By Chinatown Bus to New York


I have long heard of the “Chinatown” buses that ply between Washington and New York. I recently planned a quick trip from Washington, both to try a Chinatown bus and to visit Manhattan. This would be my first intercity bus trip in decades, duplicating my first trip to New York (from Washington), just before college. That time, Trailways delivered me on an overnight schedule to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, just beyond the end of the Lincoln Tunnel. It was very exciting then, as now, just as any visit to Manhattan must be for anyone who enjoys cities.

From Washington to New York

Arranging the trip was very easy. An internet search quickly produced, which provides links to operators (including non-Chinatown bus services). I chose Eastern Coach, which just a few days before departure had a fare of $22 one-way. Credit card booking was simple on the internet (as it has become for most travel).

The bus was to leave at 4:00 pm from a point between 7th and 8th on H Street N.W. in Washington. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived more than an hour early, at the same time fearing that it would be necessary to stand outside on the curb for a long time in Washington’s notorious August heat. However, Eastern Coach had a station, or at least an air conditioned waiting room.

Since I was so early I tried to get on the hour earlier schedule, but was advised that it was already full (I routinely try to get on earlier flights when possible at airports). The personnel were professional and very polite. At about 3:40 pm, we were advised that the bus was waiting for us, approximately 3 blocks away. Eastern Coach personnel directed us to it, where we put our larger luggage under the bus.

One of the attractions of the service was the advertised electric plugs (for laptops with insufficiently powerful batteries) and free wifi internet service. I couldn’t find any plugs, since they were not at every seat. However, the Eastern Coach people quickly located me a seat with a plug.

Getting out of Washington was not easy. There was stop and go traffic until Bladensburg Road, after which the driver continued out New York Avenue and entered U.S. 50 toward Annapolis and then Interstate 97 to the Baltimore area. This, of course, is not the conventional route, which would have been on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (operated by the National Park Service), however that route had serious construction delays. We rejoined the normal route on Interstates 895 and 95 in Baltimore.

The trip was uneventful, a good thing. The internet worked fine, as I alternated between work and watching the scenery. There are changes along the route that were not evident the last time I drove it. There are the extensive, two-way express toll lanes for a few miles north of Baltimore, which augment the existing free lanes. The Goethals Bridge reconstruction was visible from the New Jersey Turnpike in Elizabeth. In the distance, the deck of the Bayonne Bridge, which is being raised for better ocean port access, could be seen a few miles later. Next comes the historic Pulaski Skyway (photo below), the keystone to “America’s First Superhighway” (page 11), a 13 mile segment from the Holland Tunnel (which leads to Manhattan) opened nearly 90 years ago, reaching to Elizabeth (approximately where it was met by the Goethals Bridge approach).

Even with the delay out of Washington and the Interstate 97 diversion, we reached the New York terminus by 8:15 p.m., 45 minutes ahead of the very conservative (9:00 p.m.) scheduled arrival. This was made possible by the somewhat unusual lack of delay entering the Lincoln Tunnel as we approached Manhattan. Drop off was on 7th Avenue, just south of 34th Street, in the area of Penn Station. The bus continued to its final stop in Chinatown. The bus cost was so low, that as we neared the end of the trip I decided that using a taxi or ride hailing service was likely to cost more for the final 2 miles of the trip than for the first 240. Thus, I dragged my roller bag and walked to my East 50’s hotel quite comfortably.

From New York to Washington

For the return trip, I wanted to use a conventional (non-Chinatown) service to compare the two. In US intercity buses, there is nothing more conventional than Greyhound. I walked to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which I found to be every bit as uninviting as it was decades ago. The only advantage over flying is that there were no security lines, but the boarding process was similar to that of Southwest Airlines, standing in lines by boarding number. The difference was that the standing was longer, because of the shortage of waiting room seats, apparently designed with an exurban city bus stop in mind rather than the holding area for a bunch of 50-plus seat buses.

Anyway, that was not Greyhound’s fault. I noticed that another non-Chinatown operator, Megabus, serves from its own location outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, like the Chinatown buses. Seriously, any future trips of mine will involve carriers that do not use the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

But Greyhound did just fine. We left mid-morning for a trip Greyhound indicated would take 4 hours and 20 minutes. Immediately outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal we sat in stuck traffic for about 10 minutes.

Like Eastern Coach, there were not plugs at every seat (row), but it was not hard to find a seat with a plug. The internet, however, was another matter. It was much slower than on Eastern Coach and I stopped using it because it was too painful. I had a good book and there is always the scenery. There are few places more picturesque from a highway than the forests of northern Maryland and the view of the Susquehanna River from the Millard Tydings Bridge.

As in the case of the northbound trip, detours were necessary. The bus driver wisely diverted to the Commodore Perry Bridge and Interstate 95 from New Jersey to Chester, PA due to serious traffic congestion as the New Jersey Turnpike approaches the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Again, the bus used the Interstate 97-U.S. 50 detour at the south end of the trip, to avoid the Parkway congestion.

There was a single 15-minute rest/meal stop, which I would have been happy to skip. The bus reached Union Station in Washington about 30 minutes later than advertised. Anyone, however, who understands the traffic difficulties in the Northeast should not be surprised by a five hour trip. Greyhound’s fare of $23 competes nicely with the Chinatown buses.

Other Alternatives

There are a number of other alternatives for travel between Washington and New York. There is the private car and airlines. Just gasoline for the car is likely to be more than the bus fare. The train is far more expensive (and subsidized by taxpayers). The best fare I could find was four times that of the buses. Amtrak’s Northeast Direct service is scheduled at 3:20, between 1:00 and 1:40 faster than the bus. On-time performance over the past year has been about 75 percent, though dropped to 62 percent in June.

Thus, the time advantage of the train may be illusory in many cases and certainly the bus has a considerable cost advantage (for both riders and taxpayers). Some might find the bus a bit too cramped compared to the train. There is now luxury bus service with three-across seating, rather than four and with plugs at every seat. One such operator is Vamoose, which provides service between New York and Washington (Rosslyn or Bethesda) in five hours. Both stations are near Washington Metro stations and are likely more convenient for people arriving by car than Union Station. The fare is higher, at $60 to $75, but there is no public subsidy.

I look forward to my next New York trip, Chinatown bus one way and luxury bus the other.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Top photo: Hudson Yards construction (Manhattan), by author

Second photo: Pulaski Skyway, by Jack Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons