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Why Chinatown Buses Are Still So Popular

Why Chinatown Buses Are Still So Popular
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The intercity bus industry has Chinatown to thank for its remarkable revival. The popularity of bus travel fell dramatically in the mid to late 20th century, as air fares became cheaper. But the mode began to rebound with the advent of the Fung Wah bus, in 1998, which traveled between the Chinatown districts of New York and Boston for unbelievably low fares and with unbelievable frequency. The success of Chinatown curbside buses led to the creation of "corporate" curbside buses like the BoltBus, co-owned by Greyhound, and together these modes helped intercity bus travel more than double in the Northeast Corridor between 1998 and 2007 — with ridership levels topping 7 million passengers.

Even with low-priced, high-amenity alternatives like BoltBus, many riders remain loyal to the Chinatown service, as Graham Beck wrote in a 2010 issue of Next American City:

My first trip on a curbside bus was nasty, brutish and long. Boarding had more elbows than a pickup basketball game, a spring in my seat seemed set on my prostate, and traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike shaped dreams of train tracks and engine whistles, which turned out to be the congested exhalations of a man behind me. Still, it was the cheapest way to get from New York to Philadelphia, and I was a college student. That’s all it took to get me on board.

Ten years later I’m still a curbside bus rider, and as I’ve grown up, so have the bus companies. Back then, we’d depart from the eastern edge of New York’s Chinatown, and it wasn’t just the low fare that drew me: Those trips were an adventure. There was the nice hot-pot lunch, a tall olive juice, a rickety bus whose passengers were hardly part of my liberal arts cohort. I was charged by the juvenile excitement about foreign tongues, and the very real possibility that I’d arrive with a story to tell.

Beck's fidelity is hardly unique. In research published in the latest issue of Urban Geography, Rutgers doctoral students Nicholas J. Klein and Andrew Zitcer examine the source of this enthusiasm among regular Chinatown bus riders. After conducting five focus groups with riders, Klein and Zitcer discovered that Chinatown curbside devotees see the service not just as a means of transportation but as an "authentic urban experience, a thrilling and danger-enhanced departure from daily life, and as an engagement with the multicultural city."

The focus groups were conducted in 2009 — four with English-speaking passengers, one with those who spoke Mandarin. They each lasted 1.5 to 2 hours, and a total of 37 people participated. These passengers regularly chose Chinatown bus service despite other intercity travel alternatives, either similarly priced buses or even more expense modes like Amtrak. Two-fifths of the participants made between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, Klein and Zitcer report, while another fifth made over six figures.

A primary takeaway from these discussions was that riders consider the Chinatown bus something closer to an attractive cultural experience than to an objective travel choice. The focus group participants described corporate curbside bus companies like BoltBus in terms of pricing, station location, onboard amenities — "traditional travel metrics," the authors write. Chinatown bus travelers, on the other hand, typically compared the service to travel in other countries. As one rider put it: "you're in China when you're in the Chinatown bus," one said. In the words of another:

"It is not just like a company who said ‘Oh, we’re just going to transport people from Philly to New York’. [The Chinatown bus] has more to do with that it comes from Chinatown to another Chinatown."

To that end, many focus group participants considered Chinatown riding experience a bit thrilling. Recognizing, as Beck did, that some aggressiveness is often required to secure a seat, one girl said she intentionally wears sneakers and comfortable clothes on Chinatown bus travel days — a sort of elbow-throwing, bus-boarding athletic uniform. Many travelers had safety concerns — the Chinatown traffic record has always been a point of public scrutiny; just last week, for instance, federal officials moved to stop one Chinatown service for hazardous practices — but they were willing to endure the risk nonetheless. Klein and Zitcer believe this behavior reflects the idea that Chinatown bus riders see themselves a little like tourists.

The researchers also discovered the prevalence of sensational stories emerging from the focus groups: of fellow riders sparking up cigarettes mid-ride, for instance, or drivers singing karaoke. Klein and Zitcer call these fantastic tales "chicken moments," named for a prejudicial mindset that would expect Chinese travelers to carry caged chickens on the bus with them. While such stories might not be true, the researchers acknowledge, their persistence has a value of its own among regular riders, helping them to claim the Chinatown bus as an exotic experience that exists outside conventional urban norms.

(It must be noted that the researchers recognize the peril of sensationalizing Chinatown, especially as ethnic outsiders, and insist they're attempting to "analyze what we encountered in the focus groups, not to sensationalize it." The work is just a slice of a broader line of study Klein is pursuing for his doctoral dissertation on intercity bus travel.)

For these reasons, Klein and Zitcer conclude that many regular Chinatown bus riders have come to see the service as a "stand-in" for Chinatown itself:

The Chinatown bus represents an important new lens through which Chinatown is understood in contemporary cities. The bus joins other carriers of culture such as food and media that are consumed by outsiders and form knowledge about immigrants and immigrant communities. Further, it has expanded the space of Chinatown, becoming a moving representation of the social relations and the idea of Chinatown. Finally, for many of the individuals who take the Chinatown bus, the bus strikes at the heart of the contemporary preoccupation with authenticity and what [Lionel] Trilling calls “our anxiety over the credibility of our existence and of individual existences” (1972, p. 93).

Chinatown districts may be shrinking, as our Nate Berg recently reported, but as long as they're here, many regular intercity travelers will continue to lace up two sneakers and ready two elbows to board the buses they provide.

Figure from Klein and Zitcer, "Everything but the Chickens: Cultural Authenticity Onboard the Chinatown Bus," Urban Geography, 33 (1), Jan 1 - Feb 14, 2012, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.33.1.46. Many thanks to Klein for providing a full copy of the paper.

Top image courtesy Flickr user kirinqueen

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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