Thursday, June 21, 2012

Babies on Board: Bringing children on local buses

Buses are vital for families across the region but riding with a young child can be challenging. Families can make the ride better for both parents and kids with a little planning. And WMATA could help accommodate families with a more flexible stroller policy, by making the bus easier to board, and providing more real-time arrival information.

Living in the outskirts of Wheaton without a car and with a premature newborn son, I got used to the bus system very quickly. Like a lot of families in the region, our family rode the bus daily to get to the Metro for work, to buy groceries, and to visit doctors or friends. Even after we moved back to the District and got a car, we found that local buses continued to be a convenient, cheap, and even fun way for our family to get around the greater Washington area.

Riding the bus has many advantages
If you asked our son, he'd probably say that riding the bus is the best way to get around. He is now over 2 years old and has sufficient verbal skills to express just how much he likes riding the bus, or, as he would say, "Bus. Bus! BUUUUSSSSS!"

I agree with him because the bus is a better option than driving or Metrorail for some of our regular trips. There's a Metrobus stop right at the entrance of our apartment complex that takes us close to some of our favorite destinations, avoiding both Metrorail's "last mile" challenge and the hassle of parking.

And, since I'm not driving, I'm free to enjoy my family's company on the trip. Our son likes the bus because he doesn't have to be strapped in a car seat as he does in the car, and there's more to see out the windows than on underground trains.

Not to say that riding the bus is entirely wonderful. We're all familiar with the horror stories from both sides of the kids-on-transit issue, including those of children who behave badly or scream for the entire trip and of seemingly oblivious parents. But there are also stories of passengers who fail to accommodate parents and children or who react with obvious disapproval when a child exhibits perfectly normal behavior.

However, it's important to remember that at least some of these horror stories can be prevented or mitigated.

Tips for riding the bus with a young child
As our son grew, we developed different strategies for bringing him on the bus with us. These tips may not work for everyone, but they certainly helped my family:
  • Newborn: When our son was a premature newborn and we were taking lots of multimodal trips (mostly buses and cabs) to visit specialists, we relied on a snap-in frame with an infant car seat that had a special insert for very small babies. Generous fellow passengers frequently helped me carry this rig (dismantled, of course) onto the bus.
  • Infant: When our son was about 3-months old, I switched to a sling or harness to carry him on the bus. This was both faster and easier than constantly collapsing and reassembling a stroller. It also kept him shielded from potentially germy strangers.
  • Toddler: Once our child was able to sit up straight and stand on his own as a toddler, I used a folding umbrella stroller for our bus rides. This has been a great tool for both local and inter-city bus trips because it collapses easily and is quite compact when folded (though it's still too long to fit under the sideways seats on Metrobuses and trains).
I hope these tips can help encourage parents living in the city with their children to consider including local buses among their transportation options.

A few policies or technologies can help as well

One of the worst bus trips I ever had with my son was a stressful crosstown trip to the hospital during his nap time. He wasn't happy that I had to wake him every 20 minutes to get him in and out of his stroller for transfers. If I could have let him sleep for the entire trip, he'd have been happier, I'd have been happier, and all of our fellow bus passengers would have been happier.

This experience taught me how helpful it would be if we could bring unfolded umbrella strollers on Metrobuses. Believe me, I would have been thrilled to stand through our entire hour-and-a-half trip if it meant that my son could have had his much-needed afternoon nap. There are plenty of times when my son and I can sit in a 2-person bench like adult passengers, but it would improve Metrobus' accessibility to families if their policies made some accommodation for times when that's not feasible.

Another feature that would benefit bus-riding families is automatic kneeling. Bus drivers don't always notice that I have a child with me, or if they do, they don't always seem to realize what a big step up the bus is for a little child and a woman carrying 20 pounds of gear. It would be helpful for parents and other similarly burdened passengers to be able to count on having the bus lowered to curb level.

I'm lucky that I can use my phone to check WMATA's NextBus website to find the real-time bus information for our most commonly used stops and routes. If I didn't have that resource, however, taking the bus with a small child would be an immensely frustrating experience. While some children are perfectly happy to sit for 20 minutes or more at a bus stop surrounded by all kinds of intriguing trash and a wide-open street just begging to be played in, my son is not one of them.
Being able to check NextBus on my phone and time our arrival at the stop just in time to fold up the stroller and board the bus has been an absolute godsend. If instead I had to wait for at a bus stop with my son without knowing when the next bus was actually arriving, I would probably avoid taking the bus altogether.

WMATA has been talking about adding real-time arrival signs to more bus stops so everyone can have access to this information. The sooner they can move the program forward as quickly and comprehensively as possible, the better

Even with all the ups and downs of riding the bus, I've found that it can be a source of wonderful time spent with my son. We recently visited friends in Brooklyn whose son is close in age to our own. The sight of 2 little boys happily plopping themselves into seats on the bus after a full morning of adventure is one of my favorite memories of that trip.

So make your own memories and happy riding!

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.


  1. Lovely post! Here in Sweden you don't need to fold the stroller (unless the bus is really packed of course) and the buses usually kneel.

    They almost never allow bikes though. Bikes are allowed on local trains but not long-distance ones. Or if they do, they have a really complicated check-in procedure that for some reason is unnecessary in neighbouring Denmark, Germany and Norway. It might be a fun experiment to bring a bike with a child seat and call it a stroller :)

    Small accomodations can make a big difference and your post illustrates that so nicely!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Erik! Here in the Washington area, you can't bring a bike on a bus, but most bus systems (with the notable exception of neighboring Prince George's County in Maryland) have bike racks on the front of buses that are pretty easy to use.

      [Note: this comment was in reply to an earlier, unedited version of this post.]

  2. In Re: Automatic kneeling: As a one-time transit bus operator, I suspect this would require re-doing all of the schedules for bus routes. While the difference in time between a kneeling stop and a non-kneeling stop might only be 10-15 seconds (Based on what I estimate the kneeling and un-kneeling time to be from casual observation and memory - I could be off by 5-10 seconds or more in either direction, but the principle holds) that difference when aggregated over the total number of stops a bus makes in each circuit or transit would add many minutes to the total trip. It would also have a negative impact on all other road traffic in areas where buses stop in the travel lanes. This would likely result in less frequent service overall, for something that (in point of fact) would have little impact on the vast majority of transit passengers.

    A better solution, I suspect, would be 'smart stops' where you could signal to the driver the need for kneeling (and/or other special handling) before/as the bus arrives.

    1. Chris-- this is a really helpful comment, and your suggestion of "smart stops" would definitely address the conflicting needs of special-needs and regular passengers. Are "smart stops" widely adopted? I've never seen or heard of them here in DC.

    2. I'm not a frequent bus traveler but here in Sweden I distinctly remember the bus kneeling even though I was the only one getting on, and I didn't have any baggage or anything. The kneeling was very quick, maybe it even started before the bus had completely stopped.

      So it might make the dwell time longer, but 10-15 seconds longer sounds too much.