I’m a father of several small children, including twin four-year-old boys. Using public transit provides parents with several challenges not faced by childless passengers; and conversely, families with children provide transit authorities with challenges–and opportunities–that are unique.

In a recent thread on PortlandTransport.com, one poster, a dedicated urbanist with a bit of a temper made it clear to me and other parents that he considered kids–our “screaming brats,” as he put it–unwelcome on transit. The exchange got me thinking about the particular issues facing parents who use transit–whether by choice or due to economic necessity.

In many cities, especially those without a strong transit culture (and the land-use patterns needed to make that a reality), having a larger family can be an obstacle to transit use–and in many places, it’s assumed that having children invariably means a move to the suburbs. This is unfortunate, for several reasons, and so this article examines ways that a transit agency can help attract and keep families as customers–and why it is worth the effort.

In this post, I’ll frequently refer to TriMet, our local transit agency; your own agency’s policies may differ. TriMet is actually a friendly transit system in several important ways–but as always, there is room for improvement.

Credit: Lori D. Stone

What’s It Like to Ride with Children?

Taking children along onto transit vehicles can prevent several difficulties, aside from the obvious hassle of herding the kids around in a crowded place. (Packing small kids in and out of a minivan also has its difficulties, believe me).

The most obvious hassle is that depending on the transit system, traveling with children may require an extra fare be paid (or an extra pass be acquired). TriMet permits children under 7 to ride free with a paying adult passenger, and children under 18 (along with certain qualifying students 18 and older) travel at a reduced price (and may travel alone). TriMet has a few other family-friendly fare policies, which I will get into in a moment.

Beyond the potential added expense, there are numerous other practical difficulties involved with taking children on the bus or on the train. Older vehicles, especially the high-floor variety, often have difficulty accommodating strollers and such; even when they are accommodated, loading and unloading of strollers may require use of the wheelchair lift. Double-wide strollers, for those of us with twins, are especially difficult to take on board. And even if strollers aren’t involved, safe travel with small kids generally requires that the kids sit; whereas grownups traveling alone can cram into a crush-loaded train, that isn’t a sane option if you’ve got a preschooler with you. Which often means waiting for the next train…

Credit: Ed Yourdon

…which brings us to the topic of service frequency. Waiting for the bus is unpleasant. Waiting for the bus with a tired toddler is far more so. While low service frequency is a barrier for anybody, it’s especially true for parents traveling with kids, for whom reading a book or playing with your iPhone isn’t an option.

When you’re dealing with small children, low service frequency has one other drawback–small children have a tendency to throw tantrums, dirty their diapers, need to go to the restroom (now!)–and when this occurs, the proper course of action for the parent is to get off the bus or train, take care of the problem, and catch the next one. With frequent vehicles and stations with basic amenities, not a big deal. If the next bus is a half-hour later, and the only restroom is in a 7-11 near a bus stop in a bad neighborhood, it’s a big deal and often a deal-breaker.

Credit: Rafael Matsunaga

Land Use Issues

Jarrett Walker often points out that land-use outcomes, more than transit planning, dictate transit outcomes–and this has a significant effect on the family-friendliness of transit–and the effect on working families. A recent report by the Center for Housing Policy found that for every dollar a working family saves on housing, it spends 77 cents on transportation, and a 2003 report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that working families spend 19.3 cents of every dollar on transportation.

In some cities, the transit friendly neighborhoods (the nice ones, anyway) tend to cater to a demographic that tends to be childless. Portland’s Pearl District is an excellent example: it is well-served by transit, has lots of fine dining, shopping, art galleries, clubs, and other trappings of the “yuppie” lifestyle. It also has zero public schools, is full of tiny apartments, and has few businesses and other amenities which cater to children. (Portland Public Schools will reportedly open a school there in 2011). Some residents like it that way, of course–but it’s not a convenient place to raise kids.

Suburbia, on the other hand, is VERY attractive to parents, with low-traffic cul-de-sacs, larger houses (often with yards), etc… but the things that make the suburbs attractive to families are devastating to good transit outcomes. Unfortunately, even in a relatively progressive city such as Portland, much new housing is suburban sprawl, not urban infill.

As seems to be a pattern in many US cities, residential units large enough to be attractive to families typically are freestanding homes, not apartments, and are located in the suburbs. Larger dwelling units in the inner city are often scarce and expensive. And once you move to the suburbs, that minivan practically becomes essential.

One other relevant fact about having kids–you have a built-in carpool. In some ways, hauling the kids around in a car is arguably “less bad” for the environment than the driver-only trips that dominate commutes.

On the other hand, in many cases, such trips involve either a) grownups transporting children to destinations (the kids are too young to travel by themselves) or b) grownups bringing children along on errands, in lieu of arranging for childcare–so the additional trips may not be useful in the sense that everyone in the car is being productively moved around.

