Monday, April 8, 2013

History of Transportation in London: Humble Beginnings

In the early eighteenth century, like most major cities across the world, most people in London got around by foot or horse-drawn carriages – as they had for centuries. Pedestrians shared the narrow roads with animals, carriages of the affluent, various wagons and carts. The river Thames served as an east-west thoroughfare, connecting London to downstream ports like Essex, Kent and the coast for local and overseas trade. However, in the next two hundred years, rapidly growing London had to seek other, faster modes of travel, laying the foundation of the present day transportation system.

Horse-drawn Buses and Trams

Lack of affordable public transportation and industrialization prompted the rapidly growing population to cluster around the central city leading to severe congestion, poor public health and the creation of slums. In 1828, George Shillibeer pioneered the horse-drawn omnibus that could efficiently transport around 22 people, which gained popularity and spurred fierce competition for similar vehicles. This led to the creation of the regulatory bodies like the Omnibus Association and London general Omnibus Company that regulated the routes, number of buses and frequency, laying the foundation for the modern day bus service. By 1890s, systems like the Horse Trams began considering the social impacts of transportation made efforts to link housing policy and transit fares to favor the less well off.

Image Credit: Collection of London Transport Museum

Motorbuses slowly replaced horse-drawn buses and trams in the early twentieth century. By 1910, mass produced buses were widely used and provided essential connections to subway stations and connected suburbs and the country-side to central London. The motorbuses also played a vital role during wartime by serving as troop and equipment carriers.

Image Credit: Collection of London Transport Museum

Railway and Trams

In 1836, the first commuter railway line was introduced between London and Greenwich. Its massive success propelled railway development all over Britain. By 1863, the first underground railway line in the world opened between Farrington and Paddington. This line used the ‘cut-and-cover’ excavation method for tunneling and was designed to accommodate both broad gauge and standard gauge for the train line. This line, later, introduced reduced pricing for workmen commuting into the city, demonstrating social responsibility of public transportation. More congestion and increased services, led to innovations in tunneling methods and the first tunnel was built under the Thames River to carry pedestrians. It was later used for underground railway lines.

The train lines expanded over the next few decades, carrying passengers and freight to and from London. The Met (Metropolitan Railway) began experimenting with electrification by 1900, as it provided a cleaner alternative, especially in the underground lines. However, the complete transition from steam engine to electric engine took the next 60 years.


By the end of the nineteenth century, London’s transportation system brought in 6000 people by train, 15,000 by steamboats, and around 26,000 by the omnibuses to central London. About 20,000 people continued to walk to get around. Both the World Wars severely impacted London’s transportation service and serving multiple purposes of transport and shelter. By this time, cars had also become mainstream in London’s already complex network of buses, trams, trains and underground system. Post-war, the focus moved towards repairing and rehabilitating the system and conservatively using public money for other policy areas.



  1. That's the first I've heard of the Thames pedestrian tunnel. Is that the tunnel now used by the "Overground"? Given the current resurgence of cycling in London, I'll be interested to hear about cycling's place in the early transportation system.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe. The Thames Tunnel was actually the first tunnel to be constructed across the Thames and was originally meant for horse carriages. However, while it was an engineering feat for that era, it was massive financial failure and was used by pedestrians till it was purchased by East London Railway Company. It is now used by the Overground.

    Cycling actually has a very interesting history in London and started as hobby in the 1880s. In the late 19th century, it was considered very 'fashionable' to cycle and was very popular among affluent, liberal women. Cycling races, Cyclists groups, "hygienic" cycle seats soon became a rage. As it became a more mainstream mode of transportation the early 20th century, there were several concerns about traffic safety, especially with the advent of motor vehicles. As an experimental solution, UK's very first segregated cycle track opened in 1934 (See this news video: This move was met with much opposition from cycling groups who felt that cyclists were having to give up their rightful place on the road - a debate which is relevant nearly 80 years later!

    For more information, please check out:


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