Yesterday, I wrote about Why My Kids Take Public Transit, and I got a few questions on Facebook about how we got to the point where my kids travel alone on bus and BART without (much) complaint. Here’s my step-by-step guide, broken down by age.
From Age 1–5:
- Take public transportation (hereafter called “the bus” for brevity’s sake) with and without your child. You should feel comfortable with the bus in your town or city and should use it for your own needs.
- Taking your tiny kids on the bus is a great activity. You can point out all the places you like to go, vehicles, construction sites, people, dogs. In short, the bus will pass everything a toddler loves to see, and they’ll probably sit still to do it.
From ages 5–10:
- Keep taking the bus different places, and remark on its benefits. How much easier it is than being stuck in traffic, faster than walking, getting to sit together, seeing other people from your town.
- Talk about its challenges, and by this I mean the particular difficulties you face being on the bus. Here are some good questions and answers:
- Who should you sit next to? Sit near the bus driver, sit near someone who is traveling with their own kids (parents and grandparents), other people who look like moms (sorry to be sexist, but I feel safer with my kids sitting near women), older people, and “Helpers.” Helpers, according to Mr. Rogers, are people in uniform who have their name on their shirt: doctors, nurses, police, EMT, security guards, etc.
- What if someone talks to me? Be polite, but not talkative. Don’t tell people your name or where you are going. If someone seems weird or nosy, move closer to the driver, or tell the bus driver. You can also tell another adult, “I don’t know this person and they are bothering me.”
- What if there are no seats? Hold on to a pole or handle on top of someone else’s seat. If you have a seat, and someone older is standing, offer them your seat.
- What if someone follows me off the bus? Go into the nearest store. If they follow you in, tell the people that work at the store that a stranger is following you. If they don’t follow you, it’s okay to leave and walk home.
- Ask your child if they think it would be fun for them to take the bus alone. Tell them you would find it really helpful if they could get to school by themselves sometimes. If they say they aren’t ready, ask them when they might feel ready, and set that as a goal. For example, your sixth grader might say, “Seventh grade,” and you can say, “Great. After the first week of 7th grade, how about you ride the bus home alone once that week?”
- Take the bus on the route your child will take several times to and from your expected destination. So if you want your kid to take it to school, take it to school with them. Have them bring a friend they might travel with, and see if how the two of them navigate the process.
- Get them a regular ticket. For example, around here, kids can get a Clipper card that automatically reloads and ensures that they get the Youth fare. Set it up, and write their name on it in Sharpie. Have them use it.
Age When They Are Ready-ish
- Set a target date and talk it up.
- See if there are other families and kids in the neighborhood who might be interested in doing this too. Two years ago, there were seven kids all doing it together, which dramatically increased my kids’ willingness to take the bus.
- Ask them if they want you to walk them to the bus, meet them at the other end, meet them when they get off — whatever increases their comfort for that first solo trip.
- On the day of, allocate plenty of time for this new task. Nothing will compound the anxiety of it more than making it rushed.
- When it’s over, praise their independence and growth. Ask what they saw, and see if it triggers new questions. Early on, when my kids started, my younger son asked, “Are we supposed to give money to panhandlers? Why do some people where a mask? Can I get off at a different stop?” All great questions, and showed he was invested in this enough to think about strategies.
- If your kids are older than this, no worries. In all likelihood, they will be more eager for independence. When my older son grouses, I remind him, “You don’t want to be the kid who gets to college and doesn’t know how to ride a bus or train.”
- If your kid has a phone, it’s important that they maintain situational awareness. In other words, they should keep the phone out of sight and pay attention to the route, and if they wear headphones, keep the volume low enough to hear what’s going on around them.
- Parents of girls are sometimes more reluctant to give their daughters this freedom. I only have boys, but I would recommend you examine your assumptions. I‘ve observed that girls are more situationally aware and culturally competent at a younger age, and if they’ve prepared strategies for safety (traveling with a friend, sitting with an older woman, talking to the driver), it’s just as safe.
- A word on safety: Buses and trains are filled to the gills with security cameras, and the tolerance for inappropriate and threatening behavior on a bus (by the driver and the transit agency) is VERY LOW. They’ll call the cops on anyone. For some (white?) people, this is reassuring. For others (boys, particularly young men of color), they should be aware that horseplay and rudeness won’t be tolerated in a way it might be in personal space.
Public transportation is city-wide carpooling, less expensive and safer than driving, and a necessary component in reducing our environmental footprint. The sooner our kids learn this, the sooner we can kick them out of the house!