Controlling Chaos in Chinatown Bus Land

Jamie Wilson, a tallish 28-year-old hat designer who stood in line in heels with a roller bag in Boston's gleaming South Station Bus Terminal, was a bit peeved as she waited to go back to New York City.

She had wanted to ride with Megabus. But for various reasons was forced to take the more traditional Peter Pan, an ally of Greyhound. And because she had not bought her ticket online in advance, she was paying a whopping $35. Of course she could have paid a mere $15 on the spot to ride on Fung Wah, one of the original "Chinatown Bus" lines. But she felt it was unreliable. At least that is what she had heard.

She waited for her bus in the gleaming, relatively new South Station bus terminal. It features a soaring rotunda with a circular walkway around a central sky-lighted atrium — a bit like the Guggenheim in Manhattan — that floods the corridor with natural light. The newsstand sells the Harvard Business Review. It's a far cry from the typical dingy bus station of yore.

Wilson is participating in the brave new world of inter-city bus service, which after decades of dormancy, has come roaring back to life. There is now cheap and popular bus service between major cities around the country, driven by dozens of small, and constantly shifting, independent bus companies. And New York City is where it began, according to most accounts.

On the sidewalks of Chinatown, these buses started around 1997 serving mostly Chinese workers. As the low-cost rides caught on, students and others began boarding the buses, which were perfectly comfortable. Prices were ridiculously low. The service caught on.

With success has come problems. Now more than 300 buses a day load and unload passengers near the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan. Neighbors complain about sidewalk congestion by people waiting in line and traffic congestion by buses coming in and out. Nationally dozens of people — a startlingly high figure — have been killed in crashes on these bus lines in the last few years, many apparently caused by sleepy, overworked drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Boston's South Station, run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, houses train, bus, subway, commuter rail, and Amtrak service in a collection of buildings. It's one model on how to solve some of these problems.

Back in 2004, Boston ordered Fung Wah and other independent bus companies to provide service from the South Station bus terminal. The city prohibited sidewalk pickups. There was much grumbling, but today service has grown, prices are still low, and traffic and other congestion problems are much fewer.

Could New York City do something like this? It already has, of course, with the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd and 8th Avenue. But unlike the Boston station, which has plenty of space, the Port Authority bus terminal is full up, with a waiting list to get in. And this might not solve the problem anyway, since most of these independent bus companies now pick up in and around Chinatown.

New York City's Planning Department studied the independent bus companies and produced a report in late 2009 called, appropriately enough, the Chinatown Bus Study.

It recommended that a new bus station be built in Chinatown to consolidate the dozen or so bus companies now providing service. Until that happens, it recommended that all bus companies be required to have a permit to load and unload on city sidewalks. This would require state approval, and a bill was introduced earlier this year in Albany to that effect.

There is some interesting déjà vu here, which is detailed in the city's planning report. Some 70 years ago, New York streets in midtown were congested with a dozen or so competing bus companies going through the new Lincoln Tunnel at 39th street on Manhattan's West Side, which opened in 1937. These buses dropped off passengers on city streets and at eight independent bus stations. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Commissioner Robert Moses proposed cleaning this up by building a central bus station near the tunnel mouth so that bus traffic on city streets would be reduced. The bus companies resisted. In 1950, more than a decade after it was proposed, the Port Authority Bus Terminal opened. It has worked well.

Building such a facility on or near Chinatown streets in lower Manhattan would be expensive, and locating it difficult, but it would provide order to a service that can't continue as informally as it now operates. For now I will continue to use their service and like their low prices, which provide some needed competition to Amtrak's high prices and often only average service.

After speaking with Jamie Wilson, I board my own bus, Fung-Wah, and make it back to New York City in a mere four hours and 15 minutes, despite a big traffic jam on I-91 in Connecticut. I step off the bus onto Canal Street, and then take the subway home to Brooklyn.