How America Got Its (Bus) Wheels Back
The story of how discount curbside buses have transformed the nature of intercity travel. With a detour to rabbinical court. And a 15-minute rest stop.
by Sarah Breger
I can remember the first time I took one of the discount buses that now dominate bus travel between New York and Washington. It was the early aughts, and a line of people, mostly scraggly looking students like myself, had formed on the sidewalk near New York City’s Penn Station on 31st Street long before the scheduled departure. I was surprised when an energetic Orthodox man, his tzitzit showing beneath his shirt, payos peeking out beneath his cap, directed us toward the bus, checked our reservation and collected our money once we boarded. Back then, it was a cash affair. He hopped off before we entered the Lincoln Tunnel, and four or five hours later, with only books, magazines and the odd iPod to keep us company—it was the pre-smart phone days—we landed in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.
I didn’t know it then, but I was witnessing the beginning of a paradigm shift in American transportation. The explosion of discount buses has revolutionized how Americans of all ages travel between cities. The post-World War II growth of personal automobile use and air travel had caused a steady decline in bus travel. Once a booming industry, American intercity buses carried 140 million riders in 1960, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. By 1990, it was only 40 million.
But a plethora of new companies— some small, some large—has transformed the nature of American bus travel, even changing the way industry stalwarts such as Greyhound and Trailways do business. As a result, the number of scheduled discount intercity bus trips has increased 72 percent since 2010, and there are now more than 1,000 scheduled trips a day, according to a DePaul University study. Discount bus operators are adding routes four times faster than airlines and nearly seven times quicker than passenger rail. Indeed, buses are now the country’s fastest-growing mode of transportation. In the vanguard of the “revolution” have been two—warring—Hasidic-owned New York companies.
The new era got its start with the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982, which allowed older companies to jettison unprofitable routes and paved the way for new independent companies. “Intercity bus travel came to be seen for most people as a mode of last resort—primarily used by the poor, people too young to drive, college students or the very old, as well as by minorities and women,” says Nicholas Klein, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University who researches intercity bus travel. Perhaps more important, bus terminals became associated in the public mind with crime and homelessness. “They became just dismal places,” says Joseph Schwieterman, a professor of public service management at DePaul University
Then, in 1996, Pei Lin Liang, who emigrated from China in 1988, began running a shuttle called Fung Wah Transportation Company for those who lived in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood and worked in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Two years later, Fung Wah started a van service between the Chinatown districts of New York and Boston, so that Chinese immigrants could visit their children in college. The price was $10 each way, far cheaper than a ticket on Greyhound or Trailways.
The low fares and frequent service proved popular. Fung Wah expanded, and other Chinese companies, including Sunshine Travel, Travel Pack and Lucky Star, followed suit, offering express point-to-point service to Chinatowns in different cities, including Washington. The buses soon gained a following among non-Asian cost-conscious travelers such as students, but they were no-frill affairs, and it was sometimes hard to learn the schedule or pinpoint where they departed and arrived.
In 2002, Betty “Gitty” Ungar, a petite sheitel-wearing Hasidic mother of ten from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, took notice. “I said, you know what, I can do something better and at a better rate, and I did,” she tells me over lunch in New York at a busy midtown kosher eatery, as she describes founding Washington Deluxe, a bus company providing service between Washington and New York. Sporting a thick Brooklyn accent, the bubbly 58-year-old is more interested in talking about her son’s upcoming wedding and going gluten-free than her role as transportation entrepreneur. With no previous business experience, she quickly mastered the ins and outs of the industry, discovering she had a knack for it. “I didn’t go to college or business class,” she says. “It’s something you are born with.”
To an outsider, it might be surprising to see a Hasidic woman at the helm of a successful business—but Ungar says she is not an anomaly in her community. “Is it weird to be a woman? My daughter is a woman, she runs a business. My sister is a woman, she runs a business,” says Ungar. “Sometimes people look and think because I’m a woman they can step on me, but as nice as I am I wouldn’t let anyone step on me or step on my rights.”
Her niceness was tested in 2004, when one of her employees, Menachem “Sol” Wollner, another Hasidic Jew, left Washington Deluxe to launch his own bus line between New York and Washington. He teamed up with his childhood friend Zanvel “Sam” Bluzenstein, who had driven and managed school buses in Williamsburg for 20 years. They called their new company Vamoose and went into business in direct competition with Washington Deluxe.
The split was anything but amicable and quickly ended up in a Brooklyn rabbinical court. Wollner and Vamoose declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to court documents, Wollner left with Ungar’s private lists of customers and other contacts, and “misled customers into believing they were using Washington Deluxe’s website and poaching customers as they waited for the Washington Deluxe bus.”
Wollner has described his entry into the business differently. According to a 2008 New York Post article, he says he spent six months traveling between his home in Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Chinatown in Manhattan to research how the Chinatown buses operated and what were the most popular travel times in the day. But in 2006, Brooklyn’s rabbinical court Mishpahat Shalom ruled in Washington Deluxe’s favor, finding that the “routes at issue belong to Washington Deluxe.” The court prohibited Vamoose from operating on the same New York-to-Washington routes and ordered Wollner to pay damages. The religious court’s ruling was later upheld by Justice Lawrence S. Knipel of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. In a summary of the case, Knipel wrote that “the defendant Sol Wollner stole the plaintiff’s customer list” and “knowingly used this stolen information to solicit the plaintiff’s customers.”
Vamoose removed its routes from inside Washington but found a very willing clientele in Bethesda, the affluent Maryland suburb just past the city’s border, and later in Northern Virginia. Both companies have flourished, although the bus war continued. In 2008, Ungar launched TripperBus, with an embarkation point just a few blocks away from Vamoose’s Bethesda outpost.
