The History of Public Bus Transportation
A 200-year journey from horse-drawn carriages to the buses we know today.
Since the 1820s, various forms of public transportation have come and gone throughout the world, making an impact not only on how we travel but also on today’s general structuring of cities. As the earliest bus services started springing up all over the world, getting from point A to point B became easier than ever, furthering the divide between urban city centers and suburban neighborhoods.
Technological advances gave way to an evolution of public transit systems that started with horse-drawn cars and developed into cable cars, heavy- and light-rail systems, and eventually electric and self-driving buses.
Keep reading to find out how all of this history comes together to form the public transit systems we know today!
The first-ever public bus line was launched in France by Blaise Pascal in 1662. Various routes of horse-drawn carriages with a capacity of 7-8 passengers each were scheduled to run through the Parisian streets throughout the day.
Evidently a man way ahead of his time, Pascal’s idea took off but promptly lost popularity over the course of about ten years. These “Five-Penny Coaches,” or “Carosses à Cinq Sous,” were available only to the nobility and the gentry.
While commoners were never permitted to ride, even this posh concept of highbrow public transit couldn’t keep the upper class interested. By 1675, the novelty had worn off and the population had abandoned the idea of public transportation.
Fast forward about 150 years, and the idea of public transit finally started to catch on.
The Omnibus: Where it All Started
While ferry boats had been common mass-transit vessels since the early 1800s, the first land-based innovation in public transportation came with the omnibus in 1826.
Omnibuses were horse-drawn passenger wagons that were usually pulled by one, two, or three horses, depending on their size. The largest omnibus models held 42 passengers and required 3 horses to pull. Some models even featured two stories and an open top!
France was again the first to test this public transit concept, this time allowing royalty and commoners alike to hop on for a ride around the city. The idea finally stuck, and by 1828, New York City had established its own omnibus line with many U.S. and European cities following in suit.
While the whole “public transportation” idea was generally considered a positive thing, omnibuses offered terribly uncomfortable rides. Seats were without padding, and rolling over uneven cobblestone roads made for a quite unpleasant experience. Not to mention, a price of 12 cents per ride was too expensive for most urban citizens.
Eventually, though, the omnibus found a regular middle-class audience to whom private stagecoaches were too expensive but walking seemed to be too much work. Luckily for us, these customers made sure that the omnibus stuck around long enough to see many more improvements in the years that followed.
The Horsecar: Improvements and the First Rail System
In the 1830s, new improvements in railroad technology brought to the streets the world’s first rail-based transit system. New, smooth rails were laid over pre-existing omnibus routes, making for a far more comfortable trip over these new tracks. The reduction in friction also made it much easier for horses to pull their vehicles, so cars could now accommodate 3 times as many passengers as the omnibus.
Lower operating costs also lowered the price to 5 cents per ride, making it much more affordable for the average citizen.
Public rides throughout the city were now comfortable, affordable, smooth, and efficient. By the 1880s, more than 30,000 miles of street railway had been laid across the United States, carrying more than 20,000 horsecars all over major city streets.
A two-horse car in Toronto, circa 1889. Photo source.
With the invention of the horsecar, public transit in the United States spread rapidly and gained significant popularity, solidifying America’s status as a forerunner of the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, these early forms of public transit weren’t without their drawbacks.
Horses and mules could only work for about two hours at a time, so companies had to keep 8-10 animals on hand to keep just one car operating. They ate their weight in food every day, and the resulting manure littered the streets, which was more than a mild inconvenience to pedestrians. An outbreak of equine influenza in 1872 wiped out thousands of horses and slowed many transit systems considerably.
On top of required animal maintenance, traffic jams were very common, as there were few regulations concerning horse-drawn buses and right-of-way on the roads.
Approaching the turn of the 20th century, animal-drawn transportation became obsolete. A few horse-drawn carriages would stand the test of time for nostalgia’s sake in some cities, but the main source of reliable transportation would soon change to larger vehicles powered by other means.
The Cable Car: Innovation at the Cost of Safety
Next up on our journey to the modern bus was the cable car, one of the most iconic forms of transportation in the United States.
