North Americans generally tolerate rather than embrace public transportation. It’s often crowded, slow, and inconvenient, an option of last resort for those who through disadvantage of age, infirmity, or credit rating don’t drive their own vehicle.
The pain-in-the-ass factor is is multiplied with kids; go to any subway station in Toronto to witness stroller-pushing parents fruitlessly searching for a elevator, or swaying on the bus, whimpering toddler in their arms, while commuters feign sleep or stare dead-eyed at electronic devices. It’s even less appealing in the suburbs, where transit ridership is normally an indicator of financial hardship or Kanye-level eccentricity.
As result, except for the occasional Santa Claus parade or similar child-friendly mob scene where parking is impossible, those who can afford it mostly stick to the family SUV.
And yet public transit is exactly where kids should be.
Michael Chabon wrote that his was “the last generation of children to be left alone – mostly – by adults.” Mine too, I think. We’d get up on a summer morning, hop on our bikes and spend the day in parks, playgrounds and streets, playing with kids we knew, and kids we didn’t know, no grown-ups in sight. Games were spontaneous and chaotic and sometimes dangerous, but that’s how we learned to live in a society.
Public transit is like that. It can be dirty, noisy, and uncomfortably populous, but it’s also the way to somewhere new. When my friends and I starting taking the bus downtown, it was a rite of passage, that ability to travel miles from home without parents, and to feel the liberation and the danger of being on our own among strangers. But we trusted ourselves, and we trusted each other.
Finding your way out of the bubble of friends and family, exposed to a more diverse world, is important when you’re young. And public transport does that. The world and the people in it aren’t what you’re used to, but that’s fine. And better than fine – educational.
My son is almost six, and though I’m not quite ready to send him on the subway unaccompanied, he loves travelling on it with me. He’s so proud when he marches down the aisle, steadying himself against the rocking of the car as well as any grown-up, and calling out the names of the stops ahead of time. It’s a confidence he won’t develop strapped into a car seat.