(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’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.
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.
The lines served the then-compact city very effectively, including a loop through what is now my neighborhood (College Hill/Friendly Street Area).
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am charmed by the collective with the VW buses. So many public bus services both charge too much, go around practically empty, and don’t do anything to keep off non paying homeless. It seems the transit system exists to bring in federal money to towns.
On paper, streetcars are the answer, but the expense is so outweighs the potential ridership that it is hard to justify even just a local 20% expense match. The inability of the government to actually see a project through from start to finish is also a big obstacle.
Smaller cities generally lost their bus systems in the ’60s, so Eugene was typical by population.
But….. Many college towns managed to keep a bus system going with heavy subsidies from the college. Even now the fares are nearly free, as in a dime or quarter. So Eugene was not typical in that sense.
My hometown, Henderson, Kentucky, a community of approximately 28,000 people (now, there were fewer 50 years ago) has had some sort of bus service for as long as I can remember. When I was 10-11 years old it cost a dime to ride the bus; I haven’t ridden one of their buses since I was in high school so I don’t know how much it is now. I’m sure it is more than a dime and I’m sure that is heavily subsidized.
Where I live now (Evansville, Indiana) is a larger community and has always (at least in my memory) had bus service as well. I know for a fact this service is heavily subsidized. For the most part the buses circulate around town with just the driver and a passenger or two; the exceptions would be morning and evening commuter hours. It would probably be cheaper just to run the buses from 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM and again from 3:30 to 5:30 PM, and the rest of the time just give everyone who needs a ride a voucher for a cab.
I understand that moving 40 people in one vehicle is more efficient than moving 40 people in 20 vehicles. However, these savings disappear when most of the time the 40 passenger vehicle only has one or two people riding. I don’t really have any answers for this; on the list of the way our governments waste money, mass transportation doesn’t aggravate me as much as some of the others.
Richmond is supposed to be getting a BRT line in the next few years. It’s a very short run–not quite 8 miles end-to-end–but considering it is planned to run right through the middle of downtown and the built-up areas on either side of it, it just might work. Right now to take a city bus on that same 8 mile stretch would probably take close to an hour due to stoplights and traffic. Dedicated lanes and proper synchronization with the downtown corridor lights should help cut down that time quite a bit
Yes. It’s been in the news quite a bit lately because it was discovered that the actual costs to build the line are something like double or more than what was originally estimated when the project got started. As in, normal governmental funding procedures.
It looks like a hopeful project, the biggest weakness being that it doesn’t extend nearly far enough. From the center of town (state capital, federal courthouse area) to the far western suburb of Short Pump (where the suburban development seems to have stopped due to county lines) is something like 15-16 miles, so the proposed system doesn’t do nearly enough to enable transportation between the two areas.
However, its a start. Assuming it isn’t completely made a mess of in implementation. Something the city of Richmond has a knack for doing.
This sort of endeavor fascinates me. I’m just old enough to remember seeing the old trolley car tracks throughout Cape Girardeau (current population is just under 40k), MO when I was a youngster. Even then I though their removal was a shame.
Several years ago I took a tour of the main bus terminal and garage for the St. Louis city buses. That place so appealed to the inner geek in me. They had maintenance on those buses down to a science (“we know the door frames will fail at around 250,000 miles, so we replace it at 225,000”) and they could tell when an engine issue was brewing prior to it being noticed by the driver. It was very compelling.
I say that as I hope Eugene continues to have a successful bus service. Something tells me it will.
In the early 1900’s through the 30’s you could ride the electric interurban line from Portland to Eugene. http://www.american-rails.com/oer.html
Great article – always interesting to see how public transportation evolved in various different locations and areas.
New Flyer certainly does have an interesting history.
What Jan den Oudsten did was basically copy/paste the Dutch Den Oudsten plant to (New) Flyer Industries, including the low floor buses Den Oudsten was already working on. Groups of American employees also worked in the Dutch plant temporarily.
Good article and I never knew how bleak Eugene’s Public Transit was at one point.
The postcard from 1962 is funny because there is a prominently parked 57 Ford with its headlight ripped out.
Interesting stuff. I was in Springfield last week and saw the BRT lanes … they looked a lot more formal than other urban bus lanes I’ve seen, but were empty when I passed. I didn’t expect to learn about them on CC!
Cool picture of the “Emerald Transportation” fleet-I always wondered if anyone had tried this, and now I know someone did! I’m sure those VWs were a tight fit for drivers and passengers alike but I wonder if a modern version of one might be a more efficient way of providing service to those low-ridership lines.
(Or if that’s still too wasteful, we can always just order a couple more of these…)
hmm the early stages of pre cell phone LYFT
My hometown bus service is in a “metro area” of about 70K population. The last time I looked at the “official figures”, average ridership of our 35- and 40-foot buses is fewer than four people, and one of them is the driver. (Average PAYING ridership is 2.2 persons.) The best thing my town ever did with the bus system was to sell opaque “advertising wrap” on the sides of the bus, so that folks couldn’t see that the bus was driving around empty. Even the homeless won’t ride the buses.
Despite this, City Government has said that it would “cost more” to end bus service than to continue the insanity. Apparently, they’d have to pay back money taken from the Feds. At least, that’s the propaganda. My hometown is a liberal wasteland, so even a poor excuse to suckle on the Taxpayer Teat is good enough for them.
