100 years on the streets: How Montreal's buses have changed over time

One hundred years after the city's first public bus hit the road, we look back at the history of the service and how it's evolved.

'Buses, well, we take them for granted. They're everywhere,' says Benoît Clairoux, STM's unofficial historian

Montreal Tramways Company converted a White truck to what became the city's first public transit bus in 1919 (STM Archives)

Montreal's bus service, now a key part of the city's public transportation mix, got off to an inauspicious start.  

A century ago, on Nov. 22, 1919, the Montreal Tramways Company converted two trucks to replace an aging tramway that ran on Bridge Street, near the Lachine Canal.

"It was really for a specific reason" that the bus service was created, said Benoît Clairoux, a public affairs advisor at the STM and the agency's unofficial historian.

The service has grown gradually in the years since and, today, the city has a total of 223 bus lines and a fleet of more than 1,800. 

Clairoux, who has written a book about the city's bus history, is hoping the centenary celebration helps public transit users appreciate their contribution to the city.

Take a look at the difference a century makes. Slide the image and go from the Montreal Tramways Company's first bus, converted from a truck in 1919, to the STM's latest electric model.

As part of the celebrations, the STM has launched commemorative podcasts for people to learn about the history and hear stories from drivers of three featured bus lines: the 125 (Ontario Street), the 24 (Sherbrooke Street) and the 55 (St-Laurent Boulevard). The podcasts are currently only available in French.

"Buses, well, we take them for granted," Clairoux said.  

"They're everywhere. They've been there for about 100 years, but we don't talk too much about them. We kind of forget them."

A look at the interior of the Montreal Tramways Company's first bus in 1919 (STM Archives)

From tramways to buses

By the mid-1920s, the transportation system began transitioning toward buses.

In 1925, the Montreal Tramways Company created a bus division and the first official bus lines, said Clairoux.

The Montreal Tramways Company opened its first bus garage in Saint-Henri in 1926. (STM Archives)

He said it took 30 years for tramways to give way to buses. The full transition wasn't planned because the first buses "were not very good," he said. "But after a few years, the builders were able to make better buses so the bus was able to replace the tramway."

In 1951, public transit was made a municipal responsibility in Canada, leading to the complete replacement of tramways. 

That's when the new Montreal Transportation Commission acquired 1,300 buses, opened new garages and expanded its service territory. 

A Canadian Car-Brill (CCB) bus and tramway seen at the corner of Jean-Talon and Hutchison in 1953. (STM Archives)

A new era

In 1970, the Montreal Transportation Commission became the Commission de transport de la Communauté urbaine de Montréal (CTCUM).

Restrictions on who could be a bus driver in the city started to get peeled away. 

Until the 1970s, drivers had to be of a certain height and weight, and therefore excluded most women.

And if you were under the age of 25 — and single — you could not apply.

"I guess the company considered that single people between 21 and 25 were always on the party," said Clairoux.

In 1977, Francine Maltais became the first woman to drive a CTCUM bus.

"After that," Clairoux said, "we changed the requirements because we we knew that we wanted to have women, female bus drivers."

In 1977, Francine Maltais became the first woman to drive a Montreal public transit bus. (STM Archives)

The 1980s also saw many changes. Clientele grew with the start of regular service to Montreal's West Island, an area previously unserved by the CTCUM.

In 1985, the Commission became the Société de transport de la Communauté urbaine de Montréal (STCUM).

The STCUM introduced its first night-time bus network in 1988.

Making a green turn

In 2002, the STCUM became the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) and also launched its Biobus project to promote the use of biodiesel.

The STM deployed its first biodiesel-electric hybrid-drive buses in 2008 (STM Archives)

The STM deployed its first biodiesel-electric hybrid-drive buses in 2008.

In 2017, the STM put the first three 100 per cent electric buses on the road.

Clairoux is one of the narrators of the Discover Montréal by bus podcasts. He's inviting Montrealers to explore the city this summer by hopping on bus routes they wouldn't normally use. The STM has 16 suggested itineraries on 20 bus lines.

"Everybody can be a tourist in their own city unless they've already been in all the buses and not many people can say that," he said.

"Not even me."

With files from Jay Turnbull


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