This piece was written by Nidhi Gulati. For more like this, see our early childhood newsfeed.
Think about any SUV commercial, and pick out the key themes — convenience, flexibility, space for your things and the safety of your loved ones (throw in speed, style, and a city skyline and you have your commercial). It might be the safety of your loved ones that’s the most prominent theme for selling a variety of things in our consumer-based society. Why then do our public transit systems not follow suit?
Why is it that we don’t emphasise the safety and comfort for your loved ones even though public transit systems around the world remain the safest mode to get around? Let’s face it, public transit continues to lose the fight against the private automobile for of allure, status and convenience. And as long as those emotions continue to drive behaviour, the problem of mobility will never be solved.
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Remember what the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars — it’s where the rich use public transport.” Let’s think about why that is. Transit systems that serve all people equally in a place have many benefits —they’re inherently green, communal, space-efficient and boost the local economy.
For children, however, the benefits go much further, irrespective of whether you choose the bus, train, trolly or gondola. Here are some of my favourites:
Public transportation supports the cognitive development of young children by providing opportunities to interact with the built environment, whether by walking, swiping, boarding and looking out the window. Research shows the prevalence of a “windshield perspective” among children that are driven around in private automobiles.
Without any active interaction with the built environment, most kids aren’t able to tell where they are or how to get wherever they may need to. Riding public transit could provide the most powerful antidote to this, as it relies on walking, and has proven cognitive benefits.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that people who ride public transit are three times as likely to meet the Center for Disease Control (CDC’s) daily requirements for physical activity. In part, this is because most people have to walk the first and last half mile to get to or from it.
At the furthest extreme is the fact that automobile crashes are the leading cause of unintentional death among children below the ages of 13 in the United States. Transit, on the other hand, is statistically the safest mode, even when inadequate. Furthermore, studies in the UK found that children are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution in cars because of exposure to toxic air in confined spaces. Even when outside, kids are inhaling 30% more fumes because of their shorter heights and proximity to automobile tailpipes.
Trains have significantly lower carbon emissions per capita. And, as cities around the world make pledges to acquire fully electric fleets for public transportation, it is the safer option on yet another level.
Social development and capital
Public transit that works for all people is a window into the society at large. How can we expect to raise caring, hospitable, tolerant and engaged children if they never get to interact with people whose lives differ from their own?
At any age, our mode of transportation has a tremendous impact on our social perception. Children who ride the bus or train know how the world around them looks, sounds and feels, allowing them the opportunity to develop a more acute social awareness. It also exposes them to the various mini-interactions — from saying hello to strangers, the courtesy nod, pardoning yourself before brushing past someone, politely asking for a seat on a crowded bus or tackling less than desirable elements — all staples on the humble bus.
A sense of autonomy
In many parts of the developed west, acquiring a driver’s license has been the strongest indicator of autonomy and independence. It’s partly because there is no shortage of sprawling suburbs in countries like the United States, “inaccessible by everything but the car.”
Transit, on the other hand, provides opportunities to develop a sense of independence fairly early on. From getting to purchase or use transit ticket/passes to tracking stations, transit helps strengthen the sense of autonomy in growing children. Access to good public transit is a big reason for the level of social awareness and autonomy among Japanese youth.
Family ties and bonding
People around the world spend anywhere between an hour to three behind the wheel on a daily basis. In the US, the AAA puts the average at 46 minutes a day, with a significant percentage exceeding that. In India, the country of my birth, that number for can be almost double.
Driving responsibly, as one should, keeps you from interacting with whomever is in the car with you, or spending time with your young children. But taking public transit together provides opportunities for conversation. This time can also be translated into an educational experience for growing kids, by pointing out important buildings, urban activities and interesting people.
Access to opportunities
The health and prosperity of young children are closely tied to that of their caregivers. For low-income families, access to public transit is one of the strongest indicators of opportunity and upward mobility.
Lack of a well functioning transit system disproportionately impacts people of colour, immigrants and historically marginalised communities, and therefore also their children. The easier it is to get on a bus or train to go downtown (or wherever the job centres may be) the better it is for future generations.
A sense of place
Public transit helps build a strong sense of place and home among children. Contrary to the windshield perspective, children who take public transit, or who combine it with walking and/or bicycling, have a better sense of where they are and how one place differs from another.
Their experience of a place is more sensory than of those buckled into a seat with no flexibility (or need) to exercise self-judgement. The built environment leaves a lasting imprint on the young rider becoming a part of their identity.
The presence and withdrawal of public transportation played a pivotal role in my own life. I grew up riding public transportation in a small town in India that was far from perfect and often overcrowded. A move to the transit-deprived state of Texas in the US made me an advocate for transportation reform. Early exposure to mass and micro mobility choices prepared me well to effortlessly manoeuvre public transit in almost any town, and find creative ways to travel through the US car-free. I strongly believe that it is a choice and an experience every child deserves to have.
There are far too many benefits of a good transit system for any public agency to ignore, and yet many do. That is why advocacy matters and why it is important for us to keep our future citizens in mind. It would be naive to expect ridership numbers similar to London or New York for a new system from the get-go, but we must remember that once we shape our environment it does shape our behaviour. And if we build it right, they will come. — Nidhi Gulati
(Picture credit: Flickr/Francisco Osorio)