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The History of Transport from Antiquity to Modern Times

The history of transport is a fascinating journey, dating back to ancient times and evolving over the centuries to its modern-day forms. The first form of public transport was 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 took nearly two millennia (1,600 BC) before it was used for a chariot, and the idea of longer-distance travel was possible by road.

A depiction of an onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian “War” panel of the Standard of Ur (c. 2500 BCE)
Attribution: Anonymous, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Taking a quick ride through time (forgiving the pun):

  • Ancient civilisations: In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, public transport was mainly in the form of ships and boats used to transport people and goods. In particular, the ancient Egyptians used the Nile River for transport, while the Greeks and Romans built extensive networks of roads and bridges to facilitate travel.
  • The Middle Ages: Horse-drawn carriages and wagons became widespread during this time. In Europe, carriages were often used by the upper class, while wagons served as public transport for commoners.
  • The 19th century: The invention of the internal combustion engine led to the development of motorised public transport. The first motorised bus service began in England in 1895. Trams, also known as streetcars or trolleys, were another significant development in public transport during this time. The first electric tram system was introduced in Berlin in 1881, and this mode of transportation quickly spread to other cities around the world.
  • The 20th century: The rise of the automobile and improvements in road infrastructure led to a decline in the use of trams and other forms of public transport. However, buses and trains remained essential for urban and intercity transportation. The first underground railway systems were built in cities like London (1863), New York (1904), and Paris (1900), while more advanced train systems, like the high-speed trains in Japan (Shinkansen) and France (TGV), were introduced in the mid-20th century.
  • Late 20th and early 21st centuries: The modern era of public transport has seen significant advancements in technology and sustainability. Electric and hybrid buses, as well as light rail and metro systems, have become more widespread. Additionally, the development of bike-sharing arrangements, car-sharing services, and ride-hailing apps has further diversified the public transport landscape.

Each of these periods will be considered in greater detail later in this paper, as well as discussing the key technological innovations, social and political factors that shaped the development of public transport, and its impact on society and urban development.

Relief of early war wagons on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE.
Unknown Author

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In-Depth Review of the Various Time Periods
Ancient Civilisations

  • In Mesopotamia, the first paved roads were built around 4000 BC, primarily for moving goods and people. The Mesopotamians relied heavily on water transportation, particularly along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but also used land routes for trade and military purposes.
  • The Romans developed an extensive network of roads, known as the “Viae,” which allowed for efficient travel across their vast empire. These roads were important for military purposes and were crucial in trade and communication.
  • In ancient Egypt, the Nile River was a major mode of transportation for both people and goods. Egyptians used boats made from papyrus reeds to travel on the river, and larger vessels were used to transport goods between cities and even to other countries. The Nile also provided an important means of communication and trade between Egypt and other civilisations in the Mediterranean region.
  • In ancient Greece, the main mode of transportation was the ship. Greeks were expert seafarers and built ships for both commercial and military purposes. The Greeks also developed an extensive road system that connected their cities, including the famous Sacred Way that led to the Oracle of Delphi.
  • In ancient China, transportation was primarily through using rivers and canals, which were connected through a vast network of waterways. The Grand Canal, first built during the Sui dynasty in the 7th century, connected the Yellow River in the north to the Yangtze River in the south, allowing for efficient transportation of goods and people across the country. In ancient China, the wealthy and aristocracy used sedan chairs for transportation. These chairs were carried by porters and allowed the passenger to be transported in comfort and luxury.
  • The Incas in South America built an impressive network of roads that spanned thousands of miles across their empire. These roads were built with precision and engineering skills and were used for both transportation and communication.
  • The ancient Egyptians used riverboats to transport people and goods along the Nile River. Boats were also used in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome to transport goods and people along rivers and coastlines. Chariots were used for racing and transportation, particularly by the wealthy and military officials.
  • In the Middle East and North African deserts, camels were used for transportation. They could carry heavy loads and travel long distances in harsh environments.
  • In ancient India, the palanquin (or Litter vehicle) was a popular mode of transportation for the wealthy and aristocracy. Like the sedan chair, the palanquin was a covered carriage carried by porters.

Terracotta structure of a horse-drawn vehicle at a historic temple in West Bengal, India.
Attribution: Amitabha Gupta, CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

The Greeks and the Romans also relied heavily on water transportation, particularly along the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks were known for their skilled seamanship and developed a range of ships for both trade and warfare.

The Romans, meanwhile, developed an extensive network of roads, known as the “Viae,” which allowed for efficient travel across their vast empire. These roads were important for military purposes and were crucial in trade and communication.

