Disclaimer: Before I share our family transit adventures let me acknowledge my privilege: taking public transit is a choice for us. We have enough money to fund our old minivan and a typical driving life (or at least we did, before gas and food prices took a jump.) Many people don’t have a choice. They schlepp kids and groceries via transit (or on foot) because they can’t afford a car and gas, or a disability makes them unable to drive, or they’re immigrants without papers or licenses. For plenty of folks, public transit use is a necessity born from a lack of privilege. Riding the bus with young children isn’t a sacrificial chosen “adventure” it’s just a regular chore, like washing dishes or changing diapers. I want to acknowledge these public-transit families first, because in an absolutely unglorified way, they are out there riding transit every day, while I am merely making some first attempts on occasion.
That being said, I’m going to share about these privileged transit rides because I think mass transit use is better for society — but shifting car-driving Americans from their personal vehicles to public buses and railways will require a significant change in the habits of those who can make this drive-or-ride choice.
If we’re going to reduce cars on the road (and make walking and biking better for everyone), it’s people like me that need to make the change. We could drive, but will we choose to ride?
So, why make that choice?
If you’re reading this, you can probably already make a long list of reasons, so I’ll just say that choosing to use public transit can be one of those little daily acts to make society a better place; a drop in the bucket, like turning out the lights, taking shorter showers, or recycling instead of sending trash to the landfill. It’s a small impact if only one person does it, but on a grand scale — if we can convince way more people to do it — the impact for the greater good would be significant.
That’s a nice ideal, but it can be a hard sell for a parent of little ones. The family needs to go someplace today, and their transportation choice will have an immediate impact on mama’s sanity and schedule. It’s one thing to take the bus as a solo work commuter, but quite another to wrangle multiple children, stroller, diaper bag, and sippy cups in time to make the train. It can be hard to hold on to the ideal of making a better world when baby’s diaper just exploded, the toddler spilled a full cup of juice, mommy is out of coffee – and we’re late!
Despite the challenges, using mass transit is good for us, not only in a hoped-for-ideal, but also for our own family life directly.
One of the biggest benefits is that I’m preparing my children to be independent transit users, which will give them the means to get themselves to their own activities. While they are little, this feels a lot like having the toddlers “help” with household chores: it’s not immediately helpful, but building such habits in our children will pay off in the near future. It will be life-changing for our kids to be able to get themselves to their own activities! As I have written before, I don’t want to spend every afternoon for the next decade driving kids all over town to their activities (nor could I, with five children and one driver). I want them to be able to get around on their own (and free myself from taxi duties — a win-win!).
Still, in our current phase of family life (with five kids ages 8 through infant), using public transit is hard. It feels like a sacrifice. It takes longer and is significantly less flexible than driving our personal vehicle. The normal trials of transit use, like missing an hourly bus with cranky toddlers in tow, feels like a disaster. Yet therein lies one of the more important benefits of our family’s public transit journey: we are living out our values in a way that is sometimes hard and requires us to give up our personal convenience and privilege. Isn’t this one of the more important lessons we want to teach our children?
Every time we use transit instead of driving, we are teaching our children and ourselves how to make choices based on what we value, rather than what is most easy, comfortable, or commonplace. We can choose the public good over personal convenience. When using transit really feels like a sacrifice, I hold on to this: doing what is hard, but right, is one of the most important lessons I will teach my children. If riding the bus can help me to teach that lesson, then I can try to think of the sacrifices involved as little gifts to all of us.
With that in mind, we are setting a small goal to begin exploring our community via bus and light rail. We have plans to replace a weekly car trip with a MAX ride. I’m nervous about committing to this, but our modest biking goals really changed our family’s transportation lifestyle for the better. Over the past year, we’ve replaced most of our short car trips with bike rides. We are happier and healthier. We’re more connected to our local community, and we’re closer as a family. I’m hopeful that our modest public transit goals will help us grow even more, and I’m eager to see where those bus and rail lines take us.
Has your family made the shift from cars to transit? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a note in the comments or send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you. Happy (carfree) travels.
Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via firstname.lastname@example.org