If you haven’t experienced it for yourself, odds are you know somebody who has courageously boarded a Chinatown bus in the name of “economic efficiency”. While this mode of transportation was traditionally a staple for Chinese immigrants bent on buying cheap fares to various Northeastern destinations, it has since attracted the broke college student, the anti-corporate hipster, and the everyday penny-pincher.
Everything about the Chinatown bus businesses seemed altogether 落後 (backward). From the inconsistent arrivals to the rushed curbside pickups and capacity seating, the Chinatown buses were nothing short of cultural wormholes—one moment you are in downtown Manhattan and the next moment there’s a caged chicken beside you and the only audible English is that which comes through your headphones.
You got what you paid for and that was part of the charm. There were zero guarantees the driver was licensed or that the bus even passed inspection. Arriving on time was something you always hoped for, but like any risky endeavor, there was always the sense of doubt that accompanied a wishful outcome.
There too was the long list of accidents that repeatedly earned media attention, which simultaneously elevated the status of those risk-takers that dared to board any such bus. All the legal issues aside, the end of the 26 dynasties that came May 29th when a mass federal raid crippled the firms with violations can be directly linked to business models that underestimated the competition and failed to adapt to the changing times.
According to an article published in Fast Company, as early as 2008, several well-funded bus lines such as BoltBus (joint operation by Greyhound and Peter Pan) and MegaBus (Stagecoach Group) began offering budget Northeast Corridor travel. Targeting college students in particular, these lines offered easy booking features and modern on-board amenities like Wifi. Between the affordability and the “upgraded experience”, the Chinatown buses soon found themselves ostracized from their target market and chasing a very marginalized client-base.
If the these developments weren’t enough to stomp out the competition, BoltBus and MegaBus, both members of the American Bus Association, lobbied long and arduously to increase pressure on the potential legal infringements perpetrated by Chinatown bus firms. As you may have already assumed, none of the 26 carriers were privileged members of the ABA.
While a few Chinatown lines, including Feng Wah managed to elude authorities for the time being, the message is clear. Operate within the law, keep a wary eye on competition and if possible join a group with political representation. The American market is more competitive than ever and any business short of industry standard, is begging to be victimized.
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