A (Partially) Fond Farewell to Fung Wah

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.

Another Failure of Vision by Boston’s MBTA

The MBTA, the transit authority for the greater Boston area, has  a new policy. From now on, above-ground trolleys on the D branch of the Green Line will not open their rear doors during off-peak hours. All passengers will have to get on and off through the front door. This policy had already been applied to the other three Green Line branches.

The T’s purpose, obviously, is to reduce fare evasion,which they have to do given their current financial problems. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Almost all (maybe all) of the above-ground stations on the D Line have pre-validation machines that let you pay your fare before boarding. They were installed so that riders could pay in advance, use all doors to board, and therefore speed up the trip in. Now the T is going to reduce service, raise fares, and slow down your ride to boot.

The contradiction of this policy is shown by the decision not to apply it during peak travel hours. At off-peak times the lines to pay will be shorter; but it’s during peak travel that riders can get on a train through the rear doors without being seen. At slow times, the driver can see people getting on at the rear and make them pay, if they have not validated their tickets or passes.

There is a better way: inspection. I was in Vienna a couple years ago, and rode public transit a lot. There are no turnstiles, no conductors taking tickets – you just walk into the station and get on the train, having bought a ticket and put it in your pocket. Why don’t people cheat? Because every so often (it happened to me about once a week) an inspector will ask to see your ticket – and if you don’t have it, you have to pay a heavy fine (about $50, as I recall). No one is going to get caught doing this more than once!

The T is able to mobilize teams of inspectors to do random bag searches, in a ridiculous attempt to counter the non-existent threat of terrorism. If they could put the same energy and personnel into checking for valid tickets, they could let people board through all doors, speed up the process, and make us all happier with their service.

What’s Wrong with the Silver Line?

It’s been awhile! I had to go to Washington last weekend, got back Tuesday just in time for my class, and have been playing catchup (grading papers, preparing classes) ever since. I started this post on the way to Washington because I was irate about the experience of getting to the airport on public transit. There are lots of world and national issues I should be writing about, but I want to finish this one first. If you don’t live in Boston, the following may be of limited interest, though it does relate to some general themes about urban life.

Public transit to the airport is clearly a good thing for any city. It decreases traffic, decreases the need for huge parking lots, and saves money for the traveller who can use it. Boston’s airport has always been transit-accessible, but this used to involve changing to the Blue Line (which for us Red Line users meant two changes), then taking a free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station to your terminal. So when they built an additional tunnel under Boston Harbor, the planners decided to add some Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Silver Line. The concept is beautiful – buses have a dedicated tunnel from South Station (the city’s main rail terminal, and a stop on the Red Line) for the first three stops, then make a short loop on city streets to get into the highway tunnel. The BRT articulated bus stops at every terminal, so you don’t have to make an additional change.

A second branch of the Silver Line runs from downtown Boston to Roxbury. This one is not so great – it runs on city streets, only partly in dedicated busways – and those busways are just painted lanes on the road, frequently blocked by unloading trucks, double-parked cars, or other thoughtless motorists.

But the airport service is, as I said, a beautiful concept. The implementation is another story. Here’s a list.

1. The transit authority (MBTA) has a bunch of articulated buses made for the airport service – they have build in luggage racks, an obvious necessity.  Since the racks take up space, they have other buses for the non-airport branches of the line, which go to various destinations in South Boston. However, about 30% of the time they use buses with no luggage racks for airport service. (This happened to me last Friday, inspiring this post!)  So people have no choice but to pile up their bags in the center aisle of the bus, effectively blocking passage down that aisle to anyone else. (I have also been on non-airport Silver Line buses that had luggage racks – so it seems that whoever assigns buses and drivers to routes is simply not paying attention.)

2. Boston’s light rail system, the Green Line, has pre-validation machines at most stops. e stops. These let people pay in advance, then get on the trolley using any door. The Silver Line has none of these. So unless you get on at one of the three underground stations – and, in particular, if you get on at the airport – you have to queue up at the front door with all your luggage, then make your way – past other people with luggage – to the rear of the bus to sit down and, if you are lucky, find open space in a luggage rack (see point 1).

3. Police make no attempt to keep the bus stops free of parked cars, and bus drivers make little attempt to pull completely into the bus stop; so, while the buses are designed with no internal steps, so that luggage could be rolled aboard – it can’t be, because the bus doesn’t pull up to the sidewalk. (In any case, the floor of the bus is slightly higher than most sidewalks, so you have to do a little lifting – a problem that could easily be fixed by raising the platforms in the stations).

Those are just the problems with the airport service. The Roxbury service is much worse. The biggest failing: isthat the MBTA reneged on its commitment to dig a new tunnel to bring the Roxbury buses underground at South Station, so that Roxbury users would have a no-changes ride to the airport. But that would have cost a billion or so, so let’s leave it aside. The other huge problem is that the service is simply not BRT. I’ve been on BRT – for example, in Ottawa – and it has two essential features: dedicated busways, and prepaid stations (you know, like a subway station, where you pay your fare as you enter the station, then board the bus or train through any door when it comes in). The Roxbury Silver Line has neither: its “busway” is a painted stretch of the street, its stations are just gussied-up bus stops. When the MBTA moved the Orange Line from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, they had promised a replacement service. The community asked for light rail; they said no, but BRT is just as good. What the community got was neither; it’s just a regular bus line with a fancy paint job.

The airport service could be improved at very little cost; they mostly need to pay attention, plus installing some of those validation machines they already have on the Green Line. The Roxbury service would take more – they really should put in light rail – but it would be worth it. The city of the future will be basically car-free, and we have to start moving that way now.