Commuter Kate: The History of Public Transit

Published: October 24, 2018

My colleague Steve recently told me how his grandmother commuted to work on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay in 1915. She rode a glistening new cable car to a dock and boarded a steam-powered ferry to cross the Bay. It got me thinking about how far we’ve come from the horse and cart days, and I started researching the history of public transit. Below is a summary of the major changes in transportation since its inception.  

What is public transit?

Public transit, public transport, or mass transit are all ways to describe the movement of people in a group riding one mode of transport, usually within an urban area. Public transit is usually managed on a schedule and operates on specific lines or routes. It can be managed privately or publicly depending on the local system of governance.

Why was mass transit invented?

The sheer size of the world and the limited resources in one place have always meant that humans must travel outside of where they live, whether it’s to get food, go to work, or for a social visit. Public transit provides efficiency and cost-savings for people traveling in the same direction or destination, as the cost is shared between everyone traveling.

When did public transit begin?

The first form of public transport was multiple people riding animals. Animal-drawn ferries are thought to be the earliest form of public transit. The wheel was invented in 3,500 BC but it wasn’t until 1,600 BC that it was used for a chariot. This is when the idea of longer distance travel was possible by road.

History of Public Transit TimelineCommuter Kate Moovit's Transit Tipster Cable Care San Francisco


The first concept of a public transit system in a city started in the 1820s in France and London with the introduction of the omnibus, a horse-drawn car that held up to 10 people at a time. With the roads as they were in those days, can you imagine how uncomfortable that would have been?

In 1825 George Stephenson built the first public steam railway in the world, the Locomotion between Stockton and Darlington Railway in the UK.


The first authenticated streetcar in America, the New York and Harlem Railroad, began service in 1932. It wasn’t until 1855 in Paris that the first permanent tram line in continental Europe was opened, 1858 in South America in Santiago, Chile, and 1860 in Sydney, Australia.


The first cable car was tested in 1873 in San Francisco. Due to the rolling hills of the city, Andrew Smith Hallidie was inspired to create this form of transportation to make sure the poor horses weren’t overly whipped while struggling to climb up the steep slopes.

Fast forward to 2018 — here I am by an iconic cable car in San Francisco which still runs on the same tracks to this very day.


The first public electric tram line opened in Berlin, Germany in 1881. It initially drew current from the rails, with overhead wire being installed in 1883.


In 1890 the first underground railway in the form of the Metropolitan Railway on what would become the London Underground.

The first rapid transit system in the United States was built a few years later in 1892 in Chicago — the “L” train continues to run to this day.

Boston, Massachusetts opened the first subway system in the U.S. in 1897 to avoid severe weather conditions.  


Another UK first occurred in 1910 when the first mass-produced bus was introduced in London. This double-decker style is still in place today. Proof that good ideas never get outdated!  


The introduction of the motorbus was in 1922 which rapidly changed the speed in which passengers were able to get to their destination.


The first bullet train was introduced in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka in Japan. The average speed was 99 mph.

In the U.S. in the 60s, steam trains transitioned to diesel-electric powered trains.


Shanghai was the first city to implement battery buses — an electric bus that uses energy from on-board batteries to drive its electric motor. These offer zero emission and are much quieter than normal buses. China had about 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the roads worldwide its cities are adding 1900 electric buses per week.

If you’re interested in what I believe to be the future of public transit, click here.  Don’t forget to follow Commuter Kate on Medium and Twitter.

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