Key Public Transit Skills To Teach Kids

This year I kind of had a mini-freak out about public transportation and my kids. I realized that despite living in a city with great transit access, my kids rarely rode the bus or train and that bothered me. Learning how to get around on public transit is a crucial life skill (hello, independence), plus, it’s good for the earth and is an economical way to get around car-free.

I know a lot of parents fret about public transit. It can feel scary and big and sometimes dirty. But first, let me ground you with my free-range public transit background. By the time I was in third grade I did the following commute solo: 73 Waverly bus from Belmont to Harvard Square, red line from Harvard to Downtown Crossing, transfer to the orange line and ride to Forest Hills, walk almost a mile to my parent’s bodega in Jamaica Plain. I mean, SERIOUSLY BANANAS.

I don’t have any need or expectation for my kids to do that, but this year, I’ve been intentional about getting them on public transit more and it has been AWESOME. It turns out Violet (8) loves the train, and to celebrate the last day of school a few weeks ago, Laurel (14) and a friend took the commuter rail + regular train and traipsed around Boston, no problem. And Laurel’s friend had never been on the MBTA before so Laurel taught her public transit life skills while navigating their adventures! I was so proud and this—plus a conversation with a friend who works for the Department of Transportation about how teaching kids to use public transit really is up to parents—led me to write this post! Here are 6 key public transit skills I have taught my kids. These are the things that took Laurel from rarely riding public transit to riding independently in a handful of rides in a matter of months! In fact, she’s so confident with public transit that just yesterday she offered to take Violet downtown solo. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that (though I know in my heart they could totally handle it) but OMG how awesome!

1. Buying train fare

Teach your kids how to buy transit fare at the self-service kiosks at the train station. I also showed Laurel how to buy commuter rail fare using the mTicket app. This MBTA fare primer offers helpful information on different types of payment options (CharlieCard, CharlieTicket, mTicket, cash for street-level stops) depending on what you’re riding. And remember, kids 11 and under who are accompanied by a paying adult ride free (up to 2 kids per adult allowed) and there are discounts for students too.

2. Identify endpoints and transfers

Study the train map and identify the station names at the end of the line(s); this will help you know your platform/entrance. Also, point out train intersection/transfer points, just to give kids a sense of how the train lines connect, even if you might not need to transfer on a given trip.

3. Map your route

Avoid station paralysis by mapping out your route in advance. When Laurel and her friend headed downtown on their own, we looked at a Google street map with the train stations overlaid in advance; it’s important to show your kids real landmarks since the pictorial train map isn’t to scale. Laurel told me where they were thinking of going and I made suggestions about the transit route in and out. 

4. Inbound vs. outbound awareness

Obviously, going in the wrong direction = bad! Whenever we ride the train, I show my kids how to identify the inbound vs. outbound platforms and entrances. This goes both for indoors as well as outdoors, since in Boston there are some stops where you use different street-level entrances depending on whether you’re going inbound vs. outbound.

5. Keeping track of stops

On the train, teach your kids where to look inside the train for the train map, how to listen for the conductor calling out stations, and how to do a double check out the window (if necessary) for what stop you’re at. We now call Violet our station master because she loves keeping track and telling us what stop we’re at and how many stops we need to go until we hit our destination. 

6. Physical awareness

The train can be a physical place, which I understand can be intimidating. But teaching kids how to move through the world and take up space (or not!) is important. Here are the main things I translate about physical awareness: 1) Keep track of your belongings at all times. 2) If you’re standing near the doors, be mindful of the fact that the doors open on different sides at different stations and be prepared to move to the side or across the car so as not to block passenger flow. 3) If you’re sitting, NO MANSPREADING. Only take up one seat’s worth of seat/floor space. 4) If you’re sitting and someone who may need a seat enters (e.g., older person, parent with small kids, visually impaired, etc.) offer your seat to them.

Have fun exploring and not needing to worry about circling for parking or paying parking fees or fines! Looking to level up other life skills? Check out these posts: how to negotiate, key library skills, green kitchen skills, grocery store skills, bathroom life skills, home safety skills, home cleaning skills, out-in-the-world life skills, school lunch skills. And here’s a video version of this post if listening/watching is preferable!

Key public transit life skills to teach kids

Key public transit life skills to teach kids