It’s hard to overstate the impact these buses have had. Unsubsidized and barely regulated, a handful of immigrant entrepreneurs changed the way we move through the country’s busiest corridor. “The sector’s spectacular growth has been a wakeup call for the enormous possibilities of motor coach travel in urban life,” says Joe Schwieterman, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who studies intercity bus service.
...The Chinatown buses seem to have worked a miracle, and not all of them were found to be delinquent (the stalwart Fung Wah is still honorably up and running). Even more important, they sparked an intercity busing renaissance that now includes Megabus and BoltBus, upscale carriers that have created a whole new clientele of people who had never used the bus. These lines offer Wi-Fi and comfy seats, charge a comparable price to the ones that were shut down, and manage to operate within the confines of good labor and safety standards.
According to Schwieterman, these new corporate operators are helping the curbside bus industry balloon by at least 33 percent a year, and move into less transit-oriented cities like Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans. “It’s been pretty much unabated growth for six years,” he says — the fastest expanding mode of transportation in America. “What’s extraordinary is how the sector can grow without bumping up against any roadblocks.”
A more libertarian attitude toward transit makes sense, to a point. That kind of attitude spawned something incredible: the resurgence of intercity busing, a mode of transportation that was nearly left for dead half a century ago. By taking cars off the road, curbside intercity buses are now reducing America’s fuel consumption by 11 million gallons annually. Even more amazing, they’re prompting us to travel more than we used to — Schwieterman’s research found that 20 percent of curbside intercity bus trips would never have happened at all if the service didn’t exist. That, in and of itself, is a revolution.
In fairness, Doig does attempt to offer some actual criticism:
The Chinatown buses were frequently hailed as a smart new transit model and an example of urban ingenuity. But last week’s crackdown and several recent crashes complicate that picture, illustrating that a $15 bus ticket can be like a $3 steak — you don’t necessarily want to know why it’s so cheap. Many of these bus lines were shameful by any normal transportation standards: unlicensed drivers, deadly safety records, a disregard for the streets they drove on. Much of what made them “innovative” was good old-fashioned corner-cutting.
...Transit systems, in particular, are fragile, intricate ecosystems that rightly receive a healthy degree of government protection from invasive species. So, for instance, while it’s tempting to argue, as the Atlantic recently did, in favor of legalizing dollar vans, those developing-world-style jitneys that pick up passengers for cheaper than the bus, the many problems with this are usually played down. Dollar vans poach riders from the already cash-strapped bus system. They put transit in the hands of low-paid, non-union drivers. Those low-paid drivers are more often involved in crashes than higher-paid ones.
And most important, it’s been tried before — not just in New York, but in many cities — with miserable results. “There was this expectation that these vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit,” says Columbia University assistant professor of urban planning David King. But, “There are a lot of real problems when you try to formalize informal transit."
...The Chinatown buses are as much a warning against deregulation as they are an endorsement of it. Cheaper and faster, at any expense, isn’t always better.