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Taking Transit with Kids: Boston MBTA

This is the first in (hopefully) a series of guides for riding public transit across the world with your kids. Would you like to help add information about your city? Drop us an email at transitinfo at acrossb dot com.

It doesn't matter how long you've lived here, there are some new things to think about when riding the MBTA with kids...

Taking the MBTA with your little ones will make you think about the MBTA in new and unexpected ways. Maybe you've never really cared much about "new" vs. "old" style Green Line cars, or why using an elevator at South Station forces you to go outside when switching from the red line to the commuter rail, or which exit from Harvard involves the fewest street crossings when connecting to your bus. Now you are going to see a slightly different version of the MBTA.

Our system
  1. a. Is proud of being among the oldest in America (the first subway!) but also 

  2. b. Lacks any sort of standards in stations, vehicles, or much of anything else. 
Consequently, unlike a roundup for, say, WMATA in Washington, D.C. (which has a handful of station types and more-or-less the same trains throughout), we'll have a lot of variations along the way. But at least it's simpler than the old token/quarters-only Green Line fares before 2006... progress!

Also, have you read our guide to getting started on transit with your stroller or non-strollered toddler?

Kids ride the T for Free! 

Kids 11 and under are free with an adult (maximum 2 kids per adult).


Pay Attention to Close Stops!

Because the system is not fully accessible and because dragging a toddler onto and off of various vehicles might be less fun than walking outside (at least on a nice day), it's time to take a look at a good Boston map with the MBTA routes on it. Especially downtown, lots of stops are closer together than you may think if you haven't really walked around much. The canonical example here is Aquarium is a short walk from all the other lines without having to transfer to the Blue line.

Stations and Boarding

Red, Orange, Blue, and Underground Portions of the Green and Silver Lines

  • - Most stations in the MBTA are accessible now (check the MBTA map for the latest), which is really quite impressive (even if it took a few lawsuits to get there). Keep your eyes peeled as you head toward the station because elevators may be at the same entrance as the stairs (Porter), or just a few feet away (Copley), or somewhere else entirely (South Station). In other cases, elevators may be inside the fare gates (Charles/MGH).

  • - In recent years, more elevators have been added to secondary entrances (Harvard, Porter) and to make transfers more direct (Park Street).

  • - Every station has at least one "Reduced Fare" gate that's extra wide for wheelchairs and strollers. It's also good for kids walking through while holding your hand.

  • - Each two-car Green Line train is usually made up of one "high floor" car and one "low floor" car. 
    • * If you have a stroller, you should aim for the low-floor car to avoid having to lug it up the steps. Head to the middle doors and there is a large open wheelchair bay right by each set of doors. This is the place to camp out. 

    • * With a mobile kid, take your pick of cars and seats though you may prefer the high-floor Green Line car as it has pairs of forward/rearward facing seats rather than sideways seats. This way you can worry less about interactions with others on the train (i.e. opportunities for your kid to kick people).
  • - On the Red/Blue/Orange lines there are not any obvious places for a stroller but you can either try at the front/back of the car (where there may be seats missing to accommodate a wheelchair) or the area at the doors is usually workable. Just be aware of which set of doors will open at each stop so you can be sure to get out of the way.

  • - Silver Line buses are all "low floor" so enter at any door. Check out the bus discussion below on flipping up seats.
  • - Final note of interest: we've used station staircases and escalators as places to learn to go up/down lots of stairs and to learn escalator safety (and also about removing escalator grease from kids... fun times). That said, while we're willing to go down Harvard's many stairs during peak times, we still use the elevator at Park Street given the large hurrying crowds arriving from all directions simultaneously.

Green Line Surface Branches

  • This is similar to the situation above, but the need to pay up front creates a few wrinkles. To recap, each two-car train is usually made up of one "high floor" car and one "low floor" car. 

  • If you have a stroller, you should aim for the low-floor car to avoid having to lug it up the steps. The front of the train is NOT low, so you'll have to reach up to the farebox to tap your CharlieCard. The driver will generally open the back two doors for you (if they're not open already) and you can walk back on the train and enter one of those doors just a (usually) short step up (sorry outer bit of the B and C-lines). There is a large open wheelchair bay right by each set of doors. This is the place to camp out. 

  • With a mobile kid, take your pick of cars and board normally though you may prefer the high-floor car as it has pairs of forward/rearward facing seats rather than sideways seats so you can worry less about interactions with others on the train.

Buses (including Above-Ground Silver Line)

If you're with an unrestrained or carrier-contained kid, you don't really need any special information, though I will note that sitting in the seats on the steps or further back improves the ability of the child to see out the window so we aim for those. 

