Last Year’s Curbside Bus Crackdown Based on Faulty Evidence, Critics Say

Federal authorities shut down 26 curbside bus operators last year. Now, some critics say that the governmental report that inspired the crackdown relied on bad data.

A fatal Fung Wah bus crash in 2008. Credit: Filippo Diotalevi on Flickr

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A year ago this month, federal authorities shut down 26 curbside bus companies due to purported safety hazards. The move followed a report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a president-appointed federal agency, finding that curbside buses were seven times more likely than conventional buses to have a fatal accident.

Now, some critics are calling the study NTSB study “bogus.”

In a long article published last week, Reason magazine’s Jim Epstein draws attention to what he considers a number of major flaws in the study. The most glaring of these is the fact that of 37 fatal crashes cited by the NTSB, a full 30 didn’t involve curbside buses at all. Rather, “conventional” bus companies, or those with stops at actual stations, accounted for most of the accidents. The well-known conventional bus service Greyhound, for instance, was responsible for 24 of the crashes.

Furthermore, Epstein writes, the NTSB’s calculations didn’t control for company size, and the margins of error for fatal crashes involving curbside and conventional buses overlap — implying that curbside buses might not be any deadlier after all.

“There’s no evidence that curbside or Chinatown buses are any less safe than any other kind of bus,” Epstein concludes.

Eric Weiss, spokesperson for the NTSB, said that Epstein mischaracterized the purpose of the study and presented an incomplete analysis of its findings. Stressing that report’s aim was to assess the status of overall safety and safety oversight in the curbside bus model, Weiss said that Epstein puts too much emphasis on the bus crash findings.

“[Epstein] pulls one of nine charts on one page of a 66-page report,” Weiss said. “That’s not even one of the goals of the report, and he says that it is the centerpiece of our report… we do not say it is statistically significant, we just put out the numbers.”

To the point of including conventional bus services on the list of 37 “curbside” crashes, Weiss said that the NTSB examined all companies that use a curbside model “in part or in whole.” Greyhound partly owns BoltBus, a curbside service popular in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, with which it shares a USDOT number (how the U.S. Department of Transportation identifies and monitors a company’s safety information). However Epstein, using a database of nationwide accident data from a federal contractor, writes, “Greyhound’s curbside subsidiary BoltBus had no fatal accidents during the study period.”

Weiss also disputed that there is such a strong link between the NTSB study and last year’s crackdown. Duane DeBruyne, a spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that carried out the shutdowns, declined to comment on whether the study played a role in targeting the shuttered curbside companies.

DeBruyne did add that his agency has only one set of safety regulations that applies to all bus companies regardless of their business models.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, called for the NTSB study after a March 2011 bus crash in the Bronx that killed 15 people. According to the NTSB, the bus, which was returning from a Connecticut casino, had been traveling at 78 miles per hour at the time.

“Shutting [curbside buses] down will save lives,” outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said after the crackdown on the 26 other companies last May.

Curbside buses first appeared in the late 1990s with the creation of Fung Wah Bus Transportation Inc., which used to ferry passengers from Manhattan’s Chinatown to South Station in Boston. (Initially, the Boston stop was in that city’s Chinatown). This low-cost alternative to traditional intercity bus service gave rise to imitators around the country, both in other Chinatowns and elsewhere. Before long traditional bus companies like Greyhound and Peter Pan established their own joint curbside spinoff, BoltBus.

Although Fung Wah wasn’t among the 26 companies shut down last May, this past March the feds ordered it to suspend service and submit its entire fleet to safety inspections.

Notably, BoltBus and Megabus, a service owned by CoachUSA, continue to operate despite their curbside status. Why the feds chose to clamp down on some curbside bus operators and not others raises questions of who, exactly, has the privilege of running a private transportation company in U.S. cities. Curbside operators with corporate owners still do business, while those with independent owners — often Chinese immigrants — have gotten the boot.

The NTSP study makes no distinction between Chinatown buses and other curbside services, and even confusingly lists Greyhound, Peter Pan and other conventional bus companies as “curbside.” As Epstein points out, the bus that crashed in the Bronx belonged to World Wide Travel, a Brooklyn-based company whose owner isn’t Chinese. Yet at least three media reports labeled it a “Chinatown bus” nonetheless.

World Wide Travel lost its registration as a bus company following the Bronx crash, but seven months afterward the New York Times found that the owner was still booking bus passengers under different names.

Epstein’s story hasn’t gotten much pickup so far beyond the libertarian blogosphere. The staff blog for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market advocacy group, used the opportunity to call out the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for wielding too much power. Randal O’Toole, noted urban planning skeptic and wearer of string ties, also chimed in on his personal blog.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructurepublic transportationbuses

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