How to start bringing your baby/toddler/kid on transit!

"Next Stop, Please"
While we were quite certain we didn't want to get a car the moment that first baby came, the idea of figuring out how to get a stroller onto the bus or train and keep a kid calm was daunting. Ideally I also wanted to allow others to board/alight without causing all the sidelong glances I'd so smugly sent at flustered new parents for many years.

Similarly, when the never ending snows of 2015 came, our slow easing-back of the stroller became an all-out desertion of anything with wheels. The thought of getting a 20-month old to and from daycare on transit unrestrained was intimidating, even for us urbanophiles.

So how did we do it?
Note: If you're here with just a toddler, you can skip the next two sections and head down to "Lower the Stakes."

Educate Yourself about the Transit System

Still pregnant? Watch other families board and see what works (and what doesn't) for them. Check out where they sit, how they get there, and especially watch how they flip up seats or any other adjustments to the bus or train. Be brave, ask questions or offer to help, it's a great time to practice.
Note: If you've enjoyed the anonymity of urban life so far, you may feel weird talking to random people, but your life of being ignored will soon end. People of all types are going to approach you with all sorts of comments and questions when you travel with the adorable littles, even in the city. So you may as well start getting used to conversation with strangers. At least this time you're getting some much needed information out of the deal.
Too late to practice? That's fine. If you're using a stroller, the general rule of thumb you're going to use on transit for the next few years is to treat the system like someone in a wheelchair. You are looking for low-floor trains/buses, elevators, step-free passages, and space to get a stroller out of the way of people trying to fill up a vehicle. The Americans with Disabilities Act (for those in the U.S.) does not cover you, but the things transit agencies are doing to comply will be your friend. (SEE BELOW FOR A MAJOR POINT ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY.)

Most transit agency websites have a section devoted to these things. You will generally find them under "Accessibility" or other information for the "Mobility Impaired." Your results will vary, as some agencies have more information than others, and some will (understandably) focus more on other issues of accessibility, but it's a good place to start. 

On a day you're riding solo during a non-peak time, see if you ask a couple questions to the driver. Are there seats that flip up? Where is the handle? Is it the same on all buses/trains? Is it easier to enter through a back door? How/when do you pay your fare? Answers for Boston MBTA will be forthcoming in another post.

The Right Gear for Children on Transit

We've all seen people try to board the bus with giant heavy strollers, slowing down everyone else while they get increasingly flustered. How not to be them? 

First, get the right stroller and accessories. Light, tight turning radius, and narrow are your friends here... especially light. Stores may tell you that 20 pounds is light for a stroller (it may even have "city" in its name), but that's not light enough. You can find them under 18 pounds (15 pounds and under is even better).

Stroller toys are also super since on a particularly bad commute, anything that buys you another 5-10 minutes may just be the thing that gets you home (or the kid to sleep). Until the babies were old enough to ditch the pacifier, we kept one on a clip attached to the stroller at all times (clips are also a great way to keep a toy attached to the stroller without it going missing). That was, in fact, the last pacifier we ditched with our first, even after the one that lived in the crib. Remember to also keep appropriate things in your diaper bag in case of unexpected delays or accidents. This is not a place to go nuts for all contingencies (staying light being a priority as well), but a snack with a long shelf life and some all purpose wipes will go a long way for peace of mind.

Is your train or bus extra crowded? Do you live in a city that requires you to fold up strollers? Is it snowing? Then a carrier is a great way to use transit and more-or-less avoid all of the issues afforded by strollers. Just hope that this isn't the day you need to get diapers, wipes, and sheets into daycare.

Lower the Stakes when Starting out on Transit with Your Kid

The people on the bus go up & down...
Ok, now we're to the part where the strategies are the same for getting out there with a stroller AND for getting your kid out of the stroller. In other words, use the obvious strategies that you employ when trying something new with your kid.


Start small

Pick a non-essential trip, during the middle of the day or the weekend, on a day when your child seems to be in a good mood.  Don't go too far - pick a destination that you can walk home from with the stroller or carry the kid if you've ditched it.

