Vintage transportation | traveling by bus

traveling by bus

Painting by George William Joy

Now that things are opening up again, travel is once again top-of-mind for many folks. While the obvious choice might be hopping on a plane, I found this great article on scenic bus routes and it got me thinking. Before planes, buses were the way to go. So let’s learn a bit more about traveling by bus while we dream of our next great adventure. Everything starts with two special words: voiture omnibus (or carriage for all). This egalitarian mode of transportation found its footing in 1820’s France. A business owner, by the impressive name of Stanislas Baudry, was creating an empire but there was a problem: location. Even though spas had been popular since Roman times, they were experiencing quite the resurgence during the 1800s. Baudry was capitalizing on this trend with a stylish bathhouse, but the location was too far afield to attract customers. He figured if you couldn’t get people to come to your business, bring the people themselves. But, as it so often happens, the best laid plans bring surprising results.

Instead of the spa becoming the main attraction, the omnibus took center stage. It seems people loved having a way to get around – they just didn’t want to go to the spa! While that might make the average entrepreneur feel defeated, Baudry decided to pivot his entire business model. Thanks to the public response, he realized the power of his investment and, after some further development, took his transportation network all the way to Paris. London – not to be outdone – followed suit, starting their own omnibus network in 1829. While these two iconic cities faced off in the great battle of connectivity, the Industrial Revolution was rapidly changing the face of industry and the nature of society itself. People were migrating from the farm to the city en masse and as cities grew and class distinctions blurred, the omnibus became the common meeting place. Public transportation was just that – for the public (or as Baudry would say – for all)! As transportation needs grew, the omnibus evolved to meet the demand. This is where we meet the omnibus’s second act: the steam-powered bus.

traveling by bus

Onward to adventure

Steam was the latest trend and using it reduced travel times significantly. This efficiency helped bustling cities run on predictable schedules and it supported the growing urban sprawl. Cities and citizens alike depended on the steam-powered bus to enable commerce. As the year 1900 drew closer, electricity bested steam for the coveted top spot in energy production. The invention of the electric light is second only to the printing press and it opened up a whole new environment for inventors across all industries (and the realm of transportation was not immune to electricity’s allure). In the 1880s German and English inventors joined forces to pioneer the trolleybus concept. Using overhead wires, these buses could venture un-interrupted along designated routes. The fledgling technology had a rocky start, taking about two decades to be perfected. But the wheels of progress kept on turning and by the 1920s, the next revelation arrived on the scene: the motor bus.

This new chapter in bus technology started with the Daimler corporation, who led the way thanks to such revolutionary inventions like the carburetor and four-stroke engine. Their double-decker bus hit the London roads in 1898 and the city would never be the same. In fact, search for icons of London and the humble bus is jockeying for the top spot on every list!  As demand grew, other manufactures developed their own versions, including the Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company (a division of General Motors). Buses were even called into duty during WWII. If you needed to safely and quickly move a group of people, the motor bus was the way to go. While the models varied, they stayed true to the roots established all those decades earlier in Nantes, France. Bus designs accommodated everyone: for the more adventurous (or fiscally conservative) passenger there were seats in the open-air; for the passengers more accustomed to posh settings there were cushioned spots. Buses became roaming community centers, hubs of activity, and a natural spot for advertising the latest wares to a captive audience.

Perhaps no one so bravely tested the promise of the omnibus like Rosa Parks. Her strength reset the trajectory of an entire country and we have all benefited from her legacy. She reminds us that buses are more than just a mode of transportation. Yes, they can take us to distant lands, but they also have the power to connect us with our neighbors and remind us of our humanity. It’s obvious that the bus has a special place in our collective history, but tell me dear reader which version is your favorite? Perhaps it’s the quaint horse-drawn carriage for all or maybe the flashy trolleybus is more your style. Whatever style you prefer, the bus is ready and waiting for you…

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