Buses in San Antonio
and South Central Texas

Thanks to VIA Metropolitan Transport and Daisy Tours for their generosity with information and some of the following images.
Mule drawn omnibus soaking its wheels in the San Antonio river with the Bexar County court house in the background
Carter-Mullaly omnibus advert stating transfer bet wen all railroad stations
Carter-Mullaly omnibus advert from the city directory including early telephone number
The first horse drawn omnibuses began running in August 1871. It cost five cents to get from Main Plaza to Alamo Plaza along Commerce Street. Once railroad service arrived in 1877, the omnibus brought passengers and their luggage to the city center and its flourishing number of hotels. It was noted that when rail streetcar service began in 1878 from Alamo Plaza to San Pedro Park, it reduced travel time by half, to one hour, compared with the two hours it took on the omnibus. While both were pulled by either mules or horses, the reduction in friction between rails and unpaved roads was considerable. When the second railroad arrived in 1881, folks and/or their luggage could take an omnibus between stations.
Early tourist bus on Alamo Plaza
Detail of an early tourist bus at the Alamo. Note rows of benches and solid tires
Tourist bus at the doors of the Alamo, c. 1920

Gray Line tourist bus at the Alamo
Early buses on Alamo Plaza, San Antonio
Gray Line tourist bus at the Alamo
Early buses on Alamo Plaza, San Antonio
First motorized buses in San Antonio

The first motorized buses in San Antonio emerged around 1910. This were crude vehicles by any standards, based on early truck chassis, with solid tires, poor suspension and rows of upright wooden seats accessed by a running board that ran the length of the vehicle. These vehicles were a continuation of horse drawn “omnibuses,” from which the word bus derives. These had been rendered all but obsolete with the introduction of the streetcar system. The new buses were privately owned, they catered mainly to the tourist trade, carrying passengers possibly as far as Mission Espada, about twelve miles south of Alamo Plaza. Negotiating streetcar tracks and unpaved roads, a trip in one of these vehicles would certainly have been a memorable experience. The nearest modern equivalent would be, ironically, the streetcar style buses that mainly service downtown tourists.
Restored REO bus formerly owned by Citizen's Auto in San Antonio
Ford Model T depot hack
Ford Model T depot hack
Ford Model T depot hack
The next generation of buses was still privately owned. Called depot hacks, they too were purchased as truck chassis but had more powerful engines, better suspension, balloon tires and padded seats. The bodies would often be built by local companies, using a huge variety of designs. These vehicles were often owned by hotels to bring railroad passengers and their luggage to their establishments. Other companies, such as Citizens Auto Company, started in 1910, used them for a number of purposes, either to bring prospective customers to the showroom or take folks whose cars were in for repairs back home. In smaller towns they often were the first motorized school buses. The nearest modern equivalent would be courtesy vans waiting at the airport or operated by churches, schools and other social organizations.
San Antonio "Jitneys"

Ford Model T taxi
Another early form of bus were known as Jitneys, a slang term for 5 cents. This were operated first by individuals and then by organized companies around 1915. Often they were used larger cars, converted to carry more people either with the removal of the original plush seats and the addition of a third row in the middle. Some were “stretchers,” cut literally their Buicks and Packards in half and an extra section added to accommodate more seats. These vehicles trolled the routes of the streetcars, offering more comfortable and certainly faster rides to waiting passengers for five cents, much to the annoyance the San Antonio Public Service Company, or SAPSCO, which has been formed by an amalgamation of the old San Antonio Traction Company and the San Antonio Gas and Electric Company in 1917. As a private company, SAPSCO complained to the city that their already thin profit margins were being squeezed by these unauthorized competitors, who had none of the social obligations that the streetcar company did. They city responded by imposing operating restrictions including an obligation that the driver have a license and insurance plus post a surety bond to provide funds to pay for injuries and property destruction resulting from accidents. Routes, schedules and permissible hours of service served to reduce the numbers of free lancers involved. Probably the best modern equivalent today would be taxis and limousine services.
The first SAPSCO - San Antonio Public Service Company - buses were converted trucks built in 1920 at the tram depot on San Pedro Ave, where SAC is today. They were needed to serve the much expanded Fort Sam Houston which did not allow streetcars.
San Antonio's first factory built bus, a Faegol. This vehicle is now owned by the Witte Museum where it awaits restoration
As the city developed outside of its six mile square origins, streetcars began to fail to provide the service needed of them. The distances between lines as they radiated out from the city center grew from just a few blocks to many miles. Providing overhead power in what had recently been open country required additional generating capacity and a fantastic amount of wires and supports. Newer developments for wealthier residents in the late 1920 such as Olmos Park were created without any streetcar lines and only slightly older communities like Alamo heights began to fill up with automobiles reducing the number of passengers significantly. The army also wanted better service at Fort Sam Houston where streetcars had never been allowed to venture. To fill the growing need for buses, SAPSCO converted some of its trucks in its own shops in 1923, as factory made buses had yet to be made available.
San Antonio special event buses, c 1928
Early SAPCO buses were small. The company's policy was for small buses run frequently.
Buses edge out streetcars in San Antonio

