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Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of the One Dollar Bus by Jefferson Mao

[ People think New York and they think Manhattan first, or maybe the finer precincts of Brooklyn. But it’s an amazingly diverse city. Jefferson Mao grew up in Flushing, Queens, and writes a blog dedicated to that extremely diverse and interesting neighborhood. It’s called Flushing Exceptionalism and you ought to give it a look. In this piece reprinted from that blog, he talks about entrepreneurship and the life conditions of the immigrant – Aaron. ]

one dollar bus 300x199 The Brief Wondrous Life of the One Dollar BusI was there for the entirety of the One Dollar Bus Era in Flushing. It was on a Sunday when they first appeared, and my friend and I saw them on Main Street, in the middle of everything. The buses were white, mostly blank, and obviously very recently painted over. It went from Flushing to Manhattan Chinatown, and the $1 per ride sign was a little hard to believe, so we stepped closer and listened to the lady hawking the tickets assure all the skeptical pedestrians. This is the greatest thing ever, we thought. Their margins must be shit! We are sensitive about other people gawking at the ridiculousness of Flushing businesses, but inwardly we’re still pretty impressed by it ourselves.

The commuter service itself is nothing new. Small commuter vans run the Flushing to Chinatown route every day, charging $2.75 per ride and doing brisk business from a stretch of 41st Avenue near the decrepit and neglected LIRR station that’s supposed to serve this community. The vans follow no real schedule, leave whenever the driver deemed them sufficiently filled, and they’ve been around for as long as I can remember. But witnessing the entrance of the One Dollar Bus was weirdly exciting that day, to see it unfold for you on a random weekend afternoon like any other.

Of course, $1 is simply not a serious price to charge. From the beginning we knew that it wouldn’t last, and we could only speculate about how the appearance of these new buses would play out. We had a hunch that they were the same interstate buses that were shut down in May for safety and administrative violations. We knew that the smaller commuter vans that run the Flushing-Chinatown route would throw all they had against the encroachment of the buses. All of it seemed pretty inevitable, and it was only a question of how long the price war could last, and what laws or agreements of good faith would be broken in the process.

The One Dollar Bus Era lasted for two weeks. After a few days of ineffective resistance, the small commuter vans dropped their price to $1 as well in the face of the bigger, higher-capacity buses. At the same time, they appealed to the Department of Transportation, who proceeded with an investigation into the legality of the big buses. After a tense couple of weeks, including some reports of physical confrontations and violence (although where they were and how bad they were I never found out), the big buses were gone, as abruptly as they came. The police seized four of the buses, and issued $1500 fines for each. The DOT ruled that they were operating illegally; city law only permitted commuter van services that carry no more than 19 passengers at a time. On the same day that they were shut down, the small vans went back to $2.75 a ride.

It was totally predictable, the way things ended, but it felt very unsatisfying. The mainstream publications readily picked the story up, and the Village Voice even compared it to the soap opera Dallas, what with the reported fisticuffs and the screaming price war. But for something that was supposed to be dramatic and sensational, it was all so perfunctory. Public transit proves inadequate for the people, so we come up with an alternative mode of transportation; gutsy, immigrant entrepreneurs work for wages that are basically unfathomable for anyone else; eventually the government shuts down the big buses on a regulation that still seems a little arbitrary. There is vague talk of congestion and safety, with unsurprising arguments from both sides. In the comments sections of the newspaper stories, a lot of readers automatically started taking shots at Bloomberg. Overall the whole thing reads like a didactic story about the failure of our transportation system. Flushing just illustrates this point in an ostentatious way by playing the role of a messed up place where a lot of messed up things happen. In the end that’s all anyone took away from the whole episode.

The most interesting thing about the Chinatown Bus is that it was only made possible by segregation. It’s the classical example of a new industry born entirely out of exclusion. Of course, all immigrants are limited by the few occupations that are open to them. But the Chinatown Bus specifically served those who were separated from the population at large, both geographically and culturally. It was created with a very specific audience in mind. It was never meant to be for everyone.

The earliest iteration of the Chinatown Bus came out of New York in the late 90s. The Fung Wah Transportation Company, the most famous of the bunch, started as a jitney service that shuttled Chinese workers from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Growing affluence and the desire to spread to the suburbs, combined with gentrification pressures in Manhattan, led to the establishment of various Chinese communities in the outer boroughs and all along the eastern seaboard. Commercial outposts formed around these communities, and new immigrants from Manhattan moved out there to work in the Chinese supermarkets and restaurants. But they would always have to return to New York to see family and to socialize, and they were connected through the buses. They went on vacations by the buses, going from one Chinatown to another and back. When their kids grew up, they went on college tours. The New York to Boston route was the most popular.