In addition to water transportation, ancient civilisations also used animals for transport. The domestication of horses, donkeys, and camels allowed for the development of land-based transportation networks. The use of pack animals, such as llamas in South America, allowed for the transportation of goods across mountainous terrain.

The Silk Road, which connected Europe and Asia, was an important trade route during ancient times. It was used primarily to carry luxury goods, such as silk, spices, and precious metals, between the two regions. The route extended from China to the Mediterranean and included a network of roads, caravan routes, and sea routes.

During antiquity, public transport was limited compared to later periods, but some key modes of transportation were available for people and goods. Ancient civilisations developed a range of transportation methods, including water transportation, land-based transportation, and animal-based transportation. These methods were crucial for trade, communication, and military purposes and laid the foundation for the transportation systems of later civilisations.

The Middle Ages
In addition to horse-drawn carriages and wagons, people also relied on walking and riding horses for short-distance transportation. The development of the “stagecoach” in the 16th century provided a more comfortable option for long-distance travel. Stagecoaches operated on fixed routes with scheduled stops, similar to modern-day bus services.

In the Middle Ages, waterways were still important for transportation. Rivers and canals were used to transport goods, and coastal shipping played an important role in trade. The use of wheeled vehicles increased, with carts and wagons becoming more common to carry goods and people.

The medieval period saw the rise of horse-drawn carriages as a mode of transportation for the wealthy and aristocracy. Carriages came in many different types, including the chaise, barouche, and landau.

In addition to land-based transportation, waterways remained important for trade and transport, with coastal shipping playing an important role in international trade.

The development of the printing press in the 15th century facilitated the spread of information and ideas, making communication and travel more efficient.

The Industrial Revolution

Hudson-Fulton Celebration commemorative stamp, 1909 issue.
Attribution: US Post Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The introduction of steam-powered boats in the early 19th century revolutionised water transportation. Robert Fulton‘s steamboat, the Clermont, made its maiden voyage on the Hudson River in 1807.

The steam engine revolutionised transportation in the 18th and 19th centuries, making it possible to transport goods and people more quickly and efficiently than ever before. The steam engine was used to power trains and steamships, and it also led to the development of steam-powered vehicles, such as the steam carriage.

The bicycle underwent a significant transformation during the Industrial Revolution, with the introduction of the chain drive and the development of the “safety bicycle” design. This made cycling more accessible and led to a boom in cycling popularity in the late 19th century. The advent of the telegraph in the mid-19th century enabled faster and more efficient long-distance communication, revolutionising the transportation of information.

The 19th Century
The development of the railway network in the 19th century was a major milestone in transportation history. Railways made it possible to transport goods and people quickly and efficiently across long distances. The first public railway opened in 1825 in England, and by the end of the century, railway networks had been established in many parts of the world.

The development of cable cars in the late 19th century provided a new form of urban transport. The first cable car system was introduced in San Francisco in 1873, and similar systems were subsequently built in other cities around the world. The introduction of electric trams greatly improved the efficiency and comfort of urban transportation. They were quieter and faster than horse-drawn trams and did not produce the same pollution level.

The development of the bicycle in the late 19th century offered another mode of personal transportation. As a result, cycling became a popular means of commuting in many cities, particularly in Europe.

The introduction of road vehicles in the late 19th century revolutionised personal transportation. The first gasoline-powered car was built in Germany by Karl Benz in 1886, and by the early 20th century, automobiles were becoming more common on the roads, although early vehicles were expensive and not widely adopted at first.

The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation, leading to the development of commercial air travel in the following decades.

The 20th Century
The rise of the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation in the 20th century led to the development of vast highway systems, such as the US Interstate Highway System and Germany’s Autobahn, transforming long-distance travel and further popularising the use of private automobiles.

The invention of the aeroplane in the early 20th century opened up a new era of transportation. Air travel made it possible to travel long distances quickly and efficiently, and it had a significant impact on both business and leisure travel.

The joint UNDERGROUND map published in 1908. The Metropolitan Railway is shown in red.
Attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The introduction of rapid transit systems, such as the London Underground, helped alleviate traffic congestion in large cities and provided a more efficient means of public transportation for urban residents.

The advent of the internet in the late 20th century enabled new modes of transportation and communication, such as ride-sharing and video conferencing.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the focus shifted towards developing more sustainable forms of transportation. This led to the development of hybrid and electric cars, as well as the promotion of cycling and walking as alternatives to driving.