Just as San Antonio’s streetcar system reaches its maximum size of 90 miles in 1926, a number of factors coalesced and San Antonio become the first major city in America to abandon streetcar service completely. Commercially built buses became available from companies like Fageol. These were cheaper to buy, operate and maintain than streetcars, did not need overhead electrical wires and were much easier to reroute. With efficient engines and balloon tires they were more comfortable than the single trucked swaying streetcars predominantly used in San Antonio. A SAPSCO customer survey in 1928, to investigate why ridership was declining so quickly, found that people were no longer willing to put up with the slow speed and discomfort of streetcars.
Early SAPCO bus on the Alamo Heights route
Initially bus service was designed not to avoid competition with streetcars. They were not allowed to stop once they entered an area served by the trolleys, obliging people who did not intend to go all the way into town to switch to a streetcar. However, this policy was soon abandoned and the streetcar system itself was reduced so that it only served the heart of the city. In 1928 SAPSCO was operating 135 streetcars daily, with another 25 in reserve. At the same time, the company was operating 74 buses. Nonetheless over 80% of the total numbers of SAPSCO passengers were still riding on the streetcars. Reflecting the results of the survey, SAPSCO chose to run small buses frequently. This would remain their policy until World War Two.
1931 SAPSCO bus
The Great Depression brought about more hardships for SAPSCO, a subsidiary of the national Edison Company. Ridership declined even further while the costs of the aging streetcar system continued to climb. The depression and development of wealthier enclaves away from the city center was causing downtown businesses to close, reducing the core group of riders even further. The city itself was in desperate financial straights, with looming payments on bonds it did not have the funds to pay. Desperate to shed its loss making and unpopular streetcars, SAPSCO offered the city $250,000.00 to be allowed to abandon the service six years before the end of their contract, and thus in 1933 San Antonio became the first major city to lose its streetcars but certainly not the last. Corpus Christi followed suit in 1934, Laredo in 1935, Fort Worth in 1939 and both Austin and Dallas in 1940.
Inter-City Bus Service

Long distance travel by railroad peaked in the early 1920s. the creation of better quality roads and vehicles began a decline that would culminate with the end of all train travel by private rail companies in the 1970s. The first companies to offer competing bus services were private entrepreneurs in the 1910s. One of the first such companies was created by Josh Merritt in 1912 using a 1906 Packard modified to carry seven passengers. His service ran between Luling on the Southern Pacific railroad to Houston and San Marcos on the Missouri Pacific line to Austin, giving passengers a fast and inexpensive way to avoid San Antonio altogether. He later added service between Austin and Gonzales. In 1922 Louis Creamer began operating bus service between San Antonio and the oil fields in Eastland, Texas.
Kerrville livery service Model T depot hack
Sunset Limited Bus Line, San Antonio to Kerrville. Note extra middle row of seats in this stretched sedan
Introduction of bus regulations in Texas

In the early days there were no rules for bus operations. Providers had to register their vehicles but had no obligations with regards to insurance or surety bonds. Anyone with a car could get into the business. The cut throat rivalry between different bus service providers was intense. In one instance, folks in Kerrville enjoyed free rides for several weeks as owners tried to force each other out of the game. Serious contenders were thwarted in their attempts to buy and operate larger and safer buses as anyone with an old car would soon emerge to undercut their fares. Citing safety concerns, the larger operators formed a trade group to lobby for the imposition of strict regulations, quite strange from today’s perspective. As a result of these demands the state of Texas enacted the Motor Bus Law in 1927, six years before similar legislation was passed by the Federal Government.
Peterson's bus depot, Kerrville. The company was later renamed the Kerrville Bus CO.
 
