Chinatown Bus: Ode to a Cheap Thrill
If Fung Wah's safety record didn't kill it, those cheap competitors offering wi-fi certainly would have. After a near-collapse from 2002 to 2006, DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development says bus ridership grew 8.1% from 2006 to 2007 and 9.8% between 2007 and 2008. That just happens to coincide with the launch of cheap Bolt and Megabus wi-fi service, but also with the launch of Apple's (AAPL) first two iPhones in June 2007 and July 2008.
At the same time, Fung Wah accidents were transitioning from unfortunate one-offs to regular occurrences. In 2007 alone, New York-bound Fung Wah buses were involved in three separate accidents on the Mass Pike that involved one bus losing its wheels, another hitting a guardrail during a snowstorm and another hit a barrier in front of a toll booth.
While Fung Wah managed to quiet things down until about 2011, other unseen damage was already being done. All those folks who were wearing headphones, thumbing through magazines or talking to friends on Chinatown buses just a few years before were playing game apps, making dinner reservations and mapping out a night of bar hopping on wired buses with smartphones and tablets just a few years later. They didn't mind a cheap ride on the increasingly shaky Fung Wah every so often, but it wasn't the only game in town.
The Fung Wah incidents, combined with structural cracks that forced 21 of its buses off the road in February, quieted what the bus line's owners had dubbed, in Cantonese, the "magnificent wind."Even if Fung Wah keeps refusing to comply with federal authorities and shuts down for good -- and other similarly scrutinized Chinatown bus lines follow -- that's far from the end of its story. Though lovers in Northeast towns no longer have a steady $15 solution bridge for their long-distance relationships, they've set the price for bus services like Greyhound's low-budget Yo! route. While no amount of bar hopping and couch surfing could overshadow Fung Wah's safety record, the fares it produced made it possible for roommates in Portland, Ore., to catch a Bolt Bus to crash with friends in Seattle before Bumbershoot, or for college bros in Bellingham to take a similar ride up to Vancouver for a Canucks game. Because of bands who spent their Fung Wah rides romanticizing those trips in their rhyme books, others can catch a Megabus from Chicago to a gig in Madison or from Dallas to a South By Southwest show in Austin. There's more romance to those beaten-down, cloud-spewing, patently unsafe Fung Wah buses than their cracked, decommissioned frames can convey. They were the death traps and suicide raps that Bruce Springsteen advised escaping while you were still young, but it was tough not to enjoy the cheap and ready ride while it lasted. When the Fung Wah isn't making its St. Patrick's Day runs down to the Fifth Avenue parade or up to Southie this weekend, maybe their mothballed silence will remind former passengers of a time when they weren't always so grey, ornery and risk-averse. Maybe it'll even remind them why they cared enough to grumble in the first place, as the New Yorker's Marc Philippe Eskenazi did when his parody dissolved into an earnest sendoff in its last verse: "Farewell Fung Wah. Your engines may be crazy, but they still got me here." -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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