Why you should care
Before the MTA and the automobile, philosopher Blaise Pascal created the concept … of the bus.
Of all the world’s capitals, London is king when it comes to pioneering transportation. It was the first to open an underground system in 1890, beating Paris’ Métro by a decade and New York’s subway by 14 years. It also boasted the first mechanically propelled, steam-powered buses, which started their routes in 1833 in a short-lived experiment that’s largely forgotten today even by Londoners.
But who says buses have to be mechanical? The world’s first public transit system was born in Paris more than 150 years earlier, in 1662, the brainchild of none other than mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who gave his name to a law of fluid mechanics, a theorem of projective geometry and, of course, Pascal’s wager, which argues that it’s rational to believe in God because if he exists it might get you into heaven and if he doesn’t you’ll have lost nothing by believing.
Most people don’t associate Pascal with buses, but urban planning is a math problem too, and his bus system is considered his greatest, and final, achievement. Just three months after the carosses à cinq sous, or five-penny carriages he envisioned began running, Pascal was dead of a mysterious ailment at the age of 39.
“It’s practical mathematics. Not everyone wants theoretical mathematics all the time,” explains Dr. Joan DeJean, author of How Paris Became Paris and several other books about French history. And it was practical: Any modern bus rider would recognize the system, even if the carriages were drawn by horse and could only carry eight passengers. Posters were affixed at each stop along the bus line — the system began with one route and eventually expanded to five — to explain how the system worked, how quickly the carriages came (every seven or eight minutes), and how late service would run. By contrast, private carriages were available to rent by the day for 140 sous, so the 5-sous fare would have been a bargain … thus opening this kind of transport to the middle class in a way it never had been before. It was a revolution in many ways: Women could ride on their own, which meant mixing in public with strangers of the opposite sex on a continent where that was highly unusual. There was also a sense of fairness in that everyone had the same access to the buses. While wealthy individuals initially tried to purchase all the seats in certain carriages so they could ride alone, that practice was soon banned by ordinance.
But that same ordinance triggered a sort of bus-specific class war. Under pressure from rich patrons, the bus system banned “soldiers, servants and unskilled workers” from riding the wildly popular carriages, which led to a very French form of resistance: servants stoning the carriages as they passed. That, DeJean writes, was essentially the end of the carosses as a mode of safe and truly public transit. Gone was the sense — still present when you ride public transit today — that you could both be anonymous on your journey and have a surprise run-in with a close friend.
Still, the carriages were a success — so much so that Paris’ hit theatrical comedy in 1662 was titled The Intrigue of the Five-Penny Carriages, with a madcap plot about an adulterous husband who picks up women on the bus and the wife who catches him. But by the 1690s the carriages were shut down. The documentation as to why has largely been lost, be DeJean theorizes that they were no longer profitable and that the Duc de Roannez, who’d co-founded the bus company with Pascal, appears to have sold his stake in the venture.
“Progress is not an easy thing to understand!” says DeJean. “You reach what you think is real progress and it disappears.” By then, Pascal was long gone — leaving behind an ironic twist to his involvement in such a public conveyance, one that encouraged social commuting, given his assertion that “all the unhappiness of man arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”
While the carriages disappeared from city streets — and Paris would remain public-transit free until 1828, when the omnibus arrived — they left their mark in an unexpected way. The carriages, which operated after dark, necessitated street lighting, which meant torchbearers, who would wait with oil lamps at set locations and light your way (or your bus’ way) for a fee of three sous per 15-minute interval. Just five years after the carriages started running, lanterns could be seen every 20 yards or so throughout Paris. It would take another 150 years for the gas street lamps that gave the capital its moniker (City of Light) to appear … just in time to illuminate the city’s next wave of buses.