Today is the anniversary of the birth of public transport, in Paris. It was in 1662. Les Carrosses à Cinq Sous were basically buses, although they were horse drawn. They had set routes that were divided into zones and you paid according to how many zones you travelled across. They also had crossing points where you could change from one route to another. It all sounds very much like modern metropolitan transport. There was even a circle line.
It was all the idea of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal and his friend Artus Gouffier, the Duc de Roannez. Gouffier, when he wasn’t busy draining marshes, was pretty obsessed with transport. The streets of the city had been recently widened and that set them thinking about urban public transportation. There were cross country public coach services, but nothing in the city. There were people who had private coaches, but they were incredibly expensive and quite a status symbol.
From 1639 it was possible to rent a carriage or a sedan chair by the day, but it was still beyond the financial means of most Parisians. Together, they gathered investors, drew up contracts and got ‘lettres patentes’ from the King Louis XIV giving them a monopoly on their idea. Test runs at the end of February proved it was easy, with only one carriage to make four trips along their proposed route between 6am and 11am and the same between 2pm and 6pm. The new carriages were launched, in a blaze of publicity on March 18th 1662. There were newspaper advertisements and posters everywhere explaining about the new service. Twelve carriages would follow the route, so one would arrive every seven or eight minutes. So, even for those with their own carriage, it would be quicker to catch one than to have your own made ready. Each carriage could carry eight passengers, The fare would be five only sous, which was twenty-five times cheaper than hiring even the cheapest carriage for the day.
The carriages were extremely popular right from the start. Men and women of all classes used them and visitors to the city were rather shocked to find out how up close and personal it all was. It was such a huge success that, within weeks, a second route was announced. The two routes crossed near the Rue Saint-Denis, allowing passengers to change from one route to the other. More routes were added during the summer and, in June, a circular route was begun around the perimeter of the city which was divided into six zones. You could travel across two zones on a single ticket, but would have to pay again for a third.
There were a couple of snags that needed ironing out. It was dangerous for the drivers to carry large sums of money, so passengers were encouraged to present the exact change. In case the cab drivers were rude, each carriage was given a unique number, so it was easy to make a complaint. But the biggest problem was rich people. While some enjoyed the experience of meeting strangers and finding out all about their lives, others did not. Rather than hire a private carriage, they found it much easier to get on one of the Carosses, pay for all of the seats and refuse to let anyone else on. The practice was banned but soon a new law was introduced. For the comfort of the bourgeois, soldiers, servants and unskilled workers were no longer allowed to use the coaches. That didn’t go well. People started to throw stones at the carriages and they had to make another law that fined anyone who attacked cab drivers. From then on, their lovely transport for all, system was not really public any more.
The more well off people still loved them though. There was even a play about two couples who were driven apart and then reunited by public transport. It ran for four years. There was a husband who spent all day hopping between carriages flirting with strangers. His wife won him back by following him disguised as a mysterious masked woman. The other husband was stealing his wife’s jewels to fund his gambling habit. She disguised herself as a man, got in his carriage and managed to pick his pocket to get her jewellery back.
Blaise Pascal died in 1662 but Roannez kept his interest in the company until 1691. Shortly after that, the financial climate took a turn for the worse and nobody could afford to pay for carriages any more. Paris did not have public transport again until 1828 when the omnibus was introduced. Omnibus is a Latin word that means ‘for all’ and it has been shortened to give us the word ‘bus’.