Children and mass transit

As a new father who uses public transportation almost exclusively, two recent items re: public transportation and children caught my eye. First, a Rockville, MD “Principal Calls CPS After Mom Lets Daughter, 10, Ride City Bus to School” [h/t Adam Holland]

It had been brought to her attention, the principal said, by some “concerned parents,” that my daughter had been riding the city bus to and from school. I said, yes, we had just moved outside of the neighborhood, and felt that this was the most convenient way for our 5th grader to get there and back. The principal asked was I not concerned for her safety? “Safety from what?” I inquired. “Kidnapping,” she said reluctantly. I said that I would not bore her by talking statistics that, being in the business of taking care of young children, she surely knew better than I did….

It was raining hard the next day so I offered to drive L. [my daughter] to the bus stop. I thought she’d want to wait in the car with me, but she said, “It’s okay mom, you go work. I want to say hi to my friends.” “Your friends?” “Well, they are not my kid friends. They are just, you know, my people friends.” There was the Chinese lady, the lady with the baby who cried a lot (but it’s not his fault, he can’t help it), and the grandma who always got on at the next stop. In a few short weeks, my daughter had surrounded herself with a community of people who recognized her, who were happy to see her, and who surely would step in if someone tried to hurt her.

My son is only five months old–years away from travelling solo. But I can attest that a community springs up around him whenever I take him on a bus or train. Our fellow riders are generally friendly when he is happy and understanding when he is not.  Either way, they definitely notice him, and I have little doubt that they would step in if something were wrong.

Moreover, even at his young age, my son seems to enjoy making friends through these public interactions, often going out of his way to stare at someone seated nearby until he catches their eye and can start smiling and babbling at them. As Carla Saulter explains in a second post, “Why Public Transportation Is Good for Kids“:

It’s become part of the collective American belief system that cars are the preferred (if not the only acceptable) mode of transportation for our children. Cars are now viewed as an essential tool of good middle-class parenting — both as a means of keeping our children safe from the evils of the outside world and of providing convenient access to the myriad destinations to which we are required to deliver them….

As they grow up riding buses and trains, kids master the skills required to get around. They start small, like my daughter, who recently began carrying her own bag (a pink backpack with a train, per her request) and move on to stop recognition, schedule reading, and trip planning. Long before their peers are old enough to drive, junior transit riders have the skills to ride solo. The confidence that comes from these abilities will help them when they face problems mom and dad can’t help with.

And speaking of facing things … Kids who spend most of their time in controlled spaces — from home to car to school/mall/lesson/play date — have very limited contact with the people they share the world with. Kids who ride transit, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunity to interact with their fellow humans. They learn to accept differences, interact politely with strangers, and set and respect boundaries.

Riding mass transit can be inconvenient, and it certainly isn’t a parenting panacea. However, it can also be a safe, wonderful option for exposing children to other people and the wider world.

I think my son and I will be riding the bus for years to come.

Leave a Reply