Kerrville Bus Company Buicks
Union Bus Line Hill Country schedule. Union was based in Comfort.
A new bus station opened in San Antonio on March 29, 1929 at the corner of Martin and Navarro. A number of carriers used the depot including Bowen, White Star and Red Ball, which became part of Southland Greyhound in 1929. Red ball ran three buses daily to Dallas and points in between at 7:00 AM, 1:00 PM and 7:00 PM. The journey took eleven hours and cost $7.85. Through connections to Chicago for a total of $32.85 and New York for $53.85 were available. Other companies ran to Houston. A through ticket to Los Angeles could be purchased for $42.85. While railroad passenger numbers declined, bus ridership in Texas grew from under two million in 1928 to almost five million in 1929. The Motor Transportation Division reported that 969 buses owned by 222 companies drove almost 46,000,000 miles over 31,000 miles of route with absolutely no fatalities.
Painter Bus Lines, based in Uvalde
Several bus operators began to emerge as leaders of the industry in South Central Texas. One was an Australian by the name of Painter, who operated a successful bus company out of Uvalde east to San Antonio and west to Eagle Pass and Del Rio. The best known, still operating today, was started in Kerrville in 1925 by Hal and Charlie Peterson, who ran two converted Buicks. After 1927, they bought out the other two franchises to Kerrville, operated by J.L. and J.A. Powers and the Union Bus company. The Peterson Bus Company expanded by carefully purchasing other small but profitable companies. They acquired Merritt’s San Marcos and Austin operations in 1930 and later Painter Bus Lines.
School Buses

First school bus in Marion, Texas
Early school transportation in Seguin
School bus in Marian, Texas
First Kerrville school bus
Bandera school buses
Restored Ford Model A school bus at an event in San Antonio
Unusual double decker bus owned by the St Mary's University in San Antonio
Modern school bus at the Texas Transportation Museum during a school group visit
NEISD school buses, June 2014
NEISD school buses, June 2014
Austin school bus near Mission Concepcion, July 2014
San Antonio bus service during WWII

SAPSCO, freed of its streetcar obligations began acquiring buses that would continue to serve San Antonio until after World War Two. It bought 63 new buses in 1933 alone. The policy of operating small buses frequently continued until the surge in the city’s population and war time restrictions obliged private automobile owners to use public transportation again. In 1939 SAPSCO began buying larger 40 seat vehicles. It bought 60 in 1939 and another 40 in 1940. By this time the city has grown to a population of almost 254,000. In 1939 the company carried just over twenty-two million passengers. By 1942 this had swelled to almost thirty-six million. At the same time, SAPSCO's parent company, American Light and Traction, was broken up due to the antitrust provisions passed in Washington a few years earlier. The city took over the electricity generating division, and a private group took over public transportation, renaming the bus service as the "San Antonio Transit Company." Its headquarters were in the former Smith-Young Tower, the tallest structure in San Antonio a the time, which was renamed as the Transit Tower, which is now known as the Tower Life building, still very much a part of the San Antonio skyline.
Old and new buses in SA bus yard during WWII
Old and new buses in SA bus yard during WWII
Female SAPSCO mechanic working on a bus during WW2
San Antonio bus service after WWII