Credit: Tamara Paz

Why Bother Being Family Friendly?

Some may dismiss families with children as an unlikely (or undesirable) transit demographic, and propose that transit agencies instead focus on those demographics more likely to be transit-compatible, such as childless families and commuters. However, there are several problems with doing so.

  • Families who make the decision to move to the burbs are more likely to abandon transit altogether. A car will be a necessity–and then a second car will often become attractive. At that point, even the morning and evening commute for the family breadwinner(s) may be instead done by automobile.
  • Many trips made by families, especially daytime errands with smaller children, are made during off-peak hours–an important consideration for agencies trying to load-balance (which is pretty much every agency).
  • Children who grow up comfortable with transit are more likely to use it as adults; those who grow up in the suburbs–and whose main exposure to “transit” is an uncomfortable yellow school bus–are more likely to continue an auto-centric lifestyle when they grow up.
  • Families with children are an important political constituency as well. If they have no stake in good public transit, they are less likely to support it with their votes or their tax dollars.
  • Children who are of sufficient age to travel alone, but aren’t old enough to drive a car, are a natural transit constituency.

Credit: Jessica Garro

What Can Agencies Do?

How can transit agencies (and other governmental agencies) improve things for families (beyond the obvious thing of more frequent and more comprehensive service)?

  • Family-friendly fare structures. Permit small children to ride free or at reduced price. Sell family passes, entitling the entire household to travel on transit (together or separately). Consider lower prices for off-peak travel. (If congestion pricing is a good idea for motorists, why not for transit users as well?)
  • Make it easy to exit a bus or train (in order to take care of a child who needs a time-out or a restroom) and board a following vehicle, without any additional charge–including for cash fares. TriMet does well here–a single use ticket is actually a pass to use the system for up to two hours; so exiting and re-boarding on the same fare is not a problem. (Parents should be sure to obtain a transfer from the driver when boarding a bus; nothing special need be done for MAX light rail or the Streetcar).
  • Better transit marketing towards families–make it clear they are welcome and valued. Enforce the rules; make sure transit is not an uncomfortable place for parents. Keep the vehicles clean. Honolulu’s TheBus system does well here, though the intense density of Hawaii’s largest city doesn’t hurt, either.
  • Transit-tracker and similar technologies are very helpful, especially on lines with low frequency. It’s much more pleasant to wait for a bus with a child if you can DO something with the child besides sitting at a bus stop, and if nothing else, you have an answer to the inevitable repetition of, “When is the bus coming, Daddy?”

Credit: Kathleen Conklin

  • Make sure drivers are aware of child-related issues, and have training to deal with things like lost or separated children. TriMet recently turned a potential negative incident into a positive one, after a child was left stranded on a MAX train when the door closed between the child and the parent. Fortunately, other passengers on the train noticed what happened, helped the child off at the next stop, and waited for the parent to catch the following train. The driver call button–which the parent had pressed–was not responded to; an investigation revealed that the call button was functional and simply ignored by the driver. To its credit, TriMet fired the driver. Many transit agencies are unwilling or unable to discipline drivers for acts of misconduct or negligence such as this.
  • Encourage development of dense, family-friendly housing and neighborhoods, and ensure that ample residential developments are located close to transit hubs.
  • Make more agreements with schools to provide transportation, where feasible. Like in New York, TriMet provides bus service for students attending Portland Public Schools–PPS does not operate yellow busses (at least not for general student transport). Unlike the New York City case, where transporting schoolchildren was an underfunded mandate, the school district pays the transit agency for the service (and probably saves both agencies a fair bit of money). And the school district has staggered bell times, so the load on TriMet is spread out a bit more.

 Credit: Susan NYC

What Can Parents Do?

Of course, parents need to be responsible passengers as well. If your child is ill, keep him or her home (unless the trip is medically necessary). If the child starts to misbehave on the bus or train, take him off until he calms down (often times, being removed from a bus for bad behavior–or even the threat of doing so–will be sufficient to correct the problem). Don’t permit children to disturb other passengers. Basic courtesy goes a long way. That said, trips on transit can be a positive experience for kids, especially when there’s zoom and whoosh involved.

Credit: Choko

Families are an important demographic for transit, and one which is often ignored–or written off as too auto-dependent to bother with. But they can be valuable customers to have, for many reasons. Many of the policies which benefit families will also benefit commuters and other riders not traveling with children, improving the value of transit for all.

A slightly different version of this piece originally appeared on Human Transit,Jarrett Walker’s blog about public transit planning and policy.




EngineerScotty is a software engineer and part-time transportation geek from the Portland, Oregon area. He is a frequent commenter on the blog Human Transit.