Fung Wah, the low-cost bus carrier shut down by the federal government last week after it stopped cooperating with regulators, deserves little sympathy. The company repeatedly skirted the law, hiring unqualified drivers and putting unsafe vehicles on its popular Boston-to-New York service. When federal bus regulators initially ordered the company to halt service last Tuesday, one of its buses departed South Station anyway, a final act of defiance that seemed to symbolize its years of disregard for safety regulations.
But the low-cost service that Fung Wah pioneered should not disappear with the company. For all its obvious faults, Fung Wah has done a lot of good for Boston travelers by injecting more competition in the bus industry and driving down fares. When the Chinatown buses first emerged in the late ’90s, established carriers insisted it was impossible to carry passengers so cheaply without cutting corners. Fung Wah itself never completely disproved that charge. But Megabus and BoltBus, low-cost bus lines that have become established carriers over the last decade, have demonstrated that safe, low-fare carriers are viable — and probably wouldn’t have existed if Fung Wah hadn’t disrupted the market. Consumers have benefited from the competition in other ways, too; bus companies have added amenities like wi-fi and laptop outlets.
With airfare and rail tickets unaffordable to many travelers, buses provide a valuable alternative. With Fung Wah’s demise, the MBTA, which runs the bus terminal at South Station, should make it a priority to cultivate low-cost carriers. Fung Wah deserved its punishment. But there should be no going back to the uncompetitive market that existed before it arrived.