The first cable car was tested by Andrew Smith Hallidie in 1873 in San Francisco. Hallidie was inspired to create a new form of transit after witnessing a horsecar driver repeatedly whip a horse while it struggled to climb a slippery hill.
A city notorious for its endless rolling hills, San Francisco was the perfect place for this next big transportation innovation to take place. Hallidie invented the new cable-driven system, eliminating the need for horses to struggle to pull the carriages up the never-ending hills.
Running on existing horsecar rails with a moving cable inserted in the middle, these new trams used a clamp on the bottom of the car to secure the vehicle to the cable. To stop the car, pressure was applied to the brakes while the clamp released the cable.
While the system was certainly an improvement over horse-drawn carriages, the first cable cars were quite unsafe. Cables were prone to snapping, sometimes causing dangerous accidents on the steep San Francisco hills.
Thus, the quest for ideal public transportation was on once again. Cable cars went out of service not long after their inception; however, some updated and safer cable car systems still exist today, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. The most notable of these is still operating in San Francisco, California.
The Streetcar: Cruising into the 21st Century
The first streetcars started popping up in various American cities around the year 1881. One of the most influential American inventions of the time, these buses on rails were able to hold more passengers than ever at a low cost, enticing more pedestrians to hop on for a ride around the city.
Streetcars were propelled by power lines drawn over their routes, which carried electric current. The current traveled through an extension attached to the car, and the metal wheels against the metal tracks acted as the “grounding” for the electric circuit, so that the car itself would not electrocute its passengers.
Since the streetcar was able to use existing rails and carriages from the horsecar and cable car systems, making the switch was pretty easy. New rail routes popped up too, though, and it was with the invention of the streetcar that major cities— once small, densely-packed centers— started to sprawl outward and become the bustling metropoles we know today.
“Walkability” was no longer a key feature of most major cities once streetcars became popular. While the idea of walking to work was not completely dead (and never would be), the overlapping of downtown social areas with residential developments became less common over time. Because streetcars made it so easy to quickly travel from one end of the city to the other, what developed was the downtown layout we know today: busy commercial areas packed in the center with less-dense residential zones surrounding the city.
Streetcar lines often ran right into the city’s center, which also raised the value of the downtown land. Getting downtown was easy, so luxury retail chains, million-dollar businesses, and other places of entertainment seized this opportunity to set up shop at these streetcar hubs.
A streetcar rail intersection in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, circa 1927. Photo credit: George C. Davis. Photo source.
The streetcar system was the first public transit system that made it possible for citizens to commute from their suburbs into the city for work, contributing to the sprawling of major cities. While horse-drawn cars were confined to the physical limitations of the animals pulling them, electric cars could carry passengers much further away from the city, and thus the “suburbanization” of cities began.
“Streetcar suburbs” began developing along the perimeter of many major cities, some simply in an attempt to maintain the traditional small, walkable features of older American cities. These suburbs were very densely-packed, with one rail line connecting the suburb to the main city.
While the streetcar was, of course, a significant improvement over its predecessors, ridership still began to decline for reasons unrelated to transit technology. The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s lead to the closure of many lines, with the rationing of rubber tires and gasoline during World War II further deterring their use in the 1940s. Still, during this time many streetcar lines were converted to bus lines, a more flexible and economical choice. Some streetcar lines do still exist today, however, most notably in Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
Rapid Transit: Worth the Money?
The appeal for rapid, high-volume transit sprung up in the late 19th century with a new attitude (that remains present in the minds of many city-goers to this day): buses aren’t good enough, so we need something faster that’s free from traffic limitations. Thus, the first rapid transit systems were born.
The first rapid transit system in the United States was Chicago’s “L” train, built in 1892, which continues to run to this day. The L train system is known as a “heavy-rail” system, as opposed to the “light-rail” systems we see with horsecars and cable cars. Around the turn of the century, elevated trains as well as underground trains became popular in many other major cities around the world.
Boston, Massachusetts opened the first subway system in the United States in 1897. Unlike above-ground trains, the subway didn’t have to stop for severe weather such as cold temperatures or blizzards. Boston’s narrow, winding streets also made it an obvious choice for testing the first transit system that didn’t have to touch the busy city roads.
