast food? Probably not. Mass transportation efficiency, both long distance and short, is a function of population density. Barring major changes in land usage and urban planning, the East Coast will likely remain the only region of the country where long distance buses are a practical alternative to planes or private cars. So for the near future, Chinatown style bus transit outside of the East Coast will probably still require a trip to the Middle Kingdom. But for backpackers wanting an overland excursion, the East Coast and its Chinatown bus network allow for the ideal budget adventure.

6 Comments »

  1. Andy Goldstein Ireland said,

    February 13, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    I took my girlfriend, Li Bei, to DC and we had no idea about this until we showed up to Chinatown (we were a bit homesick for some dumplings). To our surprise and delight, it felt just like “home” and we took this bus to NYC. Cheaper and more convenient than driving.

    Andy
    Nanjing, China

  2. Andy Goldstein Ireland said,

    February 13, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    By the way, not sure why it shows a German flag. Must be my Great Firewall slaying proxy :).

    Andy

  3. Cathy United States said,

    February 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Interestingly, the mainstream bus companies meet the same prices but offer more perks (e.g., WiFi). And I believe they’re profitable. Yet they wouldn’t have existed were it not for the Chinatown buses having discovered the market.

    There really should be some running between San Francisco or San Jose and Los Angeles. That’s a market ripe for filling.

  4. Nik United States said,

    February 14, 2010 at 10:24 am

    A site with all th info of all Chinatown bus stops would be a very nice tool for someone in the know to build.

  5. Meg United States said,

    February 14, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    I used to take the Fung wah buses between Boston and NYC when I was in college, didn’t realize I was part of a trend of college students doing that! There’s also gotobus.com for cheap bus routes between major cities (they even do the overnight buses like in China) to help out your next overland travels.

  6. Hung-nguong United States said,

    March 9, 2010 at 12:10 am

    One thing you may not know: many of these bus lines are run by ethnic Fuzhou. In the past few years, long distance bus transportation has provided new jobs for the Foochowese Americans. The traditional jobs for them are restaurants, which you may have already known.

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