Post war bus services in San Antonio encountered the same contradictions faced by the railroads. Despite a huge rise in the city's population, to 406.000 in 1950, bus ridership fell sharply from 71 million in 1947 to 36 million in 1956, despite the acquisition of large, comfortable propane powered buses with air-conditioning. The post war economic boom and the development of more and more subdivisions further and further away from the city center lead to the development of and reliance upon private automobiles. In 1957 Fortune Magazine revealed that San Antonio had the highest proportion, 78%, of people using personal vehicles to access the city center of all major cities in the country. By comparison, Los Angeles had 66% and New York only 17%. Los Angeles had the highest proportion of people using automobiles for all urban travel, at 95%. The privately owned San Antonio Transit Company did everything it could to stay viable. New routes were added, including the International Airport. The company reverted to smaller buses and more frequent service and was able to stay in the black but difficult negotiations with the unions and widespread displeasure with a proposed new charter led to a buy out by the city on May 1, 1959, and yet another name, the San Antonio Transit System.
Mid century San Antonio city buses
San Antonio was the first public bus company to introduce A/C equipped buses in the world
City bus stop on US 87, now IH 10
5 cent shoppers special bus with air-conditioning, on Houston Street, San Antonio, 1948
Post war inter-city bus service suffered the same decline. The large number of independent companies had shrunk to two main networks, Greyhound and Trailways, and their local affiliates. The Petersons, doing business as the Kerrville Bus Company, worked with Greyhound. Despite the introduction of improved buses and better rest stops, the post war economic boom enabled increasing numbers of people to acquire a car or, for long distance travel, fly on faster, safer jet airplanes, and the numbers of bus riders diminished steadily. Many local services simply faded away. The remaining assets of the Atascosa Bus Lines, which had served Poteet, Charlotte, Jourdanton and Pleasanton, were sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1947. Eventually, rivals Trailways and Greyhound merged in 1987, just as many once proud railroad companies had been forced to do.
1952 San Antonio city bus
1954 bus at San Fernando cathedral
San Antonio Trailways bus station around 1960

San Antonio Transit System bus nicely restored by their successor, VIA Metropolitan Transportation
A 1954 San Antonio Transit System bus nicely restored by their successor, VIA Metropolitan Transportation
A 1954 San Antonio Transit System bus nicely restored by their successor, VIA Metropolitan Transportation
Service within San Antonio persevered but subsidies continued to grow. Serving areas further away from the city center was demanded yet poorly subscribed. In the early 1960s almost 60% of all riders did not leave the first fare zone which extended less than three miles from the city center, just as had been the case with streetcars thirty years earlier. However, as “urban renewal” projects, a polite way to say slum clearance, created new districts such as Edgewood, the numbers of people living in the city center began to rapidly diminish. At the same time, shopping patterns began to change. Wonderland Mall, now known as Crossroads, opened in 1960, creating new destinations and collection points for bus service. This would be further augmented by the creation of Park & Ride lots, partially funded by the Texas State Highway and Transportation Commission in an attempt to reduce road overcrowding.
San Antonio city bus at the Alamo during Hemisfair 1968
San Antonio Transit System bus near Joskes, 1977
A 1970 San Antonio Transit System bus nicely restored by their successor, VIA Metropolitan Transportation
A 1970 San Antonio Transit System bus nicely restored by their successor, VIA Metropolitan Transportation
VIA Metropolitan is created in 1977

By the mid 1970s the subsidy to the city owned San Antonio Transit Company was over five million dollars annually. Providing service to areas outside the city’s jurisdiction was a growing problem. Without significant action there was even a possibility that the company might go out of business altogether when its charter expired. To address these issues, a county wide referendum was held in late 1977 to create the VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority, to be partially funded by an increase in the sales taxes of one half cent by participating communities. San Antonio, Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills, Castle Hills, Olmos Park and Balcones Heights, all of which had had SATS service, signed up immediately. They were soon joined by Leon Valley and Shavano Park, and later by Kirby, Grey Forest, China Grove, Hollywood Park and Windcrest. Interestingly, even though the service was expanded and new equipment acquired, the cost of tickets was initially reduced, leading to a significant increase in riders. In 1976 SATS carried just over 20 million passengers. By 1981 VIA ridership had risen to almost 34.5 million.
VIA Bus at Alamo & Commerce, San Antonio
VIA bus at the Alamo
VIA bus at night
A VIA bus at the VIA Metropolitan Transportation offices on San Pedro Avenue. Before VIA, the site was occupied by a supermarket and, before that, the Hemphil-McCombs Ford dealership
VIA continues to serve the community with distinction. Operating over a 1,200 square mile area, it also runs a fleet of specially modified buses providing on demand service to disabled persons. In 1990 it was named the best transit system in North America. In 1994 it was declared to be the second most cost effective public transportation service, and received a national award for safety in 1995. In 2000 it reintroduced propane powered buses which both reduced emissions and cut costs.
San Antonio streetcar style buses

