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Sweet Price, Sour Cost

By Larry Tung

Taking a bus out of town usually starts with a trip to the Port Authority bus terminal. But Jaime Inglehart is one of an increasing numbers of students and other budget travelers who have been going instead down to Canal Street outside the Mahayana Buddhist Temple. Like others, Ingleheart has discovered the Chinatown buses. She pays just $45 for a roundtrip ticket to Boston, instead of $84 at Greyhound.

The Chinatown buses -- there are at least three competing companies -- are drawing travelers away from the major bus lines and bringing business to the neighborhood. But even as these positive changes take place, the small companies themselves are fighting literally to price each other out of the market.

Licensed by the Federal Highway Administration, the buses provide frequent service between New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C, Norfolk, VA, and Baltimore, MD that rivals mainstream competition Greyhound and Peter Pan. "It's pretty convenient," says Ho An Bao, a Vietnamese-American, who uses the buses to travel between New York and Boston. "It pretty much runs by the hour so you can buy a ticket one way and return on any day you want. And you can also reserve tickets by phone and just show up half an hour before to pick up the tickets and pay for them."

Bao learned about the buses from her family in Boston, a city with a large Vietnamese population and one of the country's biggest Chinatowns. According to Pauline Lau, who works at the ticket booth next to the Mahayana Temple, about half of her customers are Chinese and the other half are mostly Caucasians, Vietnamese, Koreans, and African-Americans.

Michael Li, a ticket salesperson who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Fuchownese and some English, said that the Chinatown buses are bringing economic benefits to the Chinatown community. "It created a lot of employment opportunities, bringing prosperity to this community," said Li. "When those bus riders arrive in Chinatown, they have to eat, and they have to shop. It's a great contribution to the economy here."

But all of the new customers have made competition all the more fierce. While the Chinatown bus prices easily undercut mainstream bus lines, the three majors Chinatown lines are fighting among themselves for passengers. Competition has caused prices to go through the floor, as they try to price one another out of the market.

Asked about whether his company is making any profit with such low prices, Li smiled and said that the price war is only temporary and that fares will go up in the near future. "The low fares are only special promotional rates," Li said. "After a while, it would go up but people would have already gotten familiar with our service by then."

But the profits are not the only thing worrying the owners of the buses. The competition has another side to it, turning the price war into a real war, with each side staging attacks and taking casualties.

A bus driver, who only agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, said there is a definite dirty side to the industry.

"Competition can be healthy," he said. "Once somebody sees that you are growing, they want to move in. But when it goes to the extreme to violence … that's what these people do."

The violence has gotten so bad, he added, that his boss had been hurt twice by fellow competitors. "He was squashed between buses once when a bus backed up purposely and he got stabbed once," he said. "People have received death threats and my bus has been shot by B. B. guns with passengers on it."

David Yat, a detective in charge of community affairs at the fifth precinct on Elizabeth Street, which oversees Chinatown, said the police are aware of the fights among the Chinatown bus companies but people rarely report any incident unless injuries occur.

However, the police are taking some actions on the crime, Yat added. A mini bus parked on Canal Street with a Maryland license plate, owned by the Eastern Travel and Tour, Inc., is currently in police custody as investigations on a recent incident is underway.

The police are often left out of these disputes, since victims of threats or attacks fear further harassment. This is something they cannot afford, since many need to stay in the neighborhood. "With the language barrier, they can't get out and move elsewhere to work," said the bus driver. "They are kind of stuck here."

There is a common Chinese saying that goes "Competition leads to progress." That may be true, but in this case progress seems to have brought other things along with it.

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