The Arc Of Eugene’s Transit System Over 120 Years: From Mule-Drawn Trolleys To VW Buses To 60′ Bus Rapid Transit Hybrids

Ltd VW buses

(first posted 5/6/2016)  The VW Bus has long been an icon in Eugene, generally associated with the counterculture that blossomed here starting in about 1967, and gave the town its rep. But Eugene’s association with the VW bus predates that by a few years; this pictures shows some of the 20 VW buses that made up Eugene’s bus system in about 1960 or so, called the Emerald Transportation System. Somewhat ironically, it was a driver-owned collective, formed in 1958 after the last private bus company went bankrupt. Undoubtedly most of these buses were recycled into genuine hippie buses after this noble effort finally petered out after some years.

This rather desperate attempt to keep some form of public transport going marks the low point in Eugene’s and America’s public transport history. Like so many smaller-medium cities in the US, public transit was once an important and thriving enterprise. One hundred years ago, Eugene had a successful private electric trolley/train system with six lines. By the mid-late 1920s, it started being supplanted and replaced by buses. After WWII and the explosive use of cars, the bus company declined, and eventually went bankrupt, resulting in the VW bus cooperative. But by the early 70s, with federal funding becoming available for capital investments, the Lane Transit District was formed. And now, Eugene is one of the pioneering adopters of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) technology.

Eugene mule trolley Wiley Griffon 1893

Eugene’s first trolley line in 1893 was mule powered, seen here with driver Wiley griffon, one of Eugene’s pioneering black residents. It ran from downtown to the University of Oregon. But it shut down after some ten years.

Eugene trolley dt

In 1907, the Eugene and Eastern Railway Company brought electric trolley service to Eugene and connecting service to Springfield. Here one of them is seen on Willamette Street, Eugene’s main thoroughfare downtown.

Eugene streetcars_map_of

The lines served the then-compact city very effectively, including a loop through what is now my neighborhood (College Hill/Friendly Street Area).

Eugene trolley college crest

Here’s the College Crest trolley, in what is now our neighborhood before it was developed. The trolley undoubtedly played a role in that. There are still a few places where the tracks can be seen in the streets.

Eugene 1950s postcard

There are no good pictures readily available of the buses that served Eugene after the trolley lines were taken down. But in this postcard from about 1962 or so, it appears that the green bus on Willamette Street in traffic says “City Bus” on it. This is almost the same shot as the one a few photos up. The bus appears to be of the “school bus” variety.

CC 66 155 1200

Lane Transit Distric was formed in 1970, funded by a payroll tax for its operations. Federal grants paid for most of the equipment, and LTD started operations with 20 new GMC TDH-4523 ‘New Look’ buses, one of which I caught here in its post-transit life. These served well into the new millennium, but were eventually supplanted and replaced with modern buses. They’re just like the buses I drove in Iowa City.

EmX Rapid Bus Photo_0

Lane Transit District opened its first BRT line (“EMX”) in 2007, and now has two major lines operating. A third line is under construction and two more are in the planning phases. These buses run on a mixture of dedicated lanes and regular roadways, which allows faster schedules and easier loading-unloading, as the buses have doors on both sides. They’ve been very successful.

The 60′ articulated buses are built by New Flyer, and use an Allison diesel-hybrid drive train. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, New Flyer has quite a convoluted history, starting in 1930, and called Western Flyer Coach after 1948. After struggles in the 1960s, it was eventually sold to the Manitoba government, and called Flyer Industries.


In 1986, it was bought by Jan den Oudsten, a descendant of the Dutch bus maker Den Oudsten Bussen BV, and renamed New Flyer Industries. New Flyer was a pioneer in introducing low floor buses to North America. By 2001, New Flyer had captured 50% of the NA transit bus market. In 2002, it was sold to a private equity fund, KPS. New Flyer has two plants in the US that build the buses destined for US transit systems. Some of those are undoubtedly heading to Eugene.

Update 5/5/2022:  The additional BRT line is operating, and currently two or three more are in the early planning phase. There’s also a growing number of all-electric buses plying the streets.