Two years after a federal safety crackdown, the intercity option is carrying more passengers than ever.
The success of Chinatown bus carriers in the late 1990s and early 2000s announced the return of the intercity bus, accounting for millions of annual trips and giving rise to low-cost curbside options like BoltBus and Megabus. But in 2012 and 2013 the federal government, citing safety concerns, shut down dozens of Chinatown buses, including the popular Fung Wah and Lucky Star lines. It didn’t take long for people to declare that the era of the Chinatown bus had come to an end.
“We think the sector contracted 25 to 30 percent after the crackdowns,” says Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, which studies intercity bus travel. “They were written off as yesterday’s mode.”
Far from dead, turns out the Chinatown bus is alive and better than ever. In a new report, the Chaddick Institute finds that the sector rebounded from a post-crackdown ridership decline in 2013 to tally an estimated 5.3 million passenger-trips a year in 2015. Chinatown buses now operate 48.5 million annual miles of service—up 14 percent from a 2013 dip to 42.6 million, and up 26 percent since 2008.
Chinatown service has always been tricky to track because operators don’t provide official reports (to be fair, no intercity bus really does, according to Schwieterman) and single carriers can operate under multiple names. The Chaddick report deduced service levels by gathering information on departure and arrival locations and times, then filtering out duplicates. Their conservative estimate is that Chinatown carriers in the U.S. now make some 600 scheduled trips a day.
The service remains strongest in the Northeast Corridor. And it’s not just mainstream operators filling a void left by traditional carriers that went bust during the safety shutdown. For instance the Yo! Bus, launched by Greyhound and Peter Pan after the crackdowns gradually cut back its New York-based trips and was discontinued in December—suggesting the presence of far more competition than these established carriers had expected.
What makes the growth especially impressive, says Schwieterman, is that it’s not confined to the heavily traveled Northeast. He’s seeing longer-distance and overnight routes running to non-traditional parts of the U.S., including Western Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, and Florida. There are several daily trips to Atlanta, for instance, and even the Los Angeles-Las Vegas corridor faces competition from Chinatown carriers.
“I was surprised at what small share of the buses were New York-Washington, New York-Philly,” he says. “They seem to be fanning out into these smaller markets.”
Chinatown carriers have helped themselves by keeping up with intercity bus trends toward variable pricing. In the past, says Schwieterman, many Chinatown buses would charge the same $20 fee throughout the day—a price point that’s not likely to win out over a $1 seat on Bolt Bus for a midnight trip. Riders can also now book online ahead of time at ilikebus.com and Gotobus.com using a credit card, instead of paying cash in the back of some Chinatown restaurant and battling for a seat.
Wifi is now pretty standard, he says, keeping up with broader trends in the intercity bus industry toward better passenger amenities. Many operators are branding their buses instead of running anonymous white coaches to build loyalty. And while there’s some debate about how bad the Chinatown bus safety record truly was before 2013, since then their record “certainly hasn’t been as bad as its reputation was in the old days,” according to Schwieterman.
“We think they are [complying with safety regulations] more than they’re used to,” says Schwieterman. “That crackdown was a big deal.”