fastest growing form of intercity transit in the U.S., thanks to a handful of immigrants from Fujian Province, China, who started their own bus companies in New York City's Chinatown in the late 1990s. These entrepreneurs reversed the long-distance bus industry’s half-century-long decline. By charging low prices and picking up passengers right off the street (hence the term curbside), they demonstrated that it was possible to lure hoards of new customers. Established bus companies like Greyhound have responded by starting curbside companies of their own.Curbside bus travel is the
The visionary who deserves the most credit for the resurgence was Pei Lin Liang, a former noodle factory deliveryman who started an operation called Fung Wah in 1997. For travel between Boston and New York City, the company originally charged just $10—a price that drew so much business, it turned Fung Wah into a household name in those cities. It was especially popular among college students.
Fung Wah is now defunct. In March 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) forced the company to cease operations, claiming it was an “imminent hazard to public safety.” Journalists, many of whom are former Fung Wah customers, both mourned and applauded the news. In Gothamist, Rebecca Fishbein observed, "the feds might have saved the general public from the wretched grasp of Fung Wah's duct-taped bus fleet, but people are sad to see them go." Singer-songwriter Marc Philippe Eskanazi performed a tongue-in-cheek music video about Fung Wah that was produced and distributed by The New Yorker magazine. "I'll think of you always with nostalgia and fear," he sang.
Fung Wah customers actually have much to be nostalgic for and little to fear. Regulators could have shutdown Greyhound, or practically any bus company, on the same grounds they used to force Fung Wah out of business. And if saving lives is the whole idea, regulators should more logically prohibit intercity travel in passenger cars, while mandating travel in buses run by companies like Fung Wah. (The owner of Fung Wah declined to comment for this article, as did the company’s longtime attorney, Michael Lam.)
The bus industry has been subject to an onslaught of new regulations in recent years—a reaction by government to a few tragic accidents that drew widespread media attention. While horrific accidents occur periodically, buses are not only orders of magnitude safer than passenger cars, they’re safer than they’ve ever been thanks to engineering and manufacturing advances. There are about 34 fatal intercity bus accidents annually as compared to 23,000 fatal passenger car crashes. An unintended consequence of the regulatory onslaught is that higher ticket prices will lead fewer travelers to forgo their cars for the bus, making them far more likely to die on the highway. What safety-anxious parent would prefer their college offspring to catch a ride home in a car driven by a fellow student rather than take the bus?
The government initiative also fits the classic pattern in which regulation destroys politically weak businesses to the benefit of the politically strong—like Greyhound, Coach USA, and Peter Pan, which have seen their market share grow. Most of Fung Wah’s employees and its owner were Chinese immigrants lacking the language skills and legal muscle required to navigate all the red tape. And Fung Wah is only the best-known victim of this onslaught. On May 31, 2012, the Federal Department of Transportation shutdown 26 bus companies in a single day, and since then it has forced an additional 15 closures. Many of those companies were owned by Chinese immigrants. The American Bus Association, a trade association that primarily represents the large corporate carriers, has cheered the government on.
Before looking at the series of vehicle inspections that led the government to shutter Fung Wah, let's first examine the company's much maligned record on the highway. I've compiled a table of every accident involving a Fung Wah bus using a federal database called the Motor Carrier Management Information System, which I've supplemented with press reports and information provided by transit agencies and police departments in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
When a bus service operates for 12 years (Fung Wah became an official bus operation in 2001) logging close to 3 million miles annually, there will inevitably be some accidents. There's no evidence that Fung Wah had an unusually high accident rate compared to other bus companies.
Contrary to the claim that the company became more dangerous in its last few years, in the three-year period from 2010-2012 the company's buses didn't have a single accident. In its 12 years operating as an official bus service, the company wasn’t involved in any fatal crashes—with the exception of a 2008 incident in which an out-of-control dump truck struck a parked Fung Wah bus, triggering a chain of events that led a pedestrian to have a fatal heart attack. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a bus company could be less at fault.
There are two serious accidents in Fung Wah's history for which the company deserves blame. The first took place on August 16, 2005, when a New York-bound Fung Wah bus caught fire on I-91 near Meriden, Connecticut. All passengers evacuated before the flames spread and there were no injuries.
This incident tells us little about the overall safety of Fung Wah buses. "If your bus catches on fire, it doesn't mean it's in a state of disrepair; if you're diligent you can still catch on fire," says bus engineer Christopher Ferrone, who in 2008 was commissioned by regulators to study the causes of spontaneous bus fires.
Bus fires are a thorny problem for mechanics and engineers: There are about 160 fires annually, according to a 2012 government analysis, though the actual figure is thought to be much higher since most go unreported. Thankfully, 19 out of 20 reported bus fires don't result in injuries.
Fung Wah had one bus fire in 12 years. To demonstrate how unremarkable that is, over the past three years (the albeit much larger) Greyhound saw its buses catch fire in at least eight different cases, according to news accounts.
The other serious accident in which Fung Wah was at fault occurred on September 5, 2006, when a bus pulling off the highway in Auburn, Massachusetts hit the curb and rolled on its side. Thirty-four of the 57 passengers were taken to the hospital, although nobody was seriously injured.
This accident also says little about the company's overall safety. Fung Wah had one rollover in 12 years. In contrast, from 2005 to 2010, Greyhound had at least seven rollover incidents, according to news accounts.