As Washington Deluxe and Vamoose went head to head, more companies joined the fray. For the first time in 40 years, bus travel was seeing its first significant expansion. The change was the result of a confluence of factors: Post-9/11 airline travel, with its long lines and arduous security procedures, became a hassle; fuel prices skyrocketed; train prices kept creeping up. Finally, attitudes toward driving began to change. Unlike in previous generations, “young people have no particular affinity for the automobile; it’s a matter of getting from point A to point B,” says Schwieterman. Also, by locating themselves outside the bus terminal curbside intercity buses have been able to develop a more positive public image. “It’s still a bus, but now you don’t have to go to the bus terminal,” says Klein. “There are psychological advantages.”
In 2008 Megabus and BoltBus debuted simultaneously on the East Coast. Megabus, owned by the British company Stagecoach Group, had opened in Chicago in 2006, offering service to eight Midwestern cities. Greyhound, which had declared bankruptcy in 1990 and emerged a leaner company, created BoltBus together with Peter Pan. “They didn’t just come in,” Schwieterman says, talking of the entry of the big companies. “They came in wanting to dominate.”
For Bolt and Megabus, this involved offering $1 fares to attract new riders. A price war ensued, putting a strain on some existing companies. Greyhound also completed a $60 million overhaul of its core operations in 2009—refurbishing 970 buses and upgrading 125 stations with plasma screen televisions and renovated bathrooms—but the company still had limited appeal. “Greyhound emblazoned on a bus will make the older generation think twice before buying a ticket, even if they would take the same exact service on a different bus,” says Schwieterman.
Also, 2008 saw the launch of another small East Coast company—DC2NY. Israeli-born Asi Ohana was working as a bus dispatcher for Vamoose and had an idea. “I wanted to create an upscale brand,” says Ohana. With his life partner Richard Green, he founded DC2NY, which offers passengers a higher level of service, touting itself as “the first company to offer bottled water to every customer, wireless access to the Internet and movies on a customer-demand basis.”
Today it’s hard to find a bus without Internet, and hard to find passengers who don’t use it. Take one recent trip I made from New York to Washington: Most of the passengers were staring at their smartphones, checking Facebook or texting. A 20-something man watched Season 3 of The Office with headphones on his tablet, as his travel companion typed furiously on her laptop plugged into the electrical outlet underneath her seat. Says Schwieterman: “People have become addicted to portable electronic technology, and they suddenly found bus rides could be pleasant and productive. Before, the time on a bus was a lot of boredom. Now people don’t mind the longer travel time—they sit there with their laptops and their social media.”
It’s a copycat industry, with companies always looking for new ways to distinguish themselves. The current rage is luxury service that aims to expand buses to the Acela set. Vamoose has a special Gold Bus, with larger seats and fewer passengers, for $60 one-way. And in April, restaurateur Andy Seligman launched Royal Sprinter, a luxury van service between New York and Washington. At $90 a ticket, it is directed toward “someone who is willing to pay a little bit more for a lot more,” a company spokeswoman told me. This “more” includes individualized workstations and flatscreen TVs, as well as a refrigerator filled with complimentary sparkling water and snacks.
Intercity bus travel became popular in the United States in the late 1920s. As opposed to other common modes of public transportation such as trains or streetcars, buses didn’t run on special tracks, could change their timetable and pickup points and required limited capital to launch. By 1935, a company named Greyhound purchased and merged existing routes, becoming America’s largest bus network. In 1936, a group of independent carriers formed Trailways to coordinate schedules and consolidate terminals in an attempt to challenge Greyhound’s monopoly. The two companies grew to dominate national bus service, although regional bus companies such as Peter Pan in New York and Badger Bus in Wisconsin carved out small service areas.
The biggest victim of the industry’s success may be the original Chinatown buses. “The Asian [-owned] bus companies have really taken a blow, and it’s diminished their relevance,” says Schwieterman. Following the crash of a Chinatown bus that killed 15 people in 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration launched an investigation into curbside carriers, and on May 2012, the Administration shut down 26 bus companies—most of them Chinatown-based—in a single day. Since then 15 more have been forced to close.
In the market free-for-all, there have been feuds and mergers as well as closures. Growth has slowed slightly in the past two years, but new routes continue to multiply. Last year, Megabus added service in Texas and California, and BoltBus added a Pacific Northwest operation. Buses still account for only 3.6 percent of intercity travel in the United States, but there are plenty of small bus lines in other parts of the country: Limoliner from Boston to New York, Jefferson Lines in the Midwest, Badger Bus in Wisconsin and California Shuttle between Los Angeles, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. The smaller northeast companies are expanding into niche markets. This May, DC2NY will rebrand itself as Best Bus and add more routes, including shore towns.
Meanwhile Washington Deluxe and Vamoose are busy ferrying passengers—young and old, secular and of all faiths, but not usually Hasidim, who prefer the dedicated Hasidic bus lines that target the ultra-Orthodox community. These include the Heimann Bus from New York City to Montreal and buses to Kiryas Joel, New York, and Baltimore, Maryland, from New York City as well as intra-Brooklyn and Manhattan buses. These buses adhere to rules and customs not generally found on curbside carriers, from a mechitza down the middle separating men and women, to prohibiting chametz on Passover.
Nevertheless, as Orthodox-owned bus companies, the two competing companies—Washington Deluxe and Vamoose—share a halachic problem: how to provide buses on Friday evenings and Saturdays, two of the busiest travel times. The work-around is a common one for Orthodox-owned businesses, contracting ownership over to a non-Jew from Friday night to Saturday night. Still, sighs Ungar, “If I had known when I went into it how busy the weekend was in this business, maybe I would have never started.”