Brief history of buses in Barcelona

2 October, 2012 | News, Unknown City

On 1 October 2012, the gradual introduction of new services on the Barcelona bus network will begin, heralding a gradual transformation of this form of public transport. Some traditional lines will be replaced by five new ones, streamlining and improving the service and making it more effective. This is just the latest change since, more than a hundred years ago in 1906, the first buses started to appear on the city’s streets.

It has not all been plain sailing. The first bus line, La Catalana, operated a route between Plaça de Catalunya and Placa de Trilla, at the top of Carrer Gran de Gràcia, and with a lot of effort, the service ran for two months. The limitations and technical problems with the vehicles were evident – very slow, constant breakdowns – while the tram companies, the lords and masters of public transport in early 20th-century Barcelona – put pressure on the City Council to withdraw the licence, which happened in 1908, just two years after the service was launched. It would be another 14 years before urban buses reappeared on the city’s streets in 1922, courtesy of the Compañía General de Autobuses, the CGA.

Double-decker bus. Unknown author (c.1925-35).
Autor: desconegut.

The buses of that time had certain characteristics that, to our modern eyes, would seem somewhat bizarre. These early models required passengers to be seated (as in the intercity buses), and at bus stops, the conductor had to check how many empty seats there were before allowing new passengers on board. This time the experiment worked much better and in 1924, the tram company, Companyia de Tramvies, bought out a large part of the CGA in order to take control of it and better manage the competition. In this scenario, buses began to gain ground up until the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Because of the scarcity of supplies and of almost everything following the war, the public transport network was in a bad way. In practice this meant that a number of lines were suspended, with priority going to the routes that covered the outlying districts, which were not well connected.

Trolleybus at c. Pelai. Pérez de Rozas (7.XI.1941).
Pérez de Rozas (1941)

In the post-war era, there was a proliferation of trolley buses, buses that were powered by electricity, like trams. After a while, as the service became progressively standardised, the foundations were laid for what would later become the regular service we know today: making public transport a public service managed by the Government. In the 50s, when the company was no longer profitable, the Francoist City Council started to buy up shares in the company in order to guarantee the service.

At that time, however, the main mode of transport in the city was still the tram, which led to episodes such as the famous tram strike, with the public refusing to use them due to the excessive fare rises. The turning point, when the bus finally took the place of the urban trams, came about in 1964, when the number of buses equalled the number of trams. The social and urban development of the city, with a growing number of immigrants and large neighbourhoods that were hard to access by tram, which required the construction of new infrastructures, and the buses’ ability to manoeuvre around this increasingly dense road network, were two key factors that explain the increasing pre-eminence of buses over trams. And it was during those boom years of development and prosperity that many families first bought their own private vehicles and during the same period, in 1968, that the trolley buses, a symbol of the post-war era, disappeared from the city’s streets.

A bus at the Verneda neigbourhood. Pérez de Rozas (13.I.1959).

At the start of 1971, only two tram lines remained, the 49 and 51, and they ceased to operate on the night of 18 March that same year. All that remains today of that network is the Tramvia Blau. The network was modernised based on the models from Pegaso, the brand belonging to the state-run company Enasa which, in the Barcelona bus service, had a magnificent customer, in a Spain wherein the patronage system of the Franco government was part and parcel of everyday life. In 1967 the first articulated buses started operating in the city and in 1973 the first automatic ticket vending machines made an appearance.

The bus number 50 takes tram number 50′s place. Pérez de Rozas (17.VIII.1970).

Despite everything, at the end of the dictatorship, the public transport network in Barcelona was pretty poor, particularly in the outlying districts. In order to travel around the city between areas that were far from the centre you had to wait for long periods of time and often connections were impossible. The city had grown a great deal and in a disorganised manner and having gained freedom of expression, the citizens mobilised once more to demand improvements. On the one hand, citizens were calling for a better service and on the other, the workers were demanding better conditions. The consequences were clear, from the 61 urban bus lines operating in 1975, the number rose to 74 by 1980. It was at this time that the first prepaid tickets were introduced, multi-journey cards, something which is essential today for anyone who uses the public transport system on a regular basis.

With democracy came the structures that manage public transport today. The Entitat Metropolitana de Transport was created by the various local councils in the metropolitan area in order to standardise the transport network and fares. Just one anecdote that nowadays seems rather curious: at that time, the different fares for week days, public holidays and night services were withdrawn. And at the same time new special lines came into being such as the Bus Turístic (1987) and the Night Bus (1991). With the Olympic Games, the modernisation of the service speeded up, with the acquisition of more accessible buses and the first neighbourhood bus services.

Over the last decade there have been some substantial changes to the service (up to 1 October this year) with the creation of the Autoritat del Transport Metropolità and the creation of an integrated fare system for all public transport operators in the city, which before it came about was seen as something essential in a “little big city” where getting around on public transport was essential for local residents and workers.

Based on the book “100 anys de bus a Barcelona. 1906-2006” (100 years of bus in Barcelona) published by TMB.