A Brief History of Buses

Over the last two centuries, innovation has completely reshaped the mechanisms and the looks of buses. However, their purpose has remained unchanged: they remain safe, efficient, and comfortable group transportation vehicles.

Buses have evolved over the years based on society’s needs. In the early history of buses, economic reasons ruled: replicating a single mechanism and running a bus business was so expensive and complicated that creating a more cost-efficient system was the top priority. Nowadays, the pillars of bus progress are sustainability and enhancement of the customer experience. Here’s a brief overview of how we got to this point.

Periods in History of Buses

The pioneer public bus of the 1660s: ahead of its time

The first public ‘bus”  line was launched in France in 1662 when Blaise Pascal developed a system of horse-drawn carriages that ran across Paris streets on schedule. However, the initiative hit the wall we would now call “a failed product-market fit”: the carriages were only available to nobility, and their interest in the novelty, unsupported by a real need, faded within a decade.

Horse-drawn buses of the 1820s

It took 150 more years for the idea of public group transportation to come back — but this time, it was to stay. The omnibus, born in 1826, could carry up to 42 passengers with three horses required to pull it. France was, again, the first to test the innovation. This time, both commoners and gentry were allowed onboard. In 1828, New York City also laid out its first omnibus line, with many other US cities to follow.

A ride on the omnibus was bumpy. The roads were mainly paved with cobblestones, and seats had no padding, making it very uncomfortable for longer trips. Ticket prices were also quite high. Luckily enough, the omnibus found its audience in the newly-formed middle class. They could not yet afford a private coach but were ready to pay to avoid the exhaustion of urban walking. It was a combination of factors that meant that omnibuses got their chance to stay around.

By the way, the term “bus” is a short form of the word “omnibus”. There are two theories of the term origin: one connects it to the Latin word “for many”, or “all”; another to the Paris bus route “Omnes”.

The rail-based horsecar of the 19th century

The first significant omnibus improvement was achieved by laying rails over the existing routes. Horse-pulled carriages now offered a much smoother ride. Due to lower friction, it was also easier for horses to pull, so each car could now carry three times more passengers. By the 1880s, the US cities had over 30,000 miles of street rail tracks for horsecars. 

However, it now became clear that horses as a power source were not sustainable. They could only work for about two hours, so each vehicle required up to ten animals per day. The cost of the feed and the public concerns regarding animal treatment inspired further innovation. 

A short innovation detour: cable car buses

Andrew Smith Hallidie created the first cable car in 1873 in San Francisco. Hallidie’s system no longer required using animals. Instead they worked by using a moving cable between the existing rails and securing each vehicle with a bottom clamp. 

However, the system was unsafe: the cables were notorious for snapping, causing dangerous accidents. For that reason, cable cars were removed from wide operation soon enough after their introduction. The need for a better solution remained.

The trolleybus: from the 1880s to the 20th century

During the late 1800s, trolleybuses — also known as trams, trolleys, or electric streetcars — finally replaced horsecars, closing the era of animal-powered omnibuses. They ran on rails and were powered by electric current lines overhead. The switch was easy: trolleybuses used the existing rails and cars while being able to carry more passengers over longer distances for a lower cost. 

Trolleybuses were one of the most revolutionary and impactful US inventions of its time. Streetcars made daily commuting available and convenient, initiating the suburbanization of the major cities. Once small, densely packed city centers finally started to spread outward, shaping the metropolises we know now.

Densely packed “streetcar suburbs” formed around each line leading to the work areas. Trolleybus lines were in service for a remarkably long time, only replaced in the 1940s for no fault of the technology itself. Some streetcar lines still operate in Seattle, Boston, and Philadelphia, as well as many European countries.

Contemporary buses: 1950s to nowadays 

Karl Benz engineered the first motorized bus in 1895. In 1906, France, once again, became the pioneer by opening the first short motorized bus line. 

Those first buses were a far cry from the modern ones, offering minimal comfort to passengers. The major renovation of the transit system was prompted by the shortages after World War II: the high cost of laying new rails and the need for a more flexible type of vehicle led to converting many streetcar lines to motorized bus lines. The ruling age of the modern bus began.

In 1951, Mercedes Benz designed a bus model with the combination of the rear-end engine and spacious body. Over time, several specialized types of buses were formed: city transit, suburban, intercity, and school. They utilize different constructions to serve their specific purposes better.

Even though private cars also gained popularity around this the, the peaking of fuel costs in the 1990s and 2000s contributed to higher bus ridership across the world. In large cities, personal cars became a less prudent choice: lack of parking and traffic jams turned public transport into a more attractive commute option.

Electric buses of the 21st century

Today, buses are the most widely used transportation system across the world. By the 2010s, bus manufacturing was largely globalized, with the same designs used across the world. 

As the environmental impact has become an important consideration, most modern societies embraced the group and public modes of transportation. Many places in the world, such as the US and Europe, ensure that buses comply with much stricter emission standard requirements.  

Technological innovations similarly focus on sustainability and comfort. Hybrid buses, fuel cell buses, and electric buses are on the way to many US cities. 25 major cities in Europe aim to replace their buses with electric ones by the end of 2020.

Charter bus service is another advancement that has taken group transportation convenience even further. It combines the flexibility public transport lacks with the affordability that comes along with participating in a shared service.

At Bus.com, we aim to build a sustainable service that evolves to meet the needs of our passengers. We learn from history to adopt the smartest solutions for a safer, more eco-friendly, user-tailored ride. 

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