A Historical Exploration of Urban Transit in Canada: 1915-1924

Published February 22, 2024.

Throughout 2024 we will celebrate the innovation and achievements that have shaped Canada’s public transit industry throughout its history.

As the world transitioned through the early years of the 20th century, Canada found itself on the cusp of significant transformations. As Canada joined Great Britain in World War I on August 4, 1914, the transit landscape faced new challenges, impacting resources and priorities.

Governments shifted focus to the war effort. All aspects of Canadian industry and trade, including food, clothing, and fuel, came under special regulations. Over time, the expenses of supporting the war escalated, leading to shortages.

Despite this, the era saw many accomplishments. In January 1915, the Canadian Northern Railway achieved a monumental milestone as the last spike was driven at Basque, BC, completing its transcontinental route. Four years later, the incorporation of the Canadian National Railways paved the way for one of the longest railway systems in North America.

1917 marked the introduction of income tax to support the war effort, and later, national infrastructure projects.

The historic signing of the Treaty of Versailles signalled the end of the war. Grappling with the aftermath and navigating significant social, economic, and technological shifts, public transit continued to emerge as a vital component of urban life.

The fight for labour rights gained momentum. In January 1919, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP), the first Black railway union in North America, was officially recognized. This union advocated for better working conditions and fair treatment and was a significant accomplishment in the development of urban transit systems in Canada.

CUTA remained dedicated to shaping the trajectory of public transportation across the country. CUTA continued to play a pivotal role in advocating for efficient public transit systems. By opening our membership to municipalities and suppliers in 1920, CUTA facilitated collaboration and innovation within the industry, driving progress and adaptation to changing societal needs.

As automobiles gained popularity, motorbuses emerged as a preferred mode of transportation, offering Canadians an inexpensive and reliable option to get around. Cities like Brantford and Winnipeg embraced the trend, jumping aboard the motorbus craze.

The introduction of rubber-tired electric trolley coaches in Windsor and Toronto in 1922 revolutionized public transportation, combining the benefits of a streetcar and motorbus throughout the urban landscape.

Canada would soon experience the excesses of the late twenties, followed by the Great Depression, both of which significantly impacted public transit across the country.