An original style VIA streetcar bus
VIA streetcar style bus brochure
VIA streetcar bus on Commerce Street, San Antonio
VIA streetcar bus at the old Missouri Pacific railroad station, a credit union at the time the snap was taken
Modern style streetcar style bus on Alamo Plaza
VIA has also not forgotten its roots. In 1983 it acquired some charming small buses resembling 1900 era streetcars to serve the downtown area. These proved to be so popular that San Antonio now operates the second largest fleets of these specialty vehicles in the country. In 2005 these Alamo Streetcars, which add so much flavor to the historic heart of San Antonio, were replaced with similar vehicles that run on propane. Mixing the old with the new, VIA is very much in tune with the city, its residents and its visitors. In 2008, as gas prices soared to historic highs, VIA carried record numbers of riders even though it, too, is obliged to accommodate ever increasing fuel costs.
VIA streetcar bus on its route
VIA streetcar style bus at the Gunter Hotel
VIA streetcar bus on Alamo Plaza
VIA streetcar style bus on Alamo Plaza
Tourist trolley bus, San Antonio, 2012
Private bus companies in San Antonio

The door is not closed to new bus enterprises in San Antonio. In 1980, with a capitalization of a mere $200.00, June Bratcher began to operate “Daisy Tours” as a home based business. The operation was on such a shoestring budget that when she could not find Bluebonnet stationary at Wal-Mart, she substituted Daisies, which the store had in plentiful supply; thus “Daisy Tours.” When banks refused her loan application for her first bus, June attended a business class for women, wrote an exemplary business plan and emerged with $125,000.00, enough to buy a second hand bus from the Kerrville Bus Company. She moved into her first office outside her home and began to expand. With more loans through the Small Business Association, she began acquiring more used vehicles but it was with the purchase in 1998 of her first brand new bus, a fifty-five seater Van Hool built in Belgium, that the business really began to take off.
June Bratcher with the first Daisy Tours Bus
Daisy Tours buses

