Friday, August 13, 2010

Metro Transit with Young 'uns

I first took my son Bridger on a Metro Transit bus when he was a spiky-haired five-week-old in a sling. I wanted to take him to Central Library in downtown St. Paul to hear the Rose Ensemble do a free concert there. My gosh, was I ever eager to share the world with that boy. As it turned out, he did one of those mustardy, explosive, all-the-way-up-to-his-neck poops right before the concert, so we listened to the Ensemble's celestial singing while I changed him into a spare outfit in a nearby rest room.

I have to say, I really love riding the bus with my kids, especially since they are now well past the mustardy poop phase, thank goodness. We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with excellent access to high-frequency lines that take us to very cool places. We can catch the 84 a block and a half away from our house, and it runs every fifteen minutes, so you really don't even have to pay that much attention to the schedule--if you miss one, another will be along soon enough. We take the 84 to the State Fair every year, and occasionally to Minnehaha Falls. We've also used it to get to the airport, since it will take you right out to the light rail station. The 67 has a stop basically right across from our house, it runs every half-hour during the day, and is a great way to get to the State Capitol, the Children's Museum, City Hall, the Science Museum, and Central Library within a half-hour, easy, and no fuss with getting my youngest daughter in and out of her car seat or finding a parking place. Oh, and in the summer, no misery-of-getting-into-deathly-hot-car syndrome, since the bus is air-conditioned, and in the winter, no steeling yourself to climb into a rolling icebox and waiting with chattering teeth while it warms up--the bus is already warm.

In any season, my kids love barreling toward the long row of seats in the very back of the bus, letting the forward momentum of the bus slam them into their seats, laughing at the way it feels. They love pulling the cord to signal we want to get off. I'm not sure what else they love, but I know they rarely object when I say I want to take the bus instead of driving, and these kids certainly have no compunctions against objecting when they don't like something. I like the people watching you can get on the bus, and the way riding the bus is much more conducive to conversation.

This afternoon we took the 67 to the Irish Fair on Harriet Island, across the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul--a must now that Cass is taking Irish dance classes. I couldn't help gloating a little when I saw the "Special Event Parking $10" signs all along Wabasha. On the way to Harriet Island, Cass rested her head on my lap while I stroked her hair, something we simply don't get to do when we are in the minivan. Bridger leaned against me, reading a Garfield comic book. We arrived just in time to grab root beer floats before the sheepherding demonstration.

On the way back, Cassidy practiced her math skills by counting how many people were on the bus, adding when new people got on, subtracting as people got off, chanting a little song to help her remember: "Ten, ten, I love you, ten." I hope the young man in front of us wearing a very beautiful hat embroidered with a silver spider didn't mind her singing too much--he did have headphones on, so that probably helped. I was thinking how much fuller the bus could have been at that time of day, and wishing more people were taking advantage of the nice ride. I was noticing that the overwhelming majority of bus riders on this particular Friday evening were either African-American, disabled, or both, and I was thinking about what that says about the inequities in my city. I'm riding the bus for fun. A lot of people don't have a choice in the matter, and as writer and frequent bus rider Kevin Kling has pointed out, the members of the public who don't require public transportation have no business scoffing at public transit as some kind of expendable frill item or trivializing the impact of a route cut or reduced bus services.

I love that my kids are growing up accustomed to public transit--to the waits involved, to the need for having to time your arrivals and departures with the bus schedule. I love that they are getting the basics of how to read a bus schedule, how to pay your fare and use a transfer, and how to signal when you want to exit the bus, and that they have seen me ask a bus driver questions when I'm not sure I'm on the right bus or need help figuring out my route.

When I first visited cities without my family as a young woman in my late teens and early twenties, public transit felt mystifying and scary because I had simply never used it as a child. I was so afraid to reveal my ignorance, I didn't always ask questions when I could have, and I remember cringing when people I was with did ask (notably, on a journalism class trip to New York City, a friend of mine asked two hip-looking punk rockers which train would get us to "Green-witch" Village. The punks didn't bat an eye and kindly directed us to the right train, so I guess I needn't have been so snooty about my friend's mispronunciation).

I hope that when it comes time for my kids to head out into the world independently, all these bus rides we've taken together will give them a confidence I didn't have--the confidence to stride up to a transit map, squint quizzically as they puzzle it out, ask a nearby, trustworthy-looking stranger for help if needed, and then have faith that yes, this system is going to get them exactly where they need to be.


  1. I love, love, love taking public transit. Although I CAN drive, I still kind of hate to drive [if you'll recall, I was once yelled at on the streets of Fayetteville as I trudged along -"Get a car!"]- and I live in Seattle, so parking downtown is the sucky end to the sucky experience of traffic. The 16 bus was my first Seattle boyfriend - calm, convenient, going my way, and there when I needed him. ;)

    You've also got it right about being intimidated by public transit as a car-bred kid. It's an especially wonderful thing to breed public transport takers.

  2. Hans and I had raw eggs thrown out a car window at us when we were walking on the streets of Fayetteville one evening, not even all that late. It was maybe our first week in town. Not a nice introduction, though I did end up loving to walk and live there.