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buses

buses are road vehicles carrying passengers by short stages on fixed routes, picking up and setting down by request. The word is an abbreviation of ‘omnibus’. They were introduced by Shillibeer to London from Paris in July 1829, carrying 20 passengers drawn by three horses, soon reduced for economy to two-horse traction, with twelve inside and three outside seats. During the 1830s and 1840s buses spread to Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, and other major centres. Successive reductions in their taxation 1842–70 raised capacity and reduced fares: the introduction of ‘knifeboard’ seats on the roof in the 1840s increased capacity to 22; and the double-deck, ‘garden seat’ horse-bus, which carried 26, proved the limit of its development. Expensive to run, buses were restricted to the middle-class market, and were uneconomic by comparison with trams, which relegated them to a support role in many towns. By contrast, in London where trams were excluded from the city, the bus predominated, and passenger journeys grew fivefold to 300 million, 1860–96.

The motor bus, introduced to Edinburgh in 1898, spread rapidly with more reliable and efficient designs from 1908, transformed the market, raising capacity and reducing fares, and democratized usage. In London passenger journeys reached over 750 million in 1914, near parity with the total for trams and trolleybuses, and had overtaken them by the early 1920s. With the two-horse bus team producing up to 8 tons of manure per annum, motorization was also critical to the cleansing of city streets, and the horse bus disappeared from London in 1914, and everywhere else during the 1920s. By the late 1930s, there were 50,000 buses on the road, performing around two-thirds of road passenger journeys, and as many passenger miles as the railways.

Organizationally, growth outside London was chaotic before 1930: much bus business was highly competitive, with easy entry, variable standards, and the majority of firms operating pirate or irregular services; in some towns, by contrast, municipal or private operators enjoyed near monopoly. The London General Omnibus Company, a French foundation of 1855, experienced strong competition as motor vehicles were introduced, but re-established monopoly in the London Electric Railways grouping of 1912. Competition returned, from the Chocolate Express and around 200 others 1922–4, when it was restrained by Labour's co-ordinating regulation in the aftermath of a bus strike, and unification came with the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933. Elsewhere, the Road Traffic Act of 1930 introduced control and fostered concentration, and by 1939 the majority of services were provided by around 100 municipal operators, and the Tilling/British Electric Traction and Scottish Motor Traction private groups, both with substantial railway involvement. Britain was largely mapped out into regional monopolies or cartels such as Crosville, Ribble, and Southdown, akin to the situation in London, with strong backward linkages to manufacturers like Leyland and AEC.

Bus services were not nationalized directly by the Transport Act of 1947, but the British Transport Commission acquired railway bus interests under it (1948), and Tilling (1948) and Scottish Motor Traction (1949) by purchase. Many independent and municipal undertakings remained, along with the large group of British Electric Traction. Further acquisitions by BTC were debarred by legislation in 1953, when the Thesiger Committee also endorsed existing regulation by licence. Usage began to fall from 1952 in London, and from 1955 outside, as car ownership rose. The Transport Act of 1968 brought full public ownership of an industry half its 1952 peak, declining further to one-third by 1988. Local government reform in 1986 led to the breakup of this regime, and combined with doctrinaire deregulation to open the industry once more, producing in such cities as Glasgow a rainbow traffic jam of buses. By the mid-1990s the industry was less competitive, and was coming to be dominated by new private regional monopolies, as companies such as Stagecoach grew rapidly by acquisition.

J. A. Chartres

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