Why public transit is part of our family life

MAX fam. (Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

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?

“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!”

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.

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Ernest Fitzgerald
Ernest Fitzgerald
1 month ago

I used to be car free – I found that you can get just about anywhere you need to go with a combination of bus/rail + bike. But then covid hit, and I no longer felt safe in close contact with strangers, some of whom weren’t masking properly. Just sayin’.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
1 month ago

Even during the mask mandate, the number of people I saw wearing a “chin diaper” was astonishing. Arguably the *dumbest* thing I’ve ever seen. If you want to be militant about endangering other people, have the guts to just not wear the mask.

I spent the first 12 weeks of lockdown avoiding all mass transit – I rode 2500 miles in those weeks.

For a variety of reasons that wasn’t quite sustainable and I went to a bit more transit and a bit less pedaling – especially when the weather went south.

I’ve been fortunate so far, even with the mask mandate gone a combination of vaccine, KN95 and trying to minimize riding when the train gets crowded have worked fairly well.

I just had cataract surgery (YAY! My vision is now as good as it was in my 20’s) and I was asked to not ride for a week after each and take it easy for the 2nd week. So, for the past 6 weeks I’ve only ridden 150miles (ish) and a lot of train time.

Wow, has TriMet gotten bloody awful.

Nothing like being delayed 15-30minutes every day for an entire week (and only one day was 15min, the others were all 30) to make you reconsider your position on public transit.

Specifically during a 4 day week (I took my GF’s Bday off)
Monday – The 4:42 MAX Red Line never showed up. Had to wait ’til 5:12 at BTC (I and several others were there by 4:35am)
Wednesday – Was in a Blue line homebound (around 5ish pm) that had to wait several minutes in every station because we were still experiencing the slow downs from an earlier interruption. I arrived home 30+ minutes after my usual time.
Thursday – The Green line had some sort of interruption, my train left 8-9 minutes after it’s usual time and forced me onto a blue line 15minutes later than I otherwise would have ridden.
Friday – Some disturbance caused our driver to pause at the Library, Pioneer Courthouse Square and Yamhill. By the time we reached Gateway I ended up on a Green line 30minutes after the one I usually ride.

I’m fortunate that I don’t have to be on time – I just work later to get my stuff done. Others aren’t so fortunate. I’d imagine that, in the current employment climate (workers being hard to get), nobody is losing their job over this sort of thing. In days gone by when getting a job was tougher I witnessed people being let go for excessive tardiness. The obvious answer “so leave earlier” – in other words give up 30min to an hour more of your morning to make sure you get to work on time.

It’s *very* hard for me to argue for Public Transit these days.

bike_guy_ty
bike_guy_ty
1 month ago

This article brought back some memories for me about some of my earliest public transit experiences, when I was around the same age as your children. I grew up in Salem, but in the summers I would do Zoo Camp, the first year I did it my mom made the driver up to Portland everyday for the one week of camp. After that she was understandably over making the trek and wanted to find different options. We had an aunt & uncle who lived near Hollywood TC, so we would stay with them for the week and take the MAX to the zoo everyday. I loved riding the MAX and getting to see all the sights of an early 2000s Portland. I believe that these experiences made it much easier for me to embrace public transit as a valid option for getting around the city as an adult. It also made me into a weirdo that loves to ride anything that moves along rails . I hope that your children will have their own special experiences with public transit as well and that it will have an influence on how they think about getting around when they’re at the point when they starting making those decisions :)!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  bike_guy_ty

Thanks for sharing these memories. I always wonder what my kids will remember from their childhood and the way they will perceive the choices my husband and I make for our family life. Often I worry their only memory will be me fretting about being late, and getting exasperated when at least one kid can’t find a matching pair of shoes when it’s time to go. It’s messy, but we keep trying.