Everything depended on the immediate, surrounding Chinese population. The buses idled curbside along Allen Street because they had no terminal to depart from. They advertised solely through word-of-mouth through the community, because they couldn’t afford to reach out in any other way. They were able to trim infrastructure, marketing, and service costs to bring lower prices for a limited clientele. And it was sustainable, repeat business — they had a niche all their own. In 2002, the advent of online ticketing services helped the curbside bus business proliferate. A lot of bus companies joined in, many good and many bad. In 2008, the major players in the coach industry gave up their years of lobbying efforts against curbside buses and formed curbside bus lines of their own.

Today MegaBus and BoltBus enjoy the highly debatable reputation of being the safer and more upscale alternative to the Chinatown Bus while still keeping competitive prices. Good PR, a centralized Midtown loading location, employees that actually speak English, and a ridership that’s more presentable in the eyes of your average American have cemented them as the Chinatown Bus gone legitimate. Curbside buses now make more than 2,500 trips a week between New York, Boston, D.C. and Philly, moving millions of people per year. Essentially, MegaBus, BoltBus, and the multitude of new entries into the market took an industry created for a segregated and autonomous population and turned it into something else. Meanwhile, the term “Chinatown Bus” has become a catch-all for any of the bus companies associated with the ethnic Chinese or with any business practice that would appear nonstandard to a mainstream ridership. This was reinforced by a wave of incidents that raised public apprehension, culminating with a casino bus crash in the Bronx that killed 15 people in March of last year. It was the worst crash in curbside bus history. It’s interesting to note that neither the bus driver nor the owner of the company was Chinese; only the victims were Chinese.

I don’t ride the Chinatown Bus very often, but I am familiar with it in all its iterations, and I understand it in the peripheries of my mind like anyone who’s ever relied on it. I remember taking a Chinatown tour bus to D.C. with my parents when we first came to the America. We wanted to see the landmarks of this country but didn’t know enough English to fend for ourselves. I remember taking the Flushing to Chinatown commuter van to get to high school when the subways were shut down during the Great MTA Strike of 2005. I remember taking the bus again with my parents, when we were deciding between colleges. And after college, I remember visiting my friends at their internships up and down the East Coast.

The buses mean much more than just a cheap way to get around. This is so obvious that you’d think it should be commonly understood, but it’s rarely ever brought up. From the very beginning, the buses were made for a very distinct customer base, and throughout the years, despite the online ticketing service changes and such, they never really changed the way they operate to accommodate other kinds of riders. I guess in recent times, students and young college grads have found the scrappy, urban, DIY aesthetic of the bus endearing or whatever. However, it wasn’t made for them either. It was always meant to be exclusive and protective for the Chinese immigrant population, stitching together a network of people who are slightly more sympathetic and a handful of places that make slightly more sense. Of course it also happened to be cheap, but for the people who relied on them, the Chinatown Bus was never so simple as a tradeoff between price and quality.

* * *

flushing van 300x225 The Brief Wondrous Life of the One Dollar BusA week after the $1 buses were shut down, I went to see the small commuter van drivers on 41st Avenue. These vans are typically self-owned, self-driven operations, although they pay significant fees to other fleet owners to handle paperwork and regulations. The drivers were good-natured but outstandingly cynical, sure that unfair competition could come back at any given time. “Check back tomorrow,” they told me.

Still though, things seemed to have come back to normal. All the customers fell back in line and weren’t too bothered. If the buses were running for $1, then great. If the price was back to $2.75, well, they still had to get home. And plus, everyone knew that $1 was pretty ridiculous anyway. The edict in May to shut down some of the interstate bus companies could prove to be a blessing as well. Certainly there are some bad companies within the industry, and as the service has proven itself with a mainstream ridership, maybe the city will start caring about regulating for safety. The Chinatown Bus will continue to develop and adapt itself, especially now that it directly competes with BoltBus and MegaBus. “They’ll have to grow and evolve, most likely through consolidation,” says Dr. Jimmy Chen, owner of the largest curbside bus online ticketing service, and an amateur historian of the Chinatown Bus industry. “That’s the normal process of industrial development.” In the grand scheme of things the two weeks of One Dollar Bus didn’t mean much, and it’ll be forgotten soon enough.

