Public Transportation Begins

Coaches-for-hire appeared on Europe’s city streets before 1630, expanding the range of conveyances for goods and people across cities. Inverting this dynamic, though, was the horse-drawn Paris omnibus system, which followed fixed routes and schedules, had set fares, and was carefully monitored by route supervisors. The basic structure of this early omnibus system remains into the twenty-first century, around the world.

Summary of Event

Prior to the seventeenth century in Paris, most people moved throughout the city on foot or horseback. Goods were moved in similar fashion. In the seventeenth century, however, coach-riding, a convenient way to move around the city and to mark one’s prestigious social status, came to be more common. Aristocrats rode in their coaches and the financially successful, eager to follow the aristocrats, began purchasing coaches as well. In addition, social customs associated with the carriage developed: For example, the Cours de la Reine was a fashionable set of avenues near the Tuilieries, where carriages could be driven and shown and carriage passengers could see and be seen. [kw]Public Transportation Begins (Mar. 18, 1662)
[kw]Transportation Begins, Public (Mar. 18, 1662)
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Carriages, horses, and maintenance were expensive, however. One carriage could cost several hundred livre per year to own and maintain, and the horse to pull the carriage could cost a few hundred livre. However, even though most people could not afford their own carriages, they still wanted the convenience of private transportation around Paris.

This led to the first carriage-for-hire businesses, including cabs with seating for two or four people, also known as fiacres. Businessman Nicholas Sauvage began the first fiacre business sometime before 1630. The fiacres were very popular with visitors and businesspeople, and remained available as long as horse-drawn cabs were on the streets. Since Sauvage did not have an exclusive privilege for operating this type of carriage-for-hire business, competitors soon arrived. As the business developed, two types of coaches could be hired: the fiacres, which could be hailed from a sidewalk, and the carrosses sous remise, which were hired only from the coach owner’s station.

People interested in operating urban transportation businesses obtained exclusive permission from the king. This involved petitioning the king and paying a fee of thousands of livre to the royal treasury. People obtained exclusive rights to operate different kinds of vehicles on different kinds of routes. For example, a lady-in-waiting to the king’s mother had the right to operate coaches between Paris and Versailles. Another company had the exclusive right to hire out a calèche, an open, four-passenger, one-horse coach.

On January 19, 1662, King Louis XIV Louis XIV;mass transportation and granted a group of entrepreneurs the exclusive right to operate a public urban transportation system that followed fixed routes, had low fares, and traveled on a schedule. Blaise Pascal, Pascal, Blaise who is credited with designing the service, was not one of the original petitioners to the king, though his sister Gilberte Pascal and Pascal’s lifelong friend, the Duc de Roannez, Roannez, duc de were petitioners. Pascal did receive income from the venture, however.

The carrosse à cinq sols, called so because five sols was the fare for a single ride, began service on March 18, 1662, at 7 a.m. Its first route connected the rue Saint Antoine with the Palais du Luxembourg. On that March morning, three or four coaches were ready to depart in each direction at staggered intervals. Later in 1662, four more lines opened. Of the five lines, four were designed to intersect and thus allow passenger transfers. The fifth line, also known as the Tour de Paris, circled the city; unlike the other lines, though, it had zoned fares, much like modern subway or tram systems.

Each of the four intersecting lines had company offices at the start and end of each respective route to allow a company official, the commis, to oversee the day’s work. The Tour de Paris route, however, had these offices along its entire route. Although the routes extended from the Louvre and Palais Royal on the west to the Palais du Luxembourg in the east, the fashionable Marais district benefited most from the omnibus service. In addition, some routes passed through the merchant and artisan centers on the Right Bank. Thus, the routes met the interests of those involved in politics, commerce, and, generally, aristocratic life.

At the company office, the commis monitored the arrivals and departures of the vehicles. He would also receive receipts and reports and handle clients. The coaches, which typically operated from six or seven in the morning to eight or nine at night, were sent out by the commis in fifteen minute intervals throughout the day. The service operated year round, except for Easter, Pentecost, All Saint’s Day, and Christmas.