There was no common pattern of historical experience among the various modes of transport during the twentieth century. The winners were automobility and air travel, which experienced growth rates that outstripped contemporary predictions. Almost all other transport modes suffered from competition with them. These included walking, which underwent continuous decline; passenger shipping, the main means of international transport before the 1950s; rail freight, under pressure from road haulage from the 1920s; and buses and trams which, like other forms of public transport, lost out to the private car. Some declining modes, notably sea freight and passenger rail, saw a resurgence in the late 20th century.[2]

Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries
The introduction of low-floor and articulated buses in the late 20th century improved accessibility and capacity for urban bus services.

The development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, which provide dedicated lanes for buses and streamlined boarding processes, has offered a cost-effective and efficient alternative to light rail and metro systems in many cities around the world.

The advent of autonomous vehicles has the potential to revolutionise transportation once again. Self-driving cars and trucks could increase safety, reduce congestion, and lower emissions. Other emerging technologies, such as hyperloop and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, could also transform transportation in the coming decades. The development of hybrid and electric cars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries represents a significant step towards more sustainable transportation options.

The rise of ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, has disrupted traditional taxi services and provided new options for urban transportation.

The development of high-speed rail systems, such as the French TGV and the Japanese Shinkansen, has made it possible to travel quickly and efficiently between major cities.

The rise of drones has opened up new possibilities for transportation and delivery services, particularly in remote or inaccessible areas.

Perhaps the biggest change is in remote working – being able to work at home, to ‘attend’ meetings via Zoom and other video conferencing without having to travel at all.

The integration of information technology in public transport systems, such as real-time arrival information and mobile ticketing, has enhanced the user experience and encouraged more people to use public transport.

Transportation Options in Antiquity
Public transport in antiquity varied greatly depending on the location and period in question, but here is an overview of some of the common types of transportation used:


  • If animals were not available, people in antiquity had no choice but to travel on foot. Walking was the most common mode of transportation for people in ancient times, and it was relied upon for short to medium distances.
  • However, walking was not always practical for longer journeys or for carrying heavy loads. In those cases, people might have relied on other forms of transportation, such as boats or carts, or they might have hired or borrowed animals from others. But if no other options were available, then walking was the only choice, and this was known as travelling “shank’s pony” or “shank’s mare” – an old-fashioned expression that refers to walking on one’s own two feet.

Using Horses and other Pack Animals

  • Horses, donkeys, camels and other pack animals were used to carry goods and people over long distances. They were faster than walking but still limited by the terrain and the need for rest.
  • Animals were commonly used for transportation over land in antiquity, while boats and ships were used to travel over water. Using animals for transportation was essential for long-distance trade, communication, and military campaigns. However, it was also limited by the availability and cost of animals, as well as by the need for food and rest along the way.


Ramses II fighting from a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh with two archers, one with the reins tied around the waist to free both hands (relief from Abu Simbel).
Attribution: Warren LeMay from Cullowhee, NC, United States, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Page URL:,_relieve_de_Abu_Simbel.jpg

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

  • Chariots were used in ancient times for transportation and warfare. They were drawn by horses and could carry one or two people. However, chariots were expensive to build and maintain and were only used by the wealthy.
  • Chariots were used for both military and civilian purposes in ancient civilisations. They were often reserved for the upper classes and used during ceremonies or for racing, as seen in the famous Roman chariot races at the Circus Maximus.
  • Horse-drawn carriages were used for transportation by the wealthy, while carts and wagons were available for the common people. They were typically used for local travel within cities or short distances between towns and villages.

Boats and Ships

  • Boats and ships were important for trade and commerce, and they were also used for fishing and warfare. They ranged in size from small fishing boats to large merchant ships and warships.
  • In ancient Egypt, the Nile River served as a crucial transportation artery. Boats were essential for moving people, goods, and even large monuments like obelisks. The Nile also played a significant role in trade, connecting Egypt with other African and Mediterranean regions.
  • The ancient Greeks relied heavily on maritime transport due to their extensive coastline and numerous islands. Ships were used for trade, military expeditions, and cultural exchange. They were also essential for transporting athletes and spectators to the Olympic Games and other Panhellenic festivals.
  • The Romans similarly relied on maritime transport to move people, goods, and their vast army. They built large commercial and military ports, such as Ostia, to facilitate the transportation of essential goods like grain to Rome.
  • Boats have been used for thousands of years, and their origins date back to prehistoric times. The oldest known boat is the dugout canoe, which was made by hollowing out a tree trunk. Early humans used dugout canoes for fishing, transportation, and exploration, and they were a significant technological advancement over swimming or wading in water. The earliest evidence of boats comes from archaeological finds of rock art and artefacts that depict boats, such as the Khufu ship[3], a full-sized vessel that was discovered near the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and dates back to around 2500 BC. However, it is likely that boats were used even earlier and that they were essential for the development of human civilisations along the rivers and coastlines of the world.
  • Over time, boats became more sophisticated and were built using different materials such as wood, bark, and animal skins. The development of sails and oars also allowed for faster and more efficient transportation over water. Boats played an important role in trade, exploration, and warfare, and they were used to connect different cultures and civilisations around the world.

