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
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
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
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
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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