A subway car in Boston undergoing a test run. The first subway cars were simply open streetcars that were redirected to underground tunnels. Photo source.
The 1950s brought about a more futuristic heavy-rail system known as the monorail. In Houston, Texas, the “Trailblazer” monorail was opened and closed in a matter of only months. Seattle used a monorail system after building one for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, but the system was retired and declared a historical landmark in 2003.
Many disgruntled city goers today long for a transit system that can blaze through and around traffic the way buses can’t. However, while they certainly have speed on their side, monorails and other heavy-rail systems simply aren’t the most practical solution for public transportation:
- Buses can make major or minor changes to routes in response to demand without having to tear rails out of the street; rail systems, on the other hand, must create their own demand to pay for their pre-existing infrastructure.
- Bus maintenance is as simple as putting a bus in the shop and dispatching its replacement, but rail system maintenance may involve closing an entire line.
- Not to mention, the capital cost of heavy rail systems can easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
Overall, the lack of infrastructure required for buses compared to rail systems makes buses a much more economical choice.
Rail systems initially became very popular right around 1910, but by 1930, over 230 rail companies had either gone out of business or converted entirely to buses. Studies done over the past century on the efficiency of rail systems have concluded that they are only efficient in extremely densely-packed cities, which is why we still see a few successful subway lines today in New York City, London, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Bus Transit Today
Over the last 100 years, mass transit ridership has declined significantly. Some even claim that today’s presence of mass transit services is largely due to tradition rather than necessity.
In the 1960s and 1970s, public transit re-gained a brief height in popularity with the general disgust of the new “automobile-centric” lifestyle and increased environmental concerns; however, in the end, the automobiles won. Now, almost every family has at least one car, and public transit ridership isn’t as common as it once was.
However, the need for public transportation isn’t completely dead. Particularly in major cities with a high cost of living and limited parking, owning a personal automobile simply isn’t feasible. For those who aren’t able to afford an automobile, public transit offers an inexpensive way to travel through the city to school or work.
With this in mind, many bus companies are working to make public buses more appealing, more affordable, and more environmentally friendly to keep improving upon bus technology as we have for the past 200 years.
Looking Ahead: Self-Driving and Electric Buses
Clean, battery-powered electric buses are well on their way to many American cities, and while it sounds very futuristic, it’s not as far away as you might think. Los Angeles has made plans to switch their entire fleet of 2,200 buses to zero-emission models by 2030. Public transport operators in a team of 25 European cities are aiming to replace 2,500 buses with electric models by 2020.
Demand for new electric buses has already outweighed the current supply. Proterra, the current forerunner of the electric bus market, is furiously looking to hire new manufacturing employees to keep up with orders.
Proterra’s buses are battery-powered and offer a variety of charging options in order to avoid “range anxiety,” the term for the feeling that the charge won’t hold long enough to finish a trip. Ports are placed at the bus depot so that the driver can plug the bus in after a day of travel, but on-route charging stations are making it possible to run the battery-powered bus 24/7. These specially-designed charging stations can be installed at bus stops and charge the bus in as little as 5 minutes, ensuring 24-hour service with zero range anxiety.
While electric buses can cost as much as $300,000 more than traditional diesel-powered models, the absence of fuel costs more than make up for the capital cost over the bus’s lifetime.
An even more exciting development in bus travel is Olli, a self-driving, intelligent pod made of 3D-printed materials that can act as an on-demand service or can fill in the gaps in public transit systems. Olli uses IBM’s Watson technology to listen to her passengers and answer questions about her route.
Olli has a 360-degree field of vision and can react to obstacles faster than a human, making her a safe choice for traveling on busy city roads.
Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come? From horse-drawn carriages over cobblestone roads to buses that literally drive themselves, technological advances in transportation never cease to amaze us.
In 2017, Las Vegas and Miami will be among the first to put Olli on the road. It’s likely that Olli will make her way onto campuses and airports before breaking out into city transit. Until then, we can’t wait to see where this adorable vision of the future takes us.
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