Taking public transport is a conscientious decision for some, a convenience for others, and a necessity to many. There’s quite a bit of romanticism surrounding the earliest iterations of mass transport, but many forms were met with a high degree of hostility and resistance — as is often the case with disruptive technologies. Nonetheless, civilization progressed from the earliest attempts at moving the masses, and new technologies picked up the torch where previous attempts fell short.


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The earliest forms of public transport were by water. Whereas destinations on land could be reached by foot or by horseback, trips across rivers and seas usually required the toll of ferries. Ferries existed at least as far back as ancient Greece, as illustrated by the tale of Charon taking souls across the river Styx. Other examples of ferries include Roman literature from the 4th century describing a ship with a waterwheel propelled by oxen.

The Stagecoach

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The stagecoach emerged as a form of transporting passengers across distances that were long enough to warrant a change of horses. The earliest documentation goes back to 13th century England. By 1610, a stagecoach route from Edinburgh to Leith was documented in writing. These routes could take up to 10 days at a few miles per hour, as was the case with the trip from London to Liverpool. By the 17th century, stagecoaches trotted all along London’s streets with some writers at the time condemning the great threat they posed to public life and others welcoming the change. Over time, the design of the coaches and roads developed to accommodate faster transport.


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By the 1800s, railways emerged as a new innovation. The first horse-drawn tramway was introduced in Wales by the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. This next step in public transport met even further resistance than the stagecoach. One unfortunate pioneer, George Francis Train, was jailed for “breaking and injuring the highway” in his first efforts to introduce them to Merseyside, England, in 1860.

New York City began implementing railways in the early 1800s until they were commonplace in the mid-1880s. Across the United States, 415 railway companies transported over 188 million passengers per year over a cumulative distance of 6,000 miles.


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Some of the short-comings of horse-drawn railways included the physical limitations of horses, their grooming and feeding, and the inordinate amounts of horse manure. In the late 1880s, Frank J. Sprague invented a trolley system that drew power from an overhead system of wires. Sprague’s trolley poles presented a new form of infrastructure to tackle the downsides of horse-drawn transport. The systems were spring-loaded with a wheel that ran along the overhead wires. Richmond, Virginia, was the first locale at which they were installed. It took only about a year for the new tramway systems to overtake the old horse-drawn methods. By 1889, they had spread across Europe with over 110 electric railways.


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The first cars were luxuries afforded to the wealthy as a status symbol and somewhat of a toy. Aside from the massive cost of producing automobiles, streets and infrastructure needed to be adjusted to accommodate the new vehicles. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that automobiles began to flourish among the middle class. The expansion of the industry brought greater pressure for the development of infrastructure that led to urban sprawl and the development of road networks. By the 1920s, the motorbus was introduced to the newly paved streets with a greater degree of flexibility in both timing and routes than tramways and other forms of existing public transport. By the 1960s, buses dominated the market for public transport.

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