Ford Model Ts meet a Daisy Tours bus at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio
Daisy Tours buses at what was once the Greyhound bus depot on Houston Street
Today Daisy Tours & Conventions, now renamed as Daisy Charters & Shuttles, occupies the old Greyhound Bus facility on East Houston. The company has become a family affair, with two sons, Daniel and David, occupying leadership positions, though June’s hands remain firmly on the tiller. The company operates a fleet of twenty buses, none older than six years. As a leading member of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, June is particularly good at adapting to changing circumstances. When school related business began to fade, she turned to moving Air Force and National Guard personnel. When recruitment began to shrink, she began servicing the growing number of conventions in San Antonio. Daisy Tours enjoys an enviable reputation with many sports teams, including the Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks. Daisy Tours has turned a profit every year and has grown because of the first class service it provides. And this can take many forms. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Daisy Tours responded to a call for help in less than two hours and was one of the first bus companies to assist the ravaged city.
San Antonio double decker tourist bus, San Antonio, 2010
San Antonio sightseeing bus, 2010
Buses belonging to the Kerrville Bus Company now trading as Coach America
Hotel courtesy bus on Alamo Plaza
San Antonio today has buses of all kinds operating on its streets. VIA buses, Coach America long distance buses, school buses, courtesy buses, tourist and convention buses and private church and club buses all can be found roaming streets once served by horse drawn omnibuses. The city also has any number of taxi and limousine services. This vehicles provide vital service to every part of the city and are a vital part of the city's economy.
San Antonio VIA Metropolitan bus, 2010
San Antonio VIA Metropolitan bus, 2010
San Antonio VIA Metropolitan bus, 2010
VIA bus with bike
VIA Primo bus on Houston Street near the old MOPAC train station which is soon to be a new multi-modal transportation center
VIA's new high speed "Primo" bus fleet uses ariculated buses to run from downtown through the Medical Center to USAA at IH 10 and Loop 1604. Picture taken on Fredricksburg Road, February 2013
VIA parking lot, San Antonio, February 2014
VIA Primo bus at the 1H10/ Loop 1604 Park'n'Ride, June 2014
VIA bus at the 1H10/ Loop 1604 Park'n'Ride, June 2014
VIA van pol minibus at the 1H10/ Loop 1604 Park'n'Ride, June 2014
VIA parking lot, San Antonio, February 2014
VIA parking lot, San Antonio, February 2014
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San Antonio Public Transportation Timeline
1871
Mule drawn omnibus service begins in San Antonio. It takes two hours to get from downtown to San Pedro park
1878
Mule drawn street cars are introduced cutting the travel time to San Pedro park in half, to one hour
1890
The streetcar system is electrified
1891
Streetcar companies are consolidated into four companies rather than by individual route. The companies are called Belkanp, McCrillis, West End and Alamo Heights
1901
The four streetcar companies are consolidated into the San Antonio Traction Company
1910
Crude early buses - using unsprung truck chassis and solid tires - begin operating in downtown San Antonio for tourists to see the sights
1912
First intercity bus service is created between Luling and San Marcos
1915
Rogue jitney service, using stretched sedans, often uninsured and unlicensed, pops up in competition with streetcars but is soon squelched
1917
The streetcar company merges with the electric company into the privately owned San Antonio Public Service Company
1917
SAPSCO introduces its first bus service, using a vehicle it builds on a truck chassis in its own shops
1920
First communities, such as Olmos Park, are built without streetcar service
1922
Long distance bus service from San Antonio to the oil fields in east Texas introduced
1923
SAPSCO acquires its first factory built bus
1925
Peterson bus company formed in Kerrville
1926
San Antonio's streetcar system reaches its peak of 90 miles
1927
Texas introduces its first intercity bus regulations, mandating insurance and regular maintenance checks among other things, such as state issued route permits
1928
SAPSCO introduces A/C into its streetcar fleet of 160. It is also operating 74 buses
1929
Alamo Heights streetcar line is removed
1929
Intercity bus station opened at corner of Martin and Navarro
1933
SAPSCO pays $250,000 to the almost bankrupt city to be allowed to abandon streetcar service in favor of an all bus service seven years ahead of the specified time in its contract with the city, becoming the first major city to do so. 63 new buses are acquired.
1939
SAPSCO moves 22 million passengers, buys 60 new buses
1940
SAPSCO buys 40 more buses
1942
Due to war time expansion and fuel shortages, SAPCO moves 36 million passengers. SAPSCO is split into two companies due to federal mandate. The still privately owned bus service is renamed "San Antonio Transit Company"
1947
SATCO moves 71 million passengers
1948
SATCO introduces buses with A/C
1956
Despite dramatic citywide population increases, SATCO ridership declines to 36 million
1959
SATCO is purchased by the city and renamed "San Antonio Transit System"
1976
SA Transit System carries 20 million passengers
1977
VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority is formed. VIA covers a much larger area - 1,200 square miles - than the San Antonio owned service, including all the small townships in the county.
1981
VIA carries 34.5 million passengers
1983
VIA introduces streetcar style buses for downtown tourist service
1990
VIA named best transit system in north America
1994
VIA named second most cost effective transit system in the USA
1995
VIA named safest transit system in the USA
2000
VIA introduces propane powered buses that are cleaner, quieter, cost less to operate and are more efficient
2005
VIA replaces its original streetcar buses with newer, propane powered vehicles in the same style
2010
VIA introduces natural gas buses and diesel-electric hybrid buses
2011
VIA carries approximately 47 million passengers on regular, VIA Trans (disabled services), downtown streetcar and special event buses. It owns 418 regular forty foot buses and 104 modified smaller vehicles for VIA Trans services
2012
VIA's regular bus services alone carry an all time high 46.1 million riders
2013
VIA introduces "Primo," a new high speed service using articulated buses with limited control over traffic lights, to run between downtown and the main UTSA campus at IH 10 and Loop 1604 via the medical center
2014
VIA's "Primo" service transports an average of 6,000 riders a day in its first year.