R.I.P. Chinatown Bus?

By Yevgeny Shrago

Anyone who has ever needed to get quickly and cheaply (if not safely) from New York to just about anywhere on the East Coast should shed at least one tear today, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shut down 26 bus lines today, most of which operated out of New York and Philadelphia’s Chinatowns (hence the affectionate title “Chinatown bus”).  The carriers were shut down for a variety of serious problems including overworked, improperly licensed drivers and failure to properly repair the buses. Despite the New York Times’s intimations that passengers would be pushed to Greyhound, several of the larger lines, such as Fung Wah, appear to be unaffected by the shutdown.

The safety problems with these buses will almost certainly be used to oppose any calls for opening up the state-enforced public monopolies on local bus service or, at the least, loosening of taxicab medallion requirements.  The Chinatown buses are one of the major examples of private, unsubsidized, intra-city ground transportation in the United States and their safety record is reprehensible.  At the same time, these buses were groundbreaking and despite their dismal safety record, they are an argument for permitting more open competition in transportation.

Today, anyone nervous about that safety record can take an almost as inexpensive ride on Megabus or Boltbus to most major cities instead of having to ride on the terrible and expensive Greyhound buses (which themselves have had to improve as a result of competition).  Both these ventures are owned by large players who were forced to provide this service once they realized how badly they were being outcompeted by Chinatown buses.  Furthermore, these buses have succeeded despite intense opposition and lobbying from entrenched players like Peter Pan and Greyhound to deny them gates at the major bus stations in each city (hence coming and going from Chinatown).  The result of all these entrants into the market was a huge spike in bus ridership and departures.

So keeping in mind the need to maintain high safety standards and regular inspections, let’s let a hundred bus lines bloom in America’s major cities.  It might even help out your local transit authority.

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