Desperate to attend a summer program in Washington, D.C., my then 14-year-old son was ready to cut a deal. I told him that with two younger children at home, I just couldn’t drive him from Bethesda to camp each day. His solution? Public transportation.

Contemplating his trip – Ride On bus to Metrorail with a train change at Gallery Place and short walks at either end – I found the prospect slightly unsettling. Could he navigate the system? If he got lost or missed a bus, could he handle it? As it turned out, not only were my fears misplaced, but I’d never even considered the benefits that he would accrue from riding transit.

Transit Empowers Kids

“Riding transit makes kids more independent, confident and sociable,” says Pinky Advani, senior business development manager for Arlington Transportation Partners in Virginia. “In the long term, I feel it teaches them to be confident citizens, comfortable in the real world.”

Social skills, which can be improved for example by interacting with bus operators, “are increasingly important to develop in a generation more focused on online rather than face-to-face interaction,” says Stuart Boggs, a transportation planner for Fairfax County Department of Transportation in Virginia. Transit also encourages a healthy lifestyle. “You have to walk or bike to and from a stop,” he says. “All Fairfax Connector buses have bike racks on them and, as part of our student bus pass outreach, we show kids how to mount a bike on a bus. It eliminates their hesitancy to use transit.”

Transit can save time and increase opportunity. When kids ride transit, parents have more free time. And, because children are no longer dependent on their parents’ schedule, they can attend events and activities when parents are at work or otherwise unavailable. That’s especially important in Fairfax County, says Boggs, where high schools run late buses just one day a week. “Encouraging kids to ride transit allows them to participate in clubs or sports at school, regardless of what day they meet, and to access jobs.”

For Advani, who has been taking public transportation with her son for all 11 years of his life, the trips provide quality time. “When driving, you can’t give your child the same attention as you can when riding transit.”

Transit Benefits Society

Kids who begin riding at an early age are more likely to do so as adults. “Transit expands opportunities for education, careers and entertainment,” says Will Kenlaw, acting chief of Customer and Operations Support for the Montgomery County Transit Services and Ride On in Maryland. There are societal benefits as well. “Public transit lessens our dependency on single occupant vehicles and reduces the number of cars on the road,” he says. The result is reduced congestion and carbon emissions. “Environmentally, it makes things better for us and future generations.”

Transit Readiness

Unlike their peers in D.C. – where students walk, bike or take Metrobus or Metrorail to public schools – kids in the suburbs are not nearly as accustomed to using public transportation. So when should parents begin encouraging children to use transit on their own? While there are no hard and fast rules, Advani recommends around the age of 12. That’s when students qualify for special passes from transit systems throughout the region. But, because every child develops differently, she suggests that parents “use their own judgment and instinct to determine if their child is ready.”

Advani recommends parents consider the child’s maturity and level of comfort in being on his own. “Have you left your child alone at home for an hour or two during the day? How did he do? Is your child comfortable walking alone to a neighbor’s house, the school bus stop or the local grocery store? If you answered yes, your child may be ready,” she says.

A child’s preferences and personality also should be considered. “Does the child want to ride the bus or does he have fears or shyness that might prevent him?” says Kenlaw.

Riding Transit Solo

Preparation is key to a successful first ride alone. “Start with brochures and maps to show him the route he will be traveling,” says Advani. All transit systems in the region have route information available online.

“Parents should take their child on a door-to-door trial run,” says Kenlaw. “They should explain what they are doing every step of the way – how to get to the bus stop, what to do at the bus stop, how to use the fare box, where to sit, how to signal the bus to stop and how to cross streets once they get off.”

To encourage parents to do a trial run, Fairfax County provides a free-ride coupon to parents attending student outreach events. “We’re a suburban area where, while parents may ride Metrorail, they don’t necessarily ride the bus,” Boggs says. “The idea is to demystify it by giving them a free ride to take with their student.”

The Inaugural Solo Ride

Let your child feel the thrill of completing that first trip on his own. That’s not to say you can’t stay in touch. “If your child has a cell phone, you can have him text you when he boards the bus and reply back with an emoji,” says Advani. “You can also download the Find My Friend app and track your child when he boards the bus or train. Remember, however, that the app may not work at an underground Metro station.”

Traveling Safely

Riding public transit is 10 times safer per mile than traveling by car, according to the American Public Transportation Association. And, given reports from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing that teen drivers are involved in three times as many crashes as drivers over age 20, there’s something to be said for kids catching a ride with a professionally trained bus driver rather than a friend.

“Safety is paramount with our drivers,” says Boggs, noting that they receive extensive training and retraining. Random checks and a DriveCam are used to monitor driver behavior. “We also have a mystery rider program,” he said.

Ride On puts a premium on safety as well, says Kenlaw, adding that safety coordinators monitor most major bus transit hubs and keep tabs on riders’ experiences. He recommends that parents talk to a child about his experience whenever he takes transit and report anything unusual. For Ride On, parents can dial 311. “We investigate every complaint and share every compliment that comes in,” he says.

Transit operators can also keep young riders from getting lost, says Advani. Students new to a route shouldn’t hesitate to ask a driver to alert them when nearing their stop or help them if they think they have missed a stop.

Some basic street savvy is essential for kids riding transit alone, says Advani. “Children should stay alert and be aware of their surroundings … no playing games on devices during the ride or they might miss their stop. And, definitely no talking to strangers.

“When talking to kids about safety, you don’t want to scare them,” she says. “You do, however, want to tell them that it’s okay to contact the local police, station manager or a bus driver for assistance and help if they see something strange or somebody bothers them.”

Branching Out

That first successful ride can be empowering, instilling in a child a desire to travel more broadly throughout the region – perhaps to a museum, concert or ballgame – and that may require connecting from one transit mode to another. Trip planning is both essential and relatively easy using online tools like Google maps or mobile apps such as Transit and Moovit. There is a learning curve associated with these tools, but chances are, says Kenlaw, your child will pick them up faster than you.

Allowing a child to ride transit falls under that part of parenthood requiring that we learn to let go. “We let go when they take that first step, go to school, go to prom, go to college,” says Boggs. “This also is part of a progression in our kid’s life – finding independence and preparing for adulthood.”


Resources

  • ART (Arlington, VA)
  • Student iRide SmarTrip Card
  • commuterpage.com/pages/special-programs/iride-for-arlington-teens/student-iride-smartrip-card
  • CUE (City of Fairfax, VA)/Fairfax Connector (Fairfax County, VA)
  • Student Free Fare Program
  • fairfaxcounty.gov/connector/student_pass.htm
  • DASH (Alexandria, VA)
  • Student Summer DASH Pass
  • dashbus.com/StudentPass
  • DC Circulator/Metrobus/Metrorail (Washington, D.C.)
  • DC One Card
  • http://ddot.dc.gov/page/school-transit-subsidy-program
  • Ride On (Montgomery County, MD)
  • Kids Ride FREE - Youth Cruiser SmarTrip Card
  • montgomerycountymd.gov/dot-transit/kidsridefree