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Public Transit: Make it Comfortable, Compatible & Easy (Especially for Parents with Children)

By Sean Rusnak, Health Policy Fellow; Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research

Public transit is for everyone… supposedly. The purpose of public transportation is to ensure that all people living within a certain area have the opportunity to access the resources and amenities a community offers. It may help people get to work, connect them to friends and family, or provide them access to healthcare. The nature of public transportation being public means it is intended to be an option for everyone, including seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals who may not own a personal vehicle. Public transportation meets these considerations through concessions like ramps for wheelchair users, racks for people who bike, and reduced fares.

But what considerations do we give to parents, surely one of the most overwhelmed populations? All of the hallmark inconveniences of public transportation (long wait times, inclement weather, tight spaces/limited seating) are compounded for those traveling with children. A long line gets longer with a screaming child. It rains harder and the sun is hotter while waiting at the bus stop. Space gets tighter when you need room to store a stroller. Overall, riding public transit for parents seem like an unnecessarily daunting physical and mental Herculean task.

Any adult traveling with a child in tow – mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or a babysitter – is likely to face challenges. Mothers – who continue to be the primary caregivers for most young children in America – may face a unique set of specific issues. Women in general, and mothers in particular, use transit differently than do men; while transit systems tend to be designed around the needs of a 9-to-5 workforce, mothers often use transit for “care” tasks related to child care, errands, and taking children to activities. This is often done through a “chain-trip” – instead of going straight from point A to point B, mothers may go from A to D, stopping at B and C on the way to drop off and pick up needed items. In dual-employment families, women are twice as likely as men to “trip-chain” an errand during their commute, particularly when children are under age 5. Women are a large or majority share of riders in many U.S. cities, particularly those with large sectors in female-dominated fields, including health care and retail. Studies also show that women often make transit choices based on their feelings of safety that may inconvenience their journeys.

So, what can transit agencies do to accommodate parents and make riding public transit with a child friendlier and more appealing? To start, make it comfortable. Transit stops should be an adequate place for an adult and child to wait in any weather. Providing a covered place to sit, away from the street helps to reduce the fear of exposing children to harsh sun or rain. Stops should be in close proximity to cross-walks and crossings, as well as considering other traffic-calming measures that ensure passengers can cross to their final destination safely. Some cities have even gone further – with help from the Temple University Infant & Child Laboratory, the Urban Thinkspace project has turned bus stops and other locations into an opportunity to engage, distract, and nurture young brains.

Transit needs to be compatible for parents to use it. If parents cannot bring and store their strollers, transit does not work for them. Similar to wheelchairs, concessions should be made for strollers to ensure easy boarding and storage. If transit cannot offer these amenities, it is not compatible with the needs of parents and therefore, not a viable option. “Kneeling” buses, which lower to curb to allow easier boarding, serve the needs of families, seniors, and those with limited mobility. In systems with above- or below-ground rail systems, elevators and specialized turnstiles are essential for a range of riders, including those with children or who use wheelchairs. And yet, elevators continue to be non-existent or out of order across a wide percentage of stations in large cities, including New York and Boston.

Public transportation also needs to be easy. Transferring buses can be chaotic for anyone, let alone when carrying a crying child, a stroller, a diaper bag, and groceries. Simple and clear signage will improve the riding experience for all riders but would be especially utilized by those who are quickly trying to figure out where to go while trying to keep track of a child. It should be quick and easy to determine where to go and how to get there. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Public transportation should be an easy option for parents, not something they dread using. Just as public transit caters to other populations to ensure that it is a viable solution, so too should it cater to mothers, fathers, and those traveling with children. Enhancements for parents improve the system for all riders. Everyone benefits from more efficient boarding options, signage, and stops. It will simply take minor adjustments to achieve a public transportation system that is a viable option for parents, too.

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