Subsidizing bus service is doing no one any favors. The first thing that happens when the service is subsidized, is that everyone involves stops caring whether any of it makes sense. If it’s not viable without subsidies, is surely isn’t going to be viable with subsidies.
Bus systems have been subsidized since the 1950s. Nothing new. It’s been impossible to make a transit system pay for itself since about the time WW2 ended. Welcome to the mid-20th century, and beyond!
Mars is popular this year, NASA has helicopter service 300 million miles away, the Chinese just landed a Rover-Bot.
Our money could have been spent on a highspeed trains (punctual east coast service) between Boston and Miami.
For (traffic jammed) decades…Interstate 95 has been a subsidized concrete mess.
Quick history lesson – In the late 40’s early 50’s (when America had the world’s finest rail network)-GM, Firestone tire and Standard Oil connived together to derail all passenger service, tear up existing electric urban street cars and get Americans hooked on gasoline and automobiles- like crack heads.
It may have been the worst environmental theft in all history.
Any evolution bettering train service was purposely demolished. Government subsidies poured in as concrete, crummy rubber and massive mindless fuel consumption addictions.
We land pricy vehicles (for nobody) on Mars yet- can’t get humans unstuck on Americas decrepit beltways.
The few “surviving” electric streetcars (not stacked and burned)- were sold as scrap, to places like Portugal… they operated for decades- because steel wheels roll, and rubber bus tires are basically-holey-crap.
GM buses also turned out to be crap, (precisely why) GM undercut city trolley service, bought those trolleys at bankruptcy- then (immediately) tore up and paved over every inch of functional track in every city they owned. Common good and common sense- for the common man… didn’t stand a chance.
Capitalisms Cartel of crap couldn’t allow the public to change its mind…so “grift” glided in like a Swiss electrified train- EXACTLY as SCHEDULED.
Are Eugene’s new electric transit busses made by Lion, the Canadian company? I’ve seen at least one of their all-electric school busses here in Santa Cruz. Pleasantly quiet.
No; Gillig. It appears that Lion only makes school buses, which are generally a bit different than transit buses. The demands on transit buses all-round are much greater.
Where I live despite it being New Zealands most populous city the bus ‘system’ is a dismal failure dedicated bus lanes are everywhere restricting traffic but the buses remain empty of passengers I cant access the transit system its not awake when I go to work and I finish at all kinds of strange times due to conditions out of my control so I cant trust it to get me home COVID scared away the other potential riders so inspite of the millions of dollars poured over the project it doesnt work and Aucklanders prefer their cars.
Love the VW Buses. That was a good gimmick that fit the times and the mood. I bet it brought a lot of smiles to everyone.
We have foreign students working in our government agencies and they are often very frustrated at the availability of mass transit. I feel bad for them because as a student in Germany, I could depend upon it being timely, convenient and practical. That’s just not the case now. You add to that the fact that a lot of our food stuffs and market items are large enough to fit into a single basket, and you end up with friends riding mass transits from shopping overladen with too much stuff. We just don’t make things small here!
Like it or not, we are a society dependent upon independent transportation sources outside large metropolitan areas. Add to that the violence and crime heaped upon these towns, and you end up with empty mass transit units. Sad. With the explosion of car jackings in our cities, we can’t even safely drive in many parts like we used to regardless of transportation mode.
Thanks for the trip down a groovy memory lane!
A significant leap in passenger experience, going from New Looks to modern buses. When Ottawa’s OC Transpo went from the traditional high floor Ontario Bus Industries Orion V, to the considerably faster and more agile low floor Orion VI, there was an uptick in rider injuries. As people were literally being thrown about, as they were not accustomed to the jack rabbit starts and deft handling, the Orion VI allowed. Suddenly transit buses could accelerate with cars around them, and maneuver about freely. It was a transit revelation, for those used to the dead slow, and ocean liner-like traditional buses.
Whenever I’m in Eugene and see LTD buses and bus stops, my brain always goes to the big, cushy Ford.
Here in DC we have a 5-6 block trolley that runs almost empty a good bit of the time. As I recall, it took well over five years to build it and get it operating.
Having lived in Edmonton and now Calgary, both cities have invested a lot into LRT lines.
Of course there is controversy in both cities with future lines that will be plowing through neighbourhoods, high costs for roadway realignments, etc. Where I currently live an LRT line has been promised in the past and residents have been patiently waiting. There is a BRT line and I think it’s a great low-cost alternative.
The latest issue on LRT lines in Calgary and Edmonton is the crime and other problems on LRT trains. Regular riders are wondering where the police and peace officers are. The general public seems to be saying “I’ll never ride the train!”
Buses still have their role and electric buses are the future and proven to be reliable even in winter up here.
Where I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, there is not much of an alternative to having a good transit system. There isn’t any land for new roads and the existing ones beyond capacity, so transit is the way to go.
How well the system works depends largely where you live. In my case, I am a stone’s throw from the Cambie-Broadway corridor, meaning I can go pretty much anywhere by bus or train. If I am going to downtown, the parking situation is so bad that taking transit saves time and money, since parking on the street is outrageously expensive. That’s if you can even find a place.
I find whole “subsidy” argument over transit a bit incongruous. There are plenty of subsidies for road users, the road being one, the tax breaks for the oil company another. Sure, transit is subsidised but if there were not a good transit system in the Lower Mainland, traffic would be even more horrible. Over 30% of trips are by transit.