Omnibus, London, Circa 1895

Omnibus London 1895
Omnibus London Late 19th Century

Source: London Transport Museum.

Although the first omnibus services appeared in Nantes in 1826 and Bordeaux in 1827, the first wide-scale commercial public transit ventures began in 1828 in Paris. Stanislas Baudry, a retired French general, had been experimenting with a scheme to draw new customers to his steam bath venture outside Nantes. Baudry introduced a type of stagecoach operation, which, as it turned out, did not benefit his steam bath, but did prove popular as a means of transportation. This transport service was given the name omnibus as a play on words. The city terminus for the service was located adjacent to a hatter named Omnes, whose sign read “Omnes Omnibus”. The term seemed appropriate since Omni (Latin for all people) could use the service for a fee, regardless of class. These early buses carried up to fourteen passengers. By 1836, there were 16 omnibus operators in Paris, covering 35 routes.

The innovation was carried to London in 1829 by George Shillibeer, a successful English coach maker who worked in Paris. As in France, the omnibus was primarily used by middle-class commuters. By 1854, more suburban commuters used the omnibus than steamboat and railroad combined. The North American experience with the omnibus, although less enduring than in France, proceeded at a quicker pace. Abraham Brower, a Manhattan stagecoach operator who had started business in 1827, created the first omnibus venture in the United States. The innovation was soon adopted elsewhere, for example, in Philadelphia and Boston in the 1830s and Baltimore in the 1840s. In Canada, omnibus services flourished in the larger cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax during the middle of the nineteenth century.

The omnibus was first adapted to a fixed rail system in 1832 by John Mason, president of the Chemical Bank of New York and operator of the N.Y. & Harlem Railroad. The smooth ride and low floor of these new horse-cars provided passengers with superior comfort. The widespread adoption of this technology to other cities was limited until engineers could design a rail that could be installed flush with the street surface. In 1853 New York opted to replace the elevated rails with this new, obstruction-free design, and other cities followed suit:

  • 1832 New York.
  • 1835 New Orleans.
  • 1856 Boston.
  • 1858 Philadelphia.
  • 1859 Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
  • 1861 Toronto.

The adoption of this new technology was less rapid in Europe. Paris approved their first streetcar railway in 1854 after considerable grumbling by skeptical officials. A six-fold increase in ridership between 1855 and 1890 eventually confirmed the popularity of the horse-drawn railway among the citizens of Paris. Rail-based horse cars were introduced in England in 1860, but adoption was never widespread. By 1882 the North American transit industry had ballooned to include 415 street railway firms, 35 000 workers, 18 000 cars, 100 000 horses and mules, over 3 000 miles of track, and a total capital investment of $150 million. The time was right for forming a professional trade association to represent the young industry. The American Street Railway Association was therefore formed in Boston in December 1882 by representatives from across the United States and Canada.

The founding of this new trade organization coincided with a period of technical innovation in public transit. Both San Francisco and Chicago had opened cable-car lines to address the many deficiencies of horse-drawn travel, including the need to have large stables to supply fresh horses and the need to remove both snow and manure from the tracks. Cable cars were quickly adopted in a number of cities. In 1893, cable-car trackage peaked at 305 miles spread among 59 companies operating in 27 cities. No Canadian systems converted from horse cars to cable cars, which is just as well since the successful application of electricity quickly rendered the cable systems obsolete, with the notable exception of San Francisco. Within a few years of its initial introduction in 1888, most major cities in North America had adopted the electric streetcar, including Ottawa (1890); Winnipeg (1891); Toronto, Montreal, and Hamilton (1892); and Halifax (1896). Outside North America, the streetcar is commonly referred to as a Tram.