Riding the Chinatown Bus, and Considering Its True Cost

My first job out of undergrad was doing radio and producing work for a newswire in Washington D.C., while one of my college roommates lived in New York’s Lower East Side and was cast in off-off-Broadway shows. Neither of us were making very much money, but we were four hours away from each other and would visit using the cheapest mode of transportation we could find: the Chinatown bus.

These buses had various names: The Fung Wah Bus, Megabus, Boltbus, Washington Deluxe, and so on. Back then, for $30, you could go to from D.C. to New York and back again.

You could also get stranded on the side of the road, or deal with a number of other nightmares — these buses got into accidents all the time.

Nico Lang discusses some of the horror stories and common complaints at the Daily Dot:

Although there are positive stories (a friend of mine found a winning lottery ticket for $100 on a Megabus), almost everyone I know seemed to have aMegabus horror story to tell. Common complaints included long delays and pervasive breakdowns, even in the middle of winter. After a breakdown in Marshall, Mich., had one couple waiting six hours in a gas station, they paid for a limo to take them the rest of the way to Chicago.

Another couple was on the 2012 bus that blew a tire on Illinois’ Interstate 55; according to the Chicago Tribune, the bus “careened out of control” before hitting a concrete pillar. The woman in front of them was killed. This was just one of a number of accidents in the Chicagoland area that year, frequent enough that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called for an investigation into the company.

In addition to the service’s safety concerns, other respondents reported a stunning lack of oversight when it came to regulating passenger behavior or basic customer service. One respondent sat behind two men openly discussing the number of guns they’d brought on board the bus with them, while another sat next to a woman who had tied a plastic bag of her son’s puke to the armrest, letting it swing with the motion of the bus, smacking everyone within the bag’s reach.

My third time using one of the Chinatown buses, the bus overheated and smoke began to billow in the front. We’re gonna have to stop the bus before it catches fire, the bus driver said. We were stranded at a rest stop for a few hours until another bus came by to pick us up.

I stopped taking those buses after that. The savings weren’t worth it.

Photo: Richard Erikkson

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