Urban Transport

Reading time: 2'53"

As we find ourselves forcibly confined to the dreamy immobility of our own homes whilst a virus is allowed to roam free, an undesirable, clandestine passenger, why not escape it all for a while...

Nowadays, we purchase a ticket from a machine. A ticket which gives us the right to be transported from one place to another.

Be that by bus, streetcar, train...

No sooner is it bought then it is used and discarded – tickets rarely stay in our pockets for long once we’ve reached our destination. A pale souvenir of a journey consumed too quickly, of an aesthetic consideration hardly conducive to admiration.

However, there was a time not so long ago when the means of accessing your favorite mode of transport was adorned with design aspects far more amusing, aesthetic, colored, varied, and memorable.


But let us go back to their origins.

At the end of the 18th century, you could exchange a metal token worth 5 centimes for the unassailable right (oh yes!) to cross the Seine in a boat at Rouen.


By the 19th century, your options begin to open up.

You can now hop on the omnibus, drawn by horses, opt for the steam engine and ride in a carriage, or even take the streetcar...as long as you promise to bring it back.



In the 20th century, the metro goes electric and you have to pass through turnstiles in the industrial era.

The use of tokens increases and spreads all over the world.

Whether you take the rapid transit, the underground, the subway, or even the tube, without distinction and depending on where you are, you will surely need to have your token.

As the number of lines, networks, and modes of transport increase, from country to country, the appearance of the token becomes protean and creative.




In the United States we see, in no particular order, crosses, bells, coaches, holes, letters, logos, pine trees, apples, churches (indeed), locomotives, gondola lifts... They are made of nickel, zinc, or brass, smooth or grooved... Multiple and varied.

United States Token

Lehigh Valley Transit Company

United States Token

Benton Harbor & St. Joe Michigan


The aforementioned token is even sometimes not particularly striking, such as the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company token, which might rather remind you of a very happy smiley carved into a slice of bread (okay, now we’re going a bit too far and bordering on an anachronism, we’ll give you that).

United States Token

Omaha & Council Bluffs St. Ry. Company


At the same time, in New York...

You either cheat or you get cheated.

Someone jams the token slot in the turnstile with paper, so your precious token gets stuck. You proceed to use the next turnstile and the token thief sucks the token back out of the jammed slot with their mouth.

Quite an unhygienic method (no comment!) but one which proved very effective for the sneaky thieves.

Alternatively, the neighboring state of Connecticut has a token which is cheaper but exactly the same size as the one in New York. What happens? You trick the turnstile and ride for less.

United States New-York City Transit Authority


United States Token

Connecticut Company


Ticket de métro

And here we find ourselves at our destination and back with our pale ticket.

Modern, certainly, but nowhere near as interesting, you’ll surely agree.


Painting at the top: “The subway” by Lily Furedi (1934)

Translation: Michael Wright

Sources :


Selection published on 23/03/2020