Public Transport Systems

  • In some ancient cities, there were early forms of public transport systems, such as buses or trams (although not known by those names at the time). For example, in ancient Rome, there was a system of public buses called “carriages” pulled by horses. However, these systems were usually limited to larger cities and were often reserved for the wealthy.
  • In ancient civilisations, water transportation played a critical role in the growth of cities and the development of trade networks. Rivers and seas provided a means of transporting goods and people over long distances, facilitating the growth of cities and establishing trade networks. For example, the Nile River in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean Sea in Greece and Rome were all important transportation routes that contributed to the growth and prosperity of these civilisations.
  • Land transportation also played a significant role in developing ancient cities and trade networks. The construction of roads and using animals for transport made it possible to transport goods and people over land, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas between different regions. The construction of the Silk Road, for instance, facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas between Europe and Asia and contributed to the development of cultural and economic ties between the two regions.
  • The development of efficient public transportation systems in the Middle Ages and beyond further contributed to the growth of cities and the development of trade networks. Stagecoaches, for example, made it possible to travel long distances comfortably, facilitating trade and the exchange of ideas between different regions. The introduction of railways in the 19th century revolutionized transportation, making it possible to transport goods and people quickly and efficiently over long distances.
  • The construction of modern highway systems and the development of air travel in the 20th century further facilitated the growth of cities and the development of trade networks.
  • Public transport allowed people to live further away from their place of work, which led to the growth of suburbs and the expansion of cities. This also allowed for the concentration of commerce and cultural activities in urban centres, contributing to the growth and development of cities.
  • Public transport made it easier for people to travel and share ideas, traditions, and cultural practices with others. For example, the Silk Road allowed for the exchange of goods and ideas between the East and West, leading to the spread of cultural practices and beliefs.
  • The availability of public transport made it easier for people to access education and employment opportunities, even if they lived in rural areas or suburbs. This accessibility helped to promote social and economic mobility, allowing people to improve their standard of living and contribute to the growth and development of society as a whole.

In summary, the availability and efficiency of public transport have played a critical role in the growth of cities, the spread of culture, and the development of trade networks since ancient times. The development of efficient transportation systems has made it easier to transport goods and people over long distances, facilitating trade and the exchange of ideas between different regions, and has contributed to the development of cultural and economic ties between different civilisations.

Road Networks

  • The ancient Romans built an impressive network of roads, known as the “Viae,” which spanned their vast empire. These roads were essential for military movements, trade, and communication. Roads were generally well-maintained and featured milestones, rest stops, and waystations to assist travellers.
  • In the ancient Persian Empire, the Royal Road[4], built during the Achaemenid dynasty, was a major thoroughfare that connected the empire’s western and eastern regions. It facilitated the movement of people, goods, and information and played a crucial role in the empire’s administration.

Transportation in antiquity was limited by the available technology and infrastructure at the time. The development of roads and bridges, as well as improvements in transportation technology, such as the invention of the wheel and the use of pack animals, helped to make transportation faster and more efficient over time.

The Bus and Tram – A Timeline

Picture: A LGOC motor bus c1903. Appleton’s magazine (August 1903).
Attribution: Unknown, possibly Appleton’s magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The first form of public transport that could be considered a “bus”, as we know it, dates back to the 1820s in England when horse-drawn stagecoaches were used to transport passengers along set routes for a fixed fare. These stagecoaches, which were essentially large wagons with seats and a roof, were the forerunners of the modern bus, and they were used primarily by the middle and upper classes. In the mid-1800s, steam-powered buses were introduced in some cities, but they were expensive and unreliable, and they did not become widespread.

The first successful motorised bus, powered by a petrol engine, was invented in 1895 by German engineer Karl Benz. However, it was not until the early 1900s that motor buses became widely used in public transport.

The first city to introduce motor buses on a large scale was London, which began using double-decker buses in 1904. These buses were an immediate success, and they soon spread to other cities around the world. By the 1920s, motor buses had largely replaced horse-drawn vehicles in public transport, and they continued to evolve and improve over the years, with new technologies such as diesel engines and hydraulic brakes making them faster, safer, and more efficient.

