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.
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 was not successful and within a decade it got vanished.
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.
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.
The rail-based horse car 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. However, it 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 trolleybus: from the 1880s
During the late 1800s, trolleybuses — also known as trams, trolleys, or electric streetcars — finally replaced horse cars, 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 inventions of its time. Streetcars made daily commuting available and convenient, initiating the suburbanization of the major cities. Once small, densely packed city centres finally started to spread outward, shaping the metropolises we know now.
Contemporary buses: 1950s to 20th Century.
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.
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. With electric buses gaining popularity, many public transportation systems are looking to adopt these environmentally-friendly vehicles to help reduce emissions and keep city air clean. But with all of the environmental benefits of electric buses, they can have their drawbacks such as higher cost and range issue. Electric buses cost more than traditional diesel-powered models, deterring many cities from making the switch. And while the up-front cost can be intimidating, the lack of fuel costs for electric buses quickly makes up for the initial cost. All things considered, it’s about 2.5 times cheaper to power electric vehicles than it is to power diesel vehicles, and battery prices are expected to drop by 2025, which will help to further reduce the up-front cost.