Faced with the COVID-19 health threat and a spike in anti-Asian violence, some Penn students felt unsafe using public transportation to visit Chinatown. Now, Penn is offering a bus service to the cultural hub in Philadelphia.
The service, which began April 10 and will end May 1, allows members of the Penn community to sign up to board charter buses for free each Saturday. The buses leave every thirty minutes from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and make eight stops for pickup between Penn and Chinatown, which lies between Arch Street and Vine Street, and from 8th Street to 11th Street.
As of April 16, more than 160 guests have used the Chinatown charter buses provided by Penn Transit, which have traveled a total of 50 miles, Penn Business Services Director of Communications and External Relations Barbara Lea-Kruger wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
After feeling unsafe using public transportation, Weitzman School of Design City and Regional Planning second year Jingzhi Chang, who hails from China, teamed up with the Pan-Asian American Community House, Undergraduate Assembly, and Penn Transit to bring the service to life.
“I felt trapped in West Philadelphia, and I don’t have a very efficient way to get to Chinatown,” she said.
Chang added that she does not have a car and tried delivery apps and cycling as alternatives, but none felt efficient or safe to her.
“Chinatown is always a necessity for me because I rely on the specialty food there,” she said. “I have a sense of 'this is like my home,' and it’s great to have a place like this in Philadelphia.”
Penn's Chinese Students and Scholars Association connected Chang to the Pan-Asian American Community House director, Peter Van Do, to start work on the bus project. Chang said that through this partnership, she met with Penn Transit to negotiate a plan to offer a bus service between Penn’s campus and Chinatown.
After surveying more than 60 students in November 2020, many of whom were Chinese and international students, Chang found that there is a need across campus for a safe method of transportation to get to Chinatown. Respondents reported that they had less access to transportation in Philadelphia compared to their home countries, and many cited COVID-19 and safety fears about using public transit. Chang said she presented this data in meetings with Penn Transit after winter break.
Funding for the four-week program came primarily from PAACH’s budget, Van Do said. Though PAACH was willing to support the endeavor this semester, Van Do said the significant financial costs would be too burdensome for PAACH to continue funding the project in the future. He said he hopes the University will consider supporting the program after May.
The Undergraduate Assembly also lent its support by recruiting volunteers to check in students and faculty onto the buses and make sure the rides went smoothly, UA Communications Director Pranav Tadikonda said.
Chinatown's blocks of Asian-owned restaurants and businesses represent a connection to home and family for many Chinese Penn students.
Engineering first year Jason Yan had never been to Philadelphia’s Chinatown before last Saturday, when he used the bus service with friends. Yan cited concerns about safety on the subway as well as worries from his parents that he would be harmed in public as an Asian American.
“One of the biggest reasons that I haven’t [gone to Chinatown] yet is because my mom is very worried about these things,” Yan said. “When I told her we’re going to Chinatown she’s like, ‘Oh, don’t get hurt.’”
Yan said the service's convenience and free cost made it appealing, and he enjoyed walking around, taking in the sights, and enjoying sweets at a dessert shop on Cherry Street. He added that he would consider going again because the service was quick and simple to use.
Engineering first year Helena Zhang echoed Yan’s sentiments, adding that although she has previously taken SEPTA to go to Chinatown, she appreciated the convenience and safety of the Penn Transit buses, which make multiple stops.
“Before heading off to Chinatown, the charter bus actually stopped at various stops around campus,” Zhang said. “So it’s a lot more convenient for students because they can just go to the closest stop near them.”
Tadikonda, who volunteered on the charter buses through the UA, said that he enjoyed the experience and was excited that the UA and PAACH offered this program.
“I felt like this is a great opportunity for the Asian American community, and just the Penn community in general, to be involved in a cultural epicenter of Philadelphia,” Tadikonda said.
Although the project started as a way for Chang to create a safe and efficient way of getting to Chinatown for Chinese and Asian students on campus, she encouraged all interested students to use the bus service.
“I know there are a lot of friends of mine that are not Asian [that] are interested in Chinese culture and Chinese business or food, and this project is open to anyone,” she said.