How America got its bus wheels bach: 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.

Author:Breger, Sarah
Position:Travel narrative

I can remember the first time I jrtook 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 H 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...

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