Be ready for the first time (or 3) to be slow and to feel like the tourists you scoff at all the time. It's going to be awkward, you won't know where to put your hands, or the kid's hands, or you'll discover the cup holder hits the stop request button, or your newly unrestrained kid's snowpants cause them to slide right off the seat.  It will feel like you spent 15 minutes getting settled while everyone else stares daggers at you. You can rest assured, however, it was probably only 30 seconds and no one even looked up from Facebook.

Get off two stops later, enjoy a cup of coffee with a pain au chocolat at a cafe, and walk back home. You did it!

Build Slow

For the stroller crowd, once you get a couple of these under your belt, try a rush hour commute. If you're feeling nervous, recruit another adult to help (partner/parent/friend/etc.). Then try a rush hour commute where the second adult hangs out at the other end of the vehicle and only helps if something goes wrong. Slowly ease off the training wheels and you've got the confidence to hop on anytime, get around, and enjoy your city, baby and all!
Our first longer walk parallel to the bus route

For those trying to ditch the stroller, the same principles apply but you're also adding in the need to help your kid learn to walk further and further. So instead of wheeling the stroller directly into the daycare, we parked the stroller first and walked to the door. Then, we started walking to the park (holding onto a stroller handle) but letting the kid ride in the stroller on the return trip.

To bring it back to transit, we started taking the bus unrestrained to music class where the walk on either side of the bus was short. We kept practicing with various trips until we were ready to try a run to daycare. At first we only did the commute without a stroller one way, leaving the stroller at the daycare overnight for an unrestrained ride home and then back to school the next morning. We went from one day a week, to two, to... the worst winter in Boston history where we ditched the stroller entirely and were so happy she was ready and able to do it!

Use Cute and Precocious as Long as you Can

Moving to unrestrained transit riding also meant teaching the kid a lot more about proper behavior than we had to cover when she was confined to the stroller. We do lots of reminders about the fact that everyone gets personal space, the need to stay in your seat, using your inside voice, and really all the things that toddlers do. All of which is to say, you'll no longer be checking your phone or enjoying a cup of coffee while enroute.

When we've had issues with her pushing the limits of appropriate behavior, I apologize, and generally people are pretty nice/forgiving (yes, even here in grumpy Boston). Her size, comparative independence and charizma let her get away with it. This should buy you enough time (and trips) to teach better habits.

Ask for help and know when to decline it

We all have bad, weird, or frustrating days. And here's the thing, you can always ask for help. You can ask people to vacate the accessible seating, you can ask people to flip up a seat, or to even help you with a stroller on the stairs if you so need. In my experience, people have always been pretty great about it, especially people who have grown children.

While plenty of people offer useless (or worse) help, most of them are just trying to be good citizens and everything is going to be OK, I promise!

I see our subway station!

You Did It!

Eventually they'll want to look out the window, which will be lots of fun (and distracting) for them. They'll learn the names of the stops, learn their left and right from the door announcements, and tell strangers how to get around. At home you can make up new verses to "The Wheels on the Bus" based on your actual experiences (we've added verses about bike racks and card readers).

And now we have a commute where we can have fun, learn skills, and see each other face-to-face all without having to circle for parking.

Hey, we got back to being smug, victory!

A note (actually 2) about Accessibility

When you are in the wheelchair section of your bus or train, keep your eyes open for folks using other mobility aids who need access to that section of the vehicle. It's annoying to stand in an aisle with a stroller, but easier/safer for you to do than a wheelchair, which generally must be secured using special attachments only in that area. Similarly, someone with a walker may not be able to make it as far into the vehicle as you can. Part of asking others to vacate these spaces for you is realizing that you may still need to vacate for someone in more need than you.

Also, when you're winding through dark passageways from platform to platform and stuck in slow-moving foul-smelling elevators while those without wheels walk up 10 stairs to accomplish the same task, remind yourself: When my child(ren) is out of the stroller, we'll be done with this. And then double-remind yourself, for many of the people using these services, they are stuck with this substandard transit experience every day.

So, when your transit agency says they don't have money for accessibility, or there's no need to add a second elevator to serve platforms in both directions, or that they can't upgrade a station because then they'd finally need to make it accessible, PUSH BACK. Do it for your selfish reasons of needing to get a stroller around town for the next few years, but especially do it for the non-selfish reasons.

This post is in the series of posts about carfree living. Other posts include thoughts on strollers for urban use, necessary accessories, and whatever else we think to blog about!
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