But it really did make me think a lot about how this whole ridiculous bus business was able to succeed in the first place. What does it take to build a burgeoning industry from a few blocks of parking space in Chinatown? People talk about entrepreneurs and “job creators” like they’re wizards or something. But it’s not that complicated or abstruse to figure out, is it? Here we have a perfect example.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on the fundamental shifts in our economy to high-skill, high-paying jobs, and the need for the trained professionals to fill those positions. And it’s true that Facebook and Twitter and Google all happen to require technological innovation and a multitude of talented, well-educated individuals. But to take that as the basis of economic growth would be looking at it all backwards, I think. After all, the Chinatown Bus didn’t have any of those things. It wasn’t born out of high education, technology, tolerance, bohemianism, or even very much creativity, if you really think about it.

No, the underlying reason for the success of the Chinatown Bus is the same as that of any other business: it caters to a well-defined, tight-knit consumer niche. The fact is, Facebook started as a networking site for elite college students. Twitter really took off when Shaq started tweeting. The salient feature of these success stories is not the ingenious and daring innovation of their founders so much as the privilege, the social capital, or the economic well-being of its niche consumer base. In the celebrated new industries of Brooklyn, the clients are usually well-established institutions with wealth and influence. Even the successful coffee shops, venues, and small businesses of gentrifying neighborhoods are tied together by a network of people with shared interests, complementary ideology, similar life experiences, and the luxury of free time.

Chinese immigrants have neither money nor influence, but what they lacked in resources they made up for through sheer introversion. They relied on each other, working and eating and socializing within the neighborhood, mostly because they had no other alternative. It was the very differentness of the Chinese immigrants that became the foundation that led to the creation of the buses. In the autonomous little region that they carved out for themselves, word-of-mouth and community needs could substitute for marketing and advertising. It takes a niche community to nurture an idea until it can gain enough steam to be adopted by a broader audience. And this plays out all the time in every aspect of immigrant life in America. Chinese restaurants across the country have long given up on the thought that Americans could like Chinese food as it truly is, so they gave in to their god-awful tastes in beef and broccoli or whatever. But in the ethnic enclaves, faithful renditions of Chinese cuisine can sustain themselves and gain traction to such an extent that… well, that it “inspires” or becomes co-opted by everyone else. New York magazine recently declared 2012 to be the “Year of Asian Hipster Cuisine.”

Recent technological and social developments have led to truly innovative new businesses and industries. But not mentioned very much is the fact that these new innovations overwhelmingly serve the section of the population that is already well-off, well-connected, and well-educated. They are built around this niche community, and its inherent advantages account for much of their success. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the benefits – if you have neither the education nor the cultural capital to work for Facebook or Google – you are out of luck. In that case, the Chinatown Bus might be a more illustrative business model than anything else. For all the people and neighborhoods across America who’ve had it rough not just in the last few years but in the last few decades, it’s time to look at what niche communities you do belong to, and what advantages might be open to you. These advantages might be very meager. Sometimes the only advantage you have is that everyone around you must depend on each other because there are no alternatives. That’s what the Chinese in Chinatown and immigrants and minorities everywhere have done for so long. Does anyone have a better idea?

* * *

I did manage to catch the One Dollar Bus before it went under. I needed to go somewhere in Lower Manhattan, and that was a good enough excuse to take the bus. The ride was much faster than on the 7, thirty minutes from boarding to destination, but since I knew that, I left the house much later than usual. I was meeting someone on the west side, a bit of a walk from where the bus dropped me off. I still ended up late.

“I’m on Forsyth and East Broadway,” I told her over the phone, climbing out of the bus and trying to orient myself.

“Where?” She sounded a little exasperated.

I made my way out across Confucius Plaza and through the old core of Chinatown, the rough pentagonal section formed from Bayard Street and Mott and Pell. Here, in the subtler part of town, you get a better sense of the way things have slowed down. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed, of course, and the new residents are not as interested in supporting and patronizing the local establishments in the same way. Even on the still-busy throughways near Canal, the type of commerce is more outwardly directed – t-shirts and trinkets that you can find in basically every other neighborhood in the city. People lament that it’s even hard to find good Chinese food in Chinatown nowadays.

With the influx of an affluent and more cosmopolitan population, Chinatown has become less and less autonomous and self-sustaining. The new residents are interested in the neighborhood, and they will frequent the local establishments. But they’ll never support the fabric of the neighborhood to the same degree. Why should they? They are used to having a choice. BoltBus and Mission Chinese Food have their advantages, after all. There are now all kinds of people — different classes, different races, different ways of living, and they are interested in different things about the neighborhood. It’s more “mixed-income” and “mixed-use” and open to a broader swath of the population. But this has not helped the people in the neighborhood who needed the most help to begin with. It’s funny — Chinatown is a more inclusive place now than it ever was.

This post originally ran in Flushing Exceptionalism on August 19, 2012.

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