Public Transit and Kids

So, here’s where I tell you something profoundly weird about myself: I don’t drive. If I were 15 years younger, or lived in Manhattan, you probably would think nothing of it, since Millennials drive less and less, and loads of people in Manhattan don’t drive. But I live in Seattle and I’m 37. People often ask how it works for our family, and the answer is, The Hubs drives, and we live in a city filled with buses. It’s not that huge a deal.

When I tell people I don’t drive, they often say, “I can’t imagine taking kids on the bus.” Honestly, most people of my income level don’t take their kids on public transit much, but if you ride the bus, you’ll see plenty of kids. Having a car is expensive, it just is. You have to pay for the car, the insurance, gas, sometimes a place to park it. So, a lot of poor folks in cities rely entirely on transit to get around. That includes a trip to the grocery store, picking kids up from daycare, and getting to work. If poor folks can do it, so can the rest of us. You just have to know what you’re doing.

First off, the key to using public transit, with kids or without, in your own town or while traveling on vacation, is to pack lightly. Do not bring your ginormous travel system barely-foldable stroller. Do not bring your largest diaper bag packed to the gills with everything you might possibly want while out and about. Instead, bring an umbrella stroller, or if your kid is still small enough, a baby carrier or wrap or sling. In my city, you have to fold your stroller and carry it, your kid, and your bag on and off the bus. An umbrella stroller, especially one with a shoulder strap so you can toss it over your shoulder, is better. And my easiest bus trips with the kids have been when they are small enough to be in a baby carrier. It keeps them calm, and contained, and my hands free.

The more you have to lug up the steps of a bus, the more unhappy you will be. To paraphrase the great Rick Steves on packing light, I don’t know anyone who, after multiple trips on public transit, brags that each trip they pack heavier. Don’t ask yourself “Will I use that heavy board book on this bus ride.” Ask, “Will I use it enough to warrant carrying it around all day.” If you find yourself without something you really need, remember that you’re in a city and there is likely a drug store or grocery store nearby where you can buy replacement supplies. It’s a different mindset than most parents are used to having–there is this sense of panic, like, what if I get there and I don’t have what I need? I will ask you this: are you taking public transit to a three-day backpacking trip in the wilderness, or to the mall for a couple hours? Honestly, you’re gonna be OK.

I’m also a fan of a backpack vs. a shoulder bag. A shoulder bag can fall off your shoulders while you’re wrestling with a squirming kid, but a backpack keeps your hands free. Super double bonus if you can wear a backpack on your back and your kid on your front. Also: once your kids get older? Make THEM wear the backpack. Did I just blow your mind? I totally did, didn’t I? Make them schlep their own crap around, WHAAAAAA?!?! I know, it’s brilliant.

Another practical tip: sit near the driver of whatever transit mode you’re on. You’ll be able to ask questions if you’re confused about where to get off the bus, and you’re likely to be closer to the door, so it’s easier to get on/off. The Boy LOVES sitting by the driver on the Monorail, and often the driver lets the kids blow the horn when the Monorail is leaving the station.

The other thing is, it can be hard for car-oriented people to get past the idea that the bus takes longer than driving. It does take longer, i am not gonna lie. But, try to see transit not just as a way to get from here to there–see it as entertainment for your kid, especially if you don’t use it that often. The Boy and I love to take transit adventures together. One time on a day off from school, I took the kids downtown on the bus, where we rode the streetcar, the monorail, and the light rail. They had a BLAST. Also, a couple years back, The Boy and I took a one-night cruise from Vancouver back to Seattle, so we took a bus downtown to catch an Amtrak train to get to the Skytrain to get to the cruise ship in Vancouver. He LOVED that trip.

Now, here’s the other thing about public transit: it’s public. So, anyone can ride it, including smelly homeless people and people with bad manners and crack heads. I see this as a teachable moment. I want my kids to know that there are homeless people in the world, and that they’re people, and that it’s right to want to help them. I want them to not be afraid to say hello back to the friendly old lady who says how cute they are, AND, I want them to learn to trust their instinct that the mean crack head is not someone they want to talk to. If I am there with them, I know they are learning these lessons in a safe environment where I can protect them.

If all that freaks you out and makes you uncomfortable, well, the bus is probably not for you. But if you’ve got a sense of adventure, give transit a try. You might be surprised how much you and your kids enjoy it!