Kids on the busKids on the bus can be fun for everyone. Really.Photo: Roar PettersonRiding public transportation, as I’ve said before, is good for kids. And the presence of children on transit can enrich the experience for all riders. (Settle down, people! I said can.) So it’s unfortunate that the reality of taking little ones on buses and trains often proves so challenging — both for the folks bringing them and for those along for the ride.

Parents complain about the hassle. There’s the rushing and waiting in all kinds of weather. There’s the occasional exposure to PG-13 language and behavior. And then there’s the whole folding the stroller thing. (For more on the stroller-on-transit hassle, see here and here and here.)

Some parents encounter hostility, both from fellow passengers and from drivers, and consequently feel intimidated and unwelcome. Most just feel overwhelmed as they try to juggle rules and fares and bags and strollers and — oh yeah — children.

Childfree riders complain of the imposition: entitled or negligent parents, ill-behaved kids, and ginormous strollers blocking aisles and exits.

The thing is, families with young children are an important (and permanent) transit demographic. Taking children to medical appointments, daycare, and the grocery store are not discretionary trips and will continue to happen as long as there are people who don’t own cars.

Parents who don’t depend on transit shouldn’t be discouraged from using it. If driving is the default choice for middle-class parents, even those who live in cities with viable public transportation, we’ll have far more cars on our roads than we need to. Those parents will raise children who see driving as a requirement, and our automobile culture will motor on.

On the other hand, accommodating families isn’t always compatible with commuting, and it can sometimes interfere with an agency’s efficiency and performance (not to mention the quality of a business traveler’s experience).

So, what can we do to make taking kids on transit more enjoyable for everyone? A lot!

What agencies can do

There are plenty of great ideas about how to make transit systems more family- (and everyone-) friendly. But most of the more substantive suggestions — like different fare structures or better transit-tracking technology — require time and money. Given the current transit funding landscape, it’s safe to assume that most of these bigger changes won’t happen. Still, agencies can start with small changes, some of which have the potential to make a pretty big difference.

Publish and publicize child-related policies. A common theme among U.S. transit agencies is a lack of clear, well-publicized, and consistently applied policies regarding traveling with children. Most bus systems, for example, require children to be removed from strollers and strollers to be folded during the ride. Yet, many major transit agencies don’t even mention a stroller policy on their websites — let alone in the posted materials on their vehicles. Here’s what passes for a “stroller policy” for my local agency, King County Metro — a provision that you can incur a $250 fine for the following offense:

Bringing onto a transit passenger vehicle any package or other object which blocks an aisle or stairway or occupies a seat if to do so would, in the operator’s sole discretion, cause a danger to, or displace, passengers or expected passengers.

This (vague) rule is part of Metro’s extensive Code of Conduct, and you won’t find it posted on buses or at stops. 

Like everyone else who uses transit, parents need an easy way to find out what to expect — and what’s expected of them — when they ride.

Emphasize safety. In addition to explaining the safety requirements that influence specific policies, transit agencies should provide more general safety information. Buses and trains are significantly safer for children than are cars, but most parents don’t know this. Agencies should make mode-specific safety statistics available to their riders. They should also publish their own safety records, as well as tips for riding safely with children. 

Provide accessible vehicles. Stroller or not, it’s a hassle climbing steep steps with little kids. When there’s an option, transit agencies should always choose low-floor vehicles. These vehicles are much easier for everyone to board and have the added benefit of significantly decreasing route travel times.

Provide better driver training. A lot of the angst that bus-riding parents feel is a result of bad (or inconsistent) experiences with drivers. Driver training should include clear information about how to handle strollers and other guidelines — such as not taking off until parents with small children are seated — about driving with children on board.

What parents can do

Public transportation will never be completely optimized for any particular demographic, but riding transit with kids is much easier when you take advantage of its strengths (no parking! no strapping and unstrapping! exciting adventures!) and prepare yourself to handle its challenges (see above).

Set yourself up for success. The number one rule for busing (and training) with babies is travel light — or at least, as light as you can possibly manage. Transit vehicles can get crowded, and, whether your agency requires strollers to be folded or not, bringing one on board can be a hassle. If you’re riding with a pre-walker, try carrying your little one in a front pack, sling, or wrap. This keeps the baby content and your hands free for paying, hand-holding, or carrying bags. Plus, carriers are perfect for on-the-go naps.

If you’re traveling with a child who’s two or older, consider giving her the opportunity to walk to and from stops and stations. Sure, she’ll be slow at first, but she’ll build stamina quickly, and you’ll get back some of that slow-walking time by avoiding all the stroller drama. If you must bring a stroller, keep it small and easy to carry and fold — an umbrella or similar model. Your biceps and your fellow riders will thank you.

Set your children up for success. If your little darling is out past his naptime or is late for a meal, you’re not the only one who suffers. Sometimes a little crying is unavoidable, but it’s your job as a good transit citizen to keep your kids as content and quiet as possible on your rides. This means making sure their basic needs are met (I know: duh!), bringing along a few emergency supplies (for us: water, nonperishable snacks, changes of clothes, books), and giving them your full attention while you’re on board (unless, of course, you’re tweeting about how much attention you’re paying them, which is pretty much just as good).

Be prepared. The more you know about your itinerary, fares, wait times, transfer locations, and walking distances before you leave the house, the better your trip will go. There are plenty of trip planning and bus tracking tools for mobile devices, and they work great for parents in a pinch. But it’s hard to click a bunch of tiny icons on your phone while also hanging on to hands and schlepping strollers. At least, it is for me.

What everyone else can do

Relax. Public transportation is all about sharing space with other people. Sometimes those other people are very small and partially sane. (Sometimes they’re fully grown and partially sane, but that’s not the topic we’re covering today.) If you’re willing and able, offer to help; it just might speed up your trip. If not, do your best to be patient and understanding. After all, odds are good that one day you’ll be the person who needs assistance or takes extra time to board.

If all else fails, break out your headphones.