DW
DW
1 month ago

I think the number of kids you see on public transit is a good litmus test for how good the service is. While the physical challenges – schlepping stuff and small kids – will always be present, we can fix some of the logistical challenges involved with public transit. I hadn’t thought about how more frequent, faster and safer service would affect families. Especially those who rely on transit.

Kids also love trains.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago

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.

With 95% of Portlanders having access to a car, most people do have a choice.

And with transit ridership down 50%, many* have been exercising it.

*Techincally, many more, as even before ridership plummeted, far more people chose to drive than take TriMet.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

My barrier is price of parking downtown. If it was less I’d drive over TriMet, and this thought was even before COVID.

David Hampsten
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

Where did you get the 95% figure?

Chris I
Chris I
1 month ago

Trimet has an uphill battle if it wants to attract “choice” riders again. Filling the open transit police positions would be a good start. You can generally count on having security at Gateway TC, the airport, and places like Pioneer Square, but on the rest of the system, you are on your own.

https://www.portlandmercury.com/news/2022/08/08/44753006/trimet-to-increase-police-presence-on-public-transit-amid-fentanyl-surge-in-oregon

According to TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt, the agency wants to increase the number of transit police officers on the TriMet system to handle a variety of “nuisances,” not just drug use. While the agency has a budget for 64 security officers, only 21 of those positions are currently filled.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris I

If you ride early enough, even those don’t have security. I go past Pioneer Courthouse Square at 5:01am and get to Gateway at 5:30ish (I know the first because I look up at the time & temp on the corner of 6th & Yamhill). I’ve never seen anyone but the contracted security guard that gets on at the Library to ride to CTC to start his day.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris I

Gateway TC has security? I’ve been using GTC for the past 12 years in the early morning hours (before 7 AM) and have never ever seen security there or on any of the trains. It’s as if the security only works office hours, not during ALL hours of operation like they should.

RipCityBassWorks
RipCityBassWorks
1 month ago

I think what many people are missing is that transit should be ‘easy, comfortable, and commonplace’. Even just 6 hours north there is a city with a world renewed transit system that often manages to be quicker and more convenient than driving.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago

Yes! I don’t know how to get from where we are to that kind of dream transit and biking life we wish we had. We’re trying to do our best with what we’ve got, and hoping to contribute to a better transportation future–but I know I have a lot more to learn in order to become a better advocate.

Jay Reese
Jay Reese
1 month ago

Cool story. Brings back memories of me and my children riding the bus. I swear my daughters first word was “Bus”. She would yell it out every time she saw one. Sadly she has embraced the car culture now but my son has resisted and at the age of 21 hasn’t gotten his license yet.

SilkySlim
SilkySlim
1 month ago

I’ve done some recent forays with my toddler on public transit, mainly the MAX. And usually with no destination in mind, just over the Tilikum bridge and back, or down to Milwaukee waterfront for stroll. It helps not being on a deadline for this jaunts.

As an above commenter noted, kids LOVE trains. So that was an easy sell. But I’m trying to subtly hype some of the other features, like how we can sit next to each other, point out the window, and wriggle around our seats w/ no encumbering seatbelts (yeah, I should tone this one down). He is also mildly impressed that I “know” exactly when the train is coming around the bend, thanks to those monitor screens.

All that said… We’ve seen some characters on a handful of journeys. Mostly just people trying to get somewhere though, which is important to remember. That said, one lady, at like 10am on a Saturday morning, hunched down in seat directly in front of us and smoked meth. Yes, like 2′ from a toddler. We got up and moved, and as I exited the train, I told her that she should be ashamed of herself, using the calmest voice I could muster.

David Hampsten
1 month ago
Reply to  SilkySlim

When I first moved to Portland in 1986, they still legally allowed regular smoking on the rear 6 sets of seats on MAX, naturally where the bikes are allowed. I found it as disgusting then as I do now.

Over the years the clouds second-hand smoke have really dissipated but unfortunately they’ve never gone away entirely – along with the methheads are the vapers, the tokers and the buttheads.