Their study in Urban Geography, “Everything but the Chicken: Cultural Authenticity Onboard the Chinatown Bus” finds that it’s not just the cheap fares that draw customers. “Participants routinely framed the Chinatown bus as an authentic urban experience,” they found, “a thrilling and danger-enhanced departure from daily life, and as an engagement with the multicultural city.”
Klein and Zitcer recruited 37 study participants at bus stops in New York and Philadelphia who, in total, had made nearly 300 trips on Chinatown buses during the past year. And in focus groups they found that the exact things that elicit most complaints about Chinatown buses are what draw the repeat customers: A sense of danger and adventure that comes along with the mode of travel. More from the paper:
Participants in every focus group cited concerns about the ride itself, including driver behaviors like speeding, talking on the phone, smoking, and dozing off. One participant said, “I felt like I was putting my life on the line every time I took it” (Susan, 40s). Another described the ride as such, “I was stressed because the bus driver was a lunatic. … Like, he was cutting people off … you could see he was on the phone the entire time. And he just seemed to have road rage” (Daphne, 30s)
... And many riders continue to use buses they consider unsafe. As one participant said, “You know, I heard stories about breakdowns and, like, accidents a lot. … But it just wasn’t enough for me to deter me from taking the Chinatown bus” (Kenneth, 30s). ... Bus riders’ enhanced tolerance for risk is one of the ways in which we perceive them to have entered a tourist space, without necessarily being aware of that change.
Klein e-mails that, when this research began, the plan wasn’t to focus on the allure of Chinatown buses. “Rather they emerged while we were conducting the focus groups,” he writes, noting that it was part of researching his dissertation on intercity buses “As a result, I think we are taking a unique angle on the Chinatown buses.”
(h/t: Eric Jaffe)