All buses are technically accessible though there are still a few "high floor" buses still rumbling around the fleet. They're being phased out as of early 2016, but I imagine you'll see them for a while. If you come across a high floor bus, board it the same way you would the Green Line at the surface - i.e. pay up front and then board with the stroller in the back door (and lug it up the stairs, sorry). The area of flip-up seats is directly across from the doors (generally 2 sets of 3 seats that flip up).

On a low-floor bus, you can board normally through the front. On most types of buses, the entire set of front seats folds up. With a small enough stroller, you should only need to flip up one of the four potential sets of seats. Note: There are a few variants of buses out there that have slightly different configurations including a brand new set of buses that basically just has a spot to park a stroller specifically.

In any case, there are two ways to flip up the seat. On some buses, there will be a ring underneath the seat. Pull the ring toward you and then pull the seat up (see picture to the left for how to find the ring). To lower the seat back to its original position once you're about to get off the bus (polite but not necessary), pull the ring up and push the seat down. On other buses, there is a lever behind the seat (sometimes left, sometimes right, but the back of a bus seat is probably not the grossest thing you've touched today anyway). Push the lever to the wall and pull the seat up. To lower, there is a knob on the bottom front of the seat, pull out and push the seat down.

Commuter Rail

Any readers have tips for the Commuter Rail? We haven't tried it with the kiddos.

Ferries

Any readers have tips for the Ferries? We've not tried it with the kiddos either.

Exiting the T

For the most part, you'll just do the reverse of what you did to enter the vehicle and station.

The Green Line technically does not allow rear door exiting during the off-peak, so if the driver does not see you waiting to exit, a shout of "REAR DOOR" is usually sufficient to get them to open it. Hey, it's Boston, you made it this far in the article before someone had to shout at someone else.

Wrap-up

So yeah, that was a lot, but you can do it! 

Other Bostonians, what did we miss? What did we screw up? Let us know in the comments below.

Are you interested in helping to develop a guide for your city? Even if you know only a part of the system, drop us a line. We will help you put something together and build out a great resource. Email us: transitinfo at acrossb dot com.

Introducing the Baby Registry - A practical guide to bringing baby home to your city life!



We are so excited to roll out our baby registry - requested by you, our readers!

You will always be able to find it under the "Guides" section of our site. This is our best and most practical advice for how to fit your baby into your apartment while saving space, money, and your sanity.

So - experienced parents, what did we miss/get wrong?

Expecting parents - what burning questions did we leave unanswered?

baby registry for city parents







The Zen of Diaper Bags

Diaper bags are one of those pieces of equipment that even non-parents have opinions about.  They can be a kinda ridiculous fashion statement, be literally big enough to fit a sleeping baby, or just a plain old symbol of your new lameness.  This is probably because they come most places with you for several years (or more if you have more than one child).  So here are some practical thoughts on how to pick one and what to put in it.

What should you have in your diaper bag?

Very little.  Ok so our diaper bag pretty much lives on the stroller, which means that I never have to carry it.  Even with that, I hate having a big over stuffed bag because it means I can never find what I'm looking for.  So we keep it light.  Here is what you actually need to have with you:
  • for all munchkins
    • diapers
    • wipes
    • change of clothes
    • a couple plastic bags (for disposing of poopy diapers or containing soiled clothes). Regular grocery bags will do or you can go with something like the Munchkin Diaper Bag Dispenser.
    • a changing pad
    • seasonally appropriate items such as a baby hat or sunscreen 
    • tiny hand sanitizer (soap and water is best for cleaning your hands after a diaper change, but for those rare times that you have to change a diaper not in a bathroom, hand sanitizer is needed)
  • for babies only
    • some way to feed the baby if you're a non lactating parent
    • nursing cover if you are the lactating parent 
  • for toddlers only
    • hand wipes
    • tissues
    • one non perishable emergency snack. (We are definitely a "no snacking on the go" family.  However, sometimes circumstances beyond your control necessitate a change in plan.  One time, my husband was on a bus bringing my toddler daughter home from daycare when all traffic stopped for an hour because the president had come to town. Delaying a tired one year old's dinner by an hour in a confined space is a recipe for all kinds of mayhem and a well placed granola bar can go a long way to keeping everyone's hearing intact.)

How do you pick a diaper bag?

In my humble opinion, you should pick the smallest bag you can find that both parents are willing to carry.

Why the smallest?

Nature abhors a vacuum and you will fill whatever sized bag you buy.  Thus, on those days when you do actually have to carry it, it's going to suck.  Also you'll never find the thing you're looking for.