Each coach, designed to carry eight people, was driven by a coachman, who also collected fares, and was accompanied by a footman, who rode on the back of the carriage. The footman assisted passengers in and out of the vehicle and also counted them, providing independent reports to the commis as a check on the driver. Both the coachman and footman wore a simple livery, and the coaches were also marked with the city’s coat of arms. Each coach had its own team of four horses: one pair for the morning work and a second pair for the afternoon. Subcontractors operated and maintained the coaches and took care of the horses.

When Louis granted the original privilege for the service, he made no restrictions on passengers the omnibuses could carry. However, when the Parlement of Paris, the Paris law court, registered the king’s letter, there was inserted a provision about passengers. Liveried servants, unskilled or manual laborers, and soldiers were prohibited from riding. Women, however, were apparently not restricted, either by law or by custom. Gilberte Pascal, who was one of the petitioners to the king, commented in correspondence that several women rode during the first day of service.

The omnibuses were popular, at least among the well-to-do; even the king is said to have ridden it at least once. There are several recorded instances where members of the general public threw stones at and otherwise mocked the drivers. In one incident about a month after the service started, a driver was wounded severely, leading to the passing of laws prohibiting such violence towards the carrosses. The public continued to follow the coaches with stones and insults, and, ultimately, a police presence along the routes was required to restore civic order.

In 1667, the omnibus service ceased. It is thought that the firm went out of business because ridership dropped, chiefly because of petty thieves and robbers and the like riding the service. Also, Pascal died on August 19, 1662, which left the service without its original visionary.


The omnibus was the first modern public transportation system. Ultimately, the 1662 service succeeded because it modeled the key features of a successful bus service: routes, a schedule, and standard fares. Indeed, the original petition even modeled the democratic ridership of later coach services. These features can be traced through later public transportation developments.

The brilliance of its design is more evident because so many public transportation systems still duplicate those original features.

Clearly, as a service that did not last more than about five years, the omnibus was not an initial success. It seems the omnibus should have survived because it appears to have been a logical extension of the thriving carriage-for-hire businesses already operating in Paris and other cities. This 1662 service, however, provided a specific transit—easy access between the chief commercial, legal, and aristocratic/royal districts and around the city—to a specific clientele, the social elite. Also, the service itself was legally an aristocratic one.

When omnibuses once again figured in Paris transportation, they were praised for being democratic vehicles. In 1828, when the next omnibus service began, observers noted the range of people who rode it, from peers to servants to clerks. Expansive routes throughout the city also helped increase ridership; in six months during its first year of operation, the chief omnibus service carried 2.5 million people.

Further Reading

  • Benard, Leon. The Emerging City: Paris in the Age of Louis XIV. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1970. This work dissects seventeenth century Paris, from the milieu of theater to police to transit and more.
  • Lister, Martin. A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698. Edited by Raymond Phineas Stearns. Facsimile Reprints in the History of Science 4. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967. Although this travel account is set after the end of the Pascal omnibus, the patterns of carriages, riverboats, and chairs for hire are evident in this account by a British physician.
  • Lundwall, Eric. Les Carrosses à cinq sols: Pascal entrepreneur. Preface by Jean Mesnard. Paris: Science Infuse, 2000. This work explores the coach system as envisioned by Pascal, especially in the context of the history of entrepreneurship. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Mesnard, Jean. Pascal et les Roannez. Bruges, Belgium: Desclée De Brouwer, 1965. This account of Pascal and the family of his childhood friend, Louis François du Bouchet, later Duc de Roannez, covers the development of the omnibus in volume 2.
  • Papayanis, Nicholas. Horse-Drawn Cabs and Omnibuses in Paris: The Idea of Circulation and the Business of Public Transit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. This analysis of Parisian transit traces it from Pascal’s omnibus through the twentieth century Paris Metro.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Blaise Pascal; Louis XIV. Transportation, public