The first omnibus service in the United Kingdom was started by John Greenwood between Pendleton and Manchester in 1824. Stagecoach services, sometimes over short distances, had existed for many years. Greenwood’s innovation was to offer a service which did not require booking in advance, and which picked up and set down passengers en route. Greenwood did not use the term omnibus, which was first used in France in 1826.

In 1829 George Shillibeer started the first omnibus service in London. Over the following three decades, horse bus services developed in London, Manchester and other cities. They became bigger, and double-decker buses were introduced in the 1850s. The growth of suburban railways and later horse trams (from 1860) and electric trams (from 1885) changed the patterns of horse bus services, but horse buses continued to flourish. By 1900 there were 3,676 horse buses in London.[5]

There were experiments with steam buses in the 1830s,[6] but harsh legislation in 1861 virtually eliminated mechanically propelled road transport from Britain until the law was changed in 1896.[7] From 1897, various experimental motor bus services were operated with petrol-driven vehicles, including a service in Edinburgh which ran from 1898 to 1901. In 1903, motor bus services were started in Eastbourne, and in the same year, a motor bus service was started between Helston and The Lizard by the Great Western Railway.

Motor bus services grew quickly and soon eclipsed the horse buses. Early operators were the tramway companies, e.g. the British Electric Traction Company, and the railway companies. In London, the horse bus companies, the London General Omnibus Company and Thomas Tilling, introduced motor buses in 1902 and 1904, and the National Steam Car Company started steam bus services in 1909. By the time of the First World War, BET had begun to emerge as a national force.[8]

Concluding Words
In conclusion, the history of transportation is a fascinating and essential aspect of human civilisation. From ancient times to the present day, transportation has played a critical role in the growth of cities, the development of trade networks, and the exchange of ideas and culture between different regions of the world. As we look to the future, it is clear that transportation will continue to evolve and improve, with new technologies and innovations allowing us to travel faster, farther, more efficiently and safer than ever before.

The study of transportation history provides valuable insights into how human societies have developed and evolved. Through the lens of transportation, we can see how changes in technology, infrastructure, and social organization have impacted the movement of people and goods and how transportation has facilitated the growth of cities, the spread of culture, and the development of trade networks. By understanding the history of transportation, we can better appreciate the interconnectedness of human societies and how transportation has shaped the world we live in today.

Despite the many advances in transportation technology over the centuries, transportation remains an essential and complex aspect of modern life. From the daily commute to international travel, transportation affects us all, and its impact on the environment, public health, and social equity is increasingly apparent. As we look to the future, it is clear that we need to find new ways to balance the benefits of transportation with its costs and to develop more sustainable and equitable transportation systems that serve the needs of all people.

Finally, the history of transportation reminds us of the power of human ingenuity and innovation. Throughout history, people have found new and better ways to move themselves and their goods, overcoming challenges and obstacles and creating new opportunities for growth and development. As we continue to face new challenges in transportation, from climate change to urban congestion, we can draw inspiration from the achievements of the past and work towards a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Sources and Further Reading



CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

Wikisource has a page about this picture at: The How and Why Library/Geography/Drawings. It is an image or page from “The How and Why Library”, a book first published in the United States in 1909. Location in the book: Travel Drawings, between pages 68 and 69.
Attribution: Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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End Notes and Explanations

  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Source: Text from the Executive Summary, at:
  3. Explanation: The Khufu ship is an intact full-size solar barque from ancient Egypt. It was sealed into a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of pharaoh Khufu around 2500 BC, during the Fourth Dynasty of the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom. Like other buried Ancient Egyptian ships, it was apparently part of the extensive grave goods intended for use in the afterlife. The Khufu ship is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved vessels from antiquity. It is 43.4 metres (142 ft) long and 5.9 metres (19 ft) wide, and has been identified as the world’s oldest intact ship, and described as “a masterpiece of woodcraft” that could sail today if put into a lake or a river. Source:
  4. Explanation: The Persian Royal Road, also called Royal Road of Persia or Royal Road, was an ancient road running from Susa, the ancient capital of Persia, across Anatolia to Sardis and Smyrna on the Aegean Sea, a distance of more than 2,400 km (1,500 miles). Alexander the Great made use of the Royal Road in his invasion and conquest of the Persian empire. Source:
  5. Source: “The Horse Bus 1662-1932 by Peter Gould”.Cited at:
  6. Source: Walter Hancock and Sir Goldsworthy Gurney Cited at:
  7. Source: “The Steam Bus 1833-1923 by Peter Gould”. Cited at:
  8. Source: Early motor buses and bus services, by Peter Gould

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