Doesn't each parent deserve their own bag?

There is definitely advice out there that says mom and dad need their own bag.  I find this highly dubious.  Moving your kids things from bag to bag or making sure both of them are stocked is never going to happen, and most likely one of them is going to gather dust permanently.  Here are a couple of brands we've found that make bags likely to be palatable to both parents:
  • Lassig. We have their messenger style bag and love it.  Though, full disclosure, the messenger bag is kind of big and we only got it when we found out we were having a second child.  The need to carry both baby and toddler things simultaneously necessitated a bigger bag than the one we had to start.  That said, the bag has been awesome from the way it clips to the stroller to the extra wide shoulder strap that makes it easy to carry even when full.
  • L.L. Bean.  They're known for their high quality bags of all kinds, so why not diaper bags?
  • Skip Hop. They have a number of designs and sizes to match almost any kind of style or family.
  • DadGear.  This is a great brand for the most gender neutral of bags (all the way to full on "manly" cameo bags).
  • Ju-Ju-Be B.F.F.   These definitely run expensive but if you're looking for a diaper bag that truly converts from a purse into a backpack and has a fun design - this is your bag.
  • Any bag you are both willing to carry and can fit all the things. It's pretty easy to buy a changing pad and stroller clips and voila - you have a perfectly fine diaper bag of your very own!

2015 Gift guide - What all city-dwelling (and probably many other) parents REALLY want this season!

What gift do you get for your favorite set of parents who have everything and/or no room for anything else?  Here are some suggestions for gifts that are sure to be appreciated almost universally by parents, but most especially those tight on space!

Practical gifts that keep on giving

Food Delivery Gift Certificates

This one makes the rounds frequently for new parents, but everyone loves takeout/delivery. After a night when one kid wants to stand on the train seat and the other refuses to go to sleep, it's good to be married to "someone who knows when it’s time to order Chinese." (Also, seriously internet, no GIFs/memes on this Orange is the New Black line?) Better yet, to do that when already been paid for. Foodler is our pick for services, but your recipient's area may be better served by Seamless, GrubHub, etc.

Parents in a Pinch / Care.com

Every parent in the history of time could use the gift of a break from their little miracles.  However, finding reliable caregivers (and then being able to afford them) makes the prospect of planning an evening out more overwhelming than training to run a marathon.  This is a website that matches parents with willing and vetted caregivers.  It is an especially great gift to give if you are a non-local grandparent and cannot offer your own babysitting in person.

Amazon.com Prime

Ok, I surely don't have to explain Amazon Prime, but it's a great resource for families. It can feel like a splurge given the price, but that's what makes it a perfect gift! Free 2-day delivery is already a great deal, but add-in the additional discounts on diapers, the free TV/Movie streaming, and the Kindle free library, it's definitely worth the money. Bonus Amazon feature: you can download TV/movies to view offline, which means the kids can watch Sesame Street (or many other things) on a plane with no wifi.

Grocery Delivery/Farmshare

Grocery delivery is a luxury for urban dwellers and for those days when getting the newborn (or toddler) out of the house seems impossible, services like Peapod or your local grocery store's options can save the day. Find a farmshare, CSA, or other produce delivery service, and it can make cooking a "real meal" at home that much easier. Plus, it gives everyone in the family an excuse to try new (and in-season!) foods. For folks in the Boston metro area, we recommend Boston Organics which combines the best of a farmshare and a grocery store that delivers.

Zipcar/Uber/Lyft

On the topic of splurges, going carfree means knowing the cost of each trip you take. Having (gifted) credit for your transport method of choice allows you to be confident when you take a trip to the children's' museum in the snow, pick up that extra jug of laundry detergent, or hit that networking event after work because you can make it home quickly.

Entertainment gifts that last beyond the moment

Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Instant Video (both for parents and kids)

Any one of these is an easy win for the whole family. Once the kids are old enough for some screen time, a carefully chosen 30 minutes of streaming for the kids can be a serious relief after a difficult day (plus it's pretty fun to watch Sesame Street with the kiddos). Once the kids are in bed, sometimes all you can muster is sitting on the couch with whatever from your fridge doesn't require adding heat, a glass of wine (see below), and an episode (or 3) of the show from 5 years ago you were too busy to watch when you went out every night.


Childrens' Museum Membership

Childrens' museums can be pretty awesome in general (thank you Magic House in St. Louis for great childhood memories), but especially if you live somewhere with tough weather (too cold, too hot, whatever), many have great spaces for kids of many ages to run around and get everyone out of the house. The Boston Children's Museum (and their under-3 specific space) was a total godsend this past hellish winter.

