It’s looking like the end of the road for the Fung Wah bus company, and rightly so. Their buses were in dangerously bad shape, their drivers notoriously reckless and short on sleep, and the whole operation run with not much concern for safety. The Federal Department of Transportation has ordered all their buses off the road, pending inpsection – and the state of Massachusetts has already inspected and flunked 21 of 28. For the moment, they are running leased buses, but apparently not getting many passengers. I think they’re doomed.
As I said, rightly so; they were endangering the health and lives of their riders, and sometimes of others (a Fung-Wah bus recently struck two pedestrians in New York, injuring them seriously). They should be put out of business.
But I’ll miss them. I remember when I first heard of the “Chinatown Bus” – so named because it then ran from Chinatown in Boston to Chinatown in New York. For a little while, the riders were mostly Chinese, but that didn’t last long as the young people of both cities heard about their incredibly low fares: about $10 one-way if you bought on-line in advance. The normal fare then was $50-60, so Fung Wah’s cheap travel was liberatory. They attracted a huge following, running every hour and moving from the vans of their early days to real buses.
They kept the fares low through a combination of questionable practices. First, they picked up passengers on street corners, avoiding the fees charged to use the bus station. They still do this in New York, but in Boston the big companies (Greyhound/Peter Pan) got the city to force them to use the station. But by then many competitors had sprung up – first Chinatown rivals like Lucky Dragon and Travel Pak, but then Bolt, Megabus, and probably more — and Greyhound and Peter Pan had to drop their own fares significantly.
So, bad as Fung Wah was and is, we owe them for brining down the cost of travel.
Ironic coda: Of course, I’m a beleiver in the regulatory role of government. We rely on it, as in this case, to protect our health and safety. But I’m also a believer in the theory of regulatory capture, first promulgated by Marver Bernstein in his book Regulating Business by Independent Commission. Over time, regulators are won over by those they regulate, and implicitly redefine their purpose as protecting the industry instead of the public. We need the occasional Fung Wahs to break them out of this pattern.