Music Together 

Without oodles of space, experiences are a great gift for families. Music Together (franchised under many different names city-to-city) fits in the niche between music theory, silly songs/hand motions, exposure to instruments, playgroup, and place to meet other parents. Also, very welcoming of Dads, grandparents, and other caregivers. If you're in Boston, the local franchise is Groovy Baby Music, click here for a $15 discount.

Personal Care experiential presents

If you know that your recipient parent enjoys the occasional massage or trip to their salon of choice, this can be a great way to gift them a little "me time."  Especially if paired with a gift certificate for or offer of child care, you may become their very favorite person of the month.

Wine delivery/subscription 

It is a well known "tee hee wink wink" joke on mom blogs that moms just love wine. Ok but it's really true, and not just for moms.  Sometimes parenting requires alcohol for everyone's sanity. Whether it's because your 5 month old had explosive diarrhea all over the crib or your 2 year old screamed for an hour at bedtime, wine is the legal way to solve the problem after the ankle-bitters are clean and angelically snoozing. So if you know your favorite parent's preferred drink (it's Navarro Vineyards for us), go ahead and get them a case (many wineries will ship to many/most states).  Alternatively get them a membership to the Tasting Room so they can try lots of different things and keep that salve coming on a schedule.

Small things that pack a big punch of value

Pocket Nanny

Ok so it's not really a nanny in your pocket, which would be super cool, if a little creepy.  It is, however a nifty little device that helps sleep deprived parents keep track of when the baby last ate/slept/had a diaper change.  Sure there's tons of apps out there for that, but you can't clip those apps to the baby as you hand him to your just arrived-home-from-work partner as you run to pass out for a much needed nap. The nightlight, we've found, is just the perfect intensity for nighttime feedings. This is definitely one of those "not a necessity but it sure is nice to have" things, which makes it the perfect present, in our opinion, to bestow on your favorite expecting couple.

Thermos Travel Mug

Between middle-of-the-night feedings, teething, colds, and toddlers' habit of waking up with the sun, coffee is a necessity for any parent. And that often means coffee on-the-go: on the way to daycare/work, on the way to the doctor, or while the kid runs around the nearest playground in the cold. Thus, a great coffee cup is a great present. With all due respect to The Sweethome (who eliminated all mugs without a handle), this is simply the best mug. Here's 4 reasons why: 1) It keeps coffee hot for a LONG time, 2) When closed, it really is spill-proof, 3) It's cheap enough that you can forget it somewhere and not feel awful about replacing it, 4) I have 100% confidence I will not spill hot coffee all over my stroller (or baby) when it sits in the stroller cupholder over even the most uneven of sidewalk.

Headphones

Headphones are great for parents of babies (or expectant parents) because they spend an awful lot of time feeding them or sitting in a dark room trying to get them to go to sleep.  This is time that could be spent listening to music, podcasts, or audio books.  Parents of toddlers, on the other hand, may occasionally want to tune out some of the less than pleasant vocalizations their charges make.... for an hour.  In particular, I'd recommend some wireless headphones that your baby won't grab and yank while you're feeding him and that your toddler won't decide is a necklace when you make the mistake of leaving it somewhere within reach.  This is a good place where you can splurge on some high quality ones for the favorite parents in your life (Plantronics BackBeat Fit Bluetooth Headphones are a great choice).

Fitness Tracker

We recommend this with the following caveat - only get this if you know that the parent in question is into fitness AND would like one.  Ask yourself (especially if the recipient is a recent mother who birthed a child) if there is even the slightest chance that this could be taken as a "hint" to lose weight and if so MOVE ALONG, DO NOT GET.  Otherwise, go ahead and get the parent in your life a Garmin vívofit Activity Tracker. We recommend this one over the more popular Fitbit, because it does not need to be charged overnight.  Parents have a slight tendency to be absent minded, so go ahead and simplify this one thing in their life for them.  

Portable Battery

On-the-go in the city sometimes means pushing the cell phone (or bluetooth headphones) so hard you run out of juice before you get home. When the phone is your source for next bus/train info, your way to order Uber, or to listen to podcasts while the baby sleeps in the stroller, this is a near-catastrophe. Avoid/solve it with a portable battery pack you can keep in the diaper bag, briefcase, purse, coat pocket, etc. Also works great for a long airplane/train/bus trip without access to seat-side power (or just avoid the crowd huddled around the lone power outlet at the airport). For some specific suggestions and background, you can check out detailed reviews at The Wirecutter.

Wrap-Up

Those are our thoughts for 2015. What gifts did we miss or are you secretly hoping for? Join the conversation below or on our Facebook page.