Teach kids to use public transit

Show your kids how to take the bus with confidence.

By Janet Rowe

Outside the local elementary school, parents in cars pick up their children. Outside the local high school, teens wait at the city bus stop. Get your kids from there to here by teaching them to take public transit -- and what better time than spring, when waiting for the bus isn't a shivery experience?

Practise together
When I was 11, a trip to the big city during March Break was a treat because I'd go with my 12-year-old cousin, who was allowed to take transit alone. We visited parks, stores, the zoo. My aunt had trained my cousin -- first traveling together, then letting my cousin take a later bus and meeting at a certain destination. That's a good method, says Serge Savard, Public Affairs Communication Advisor with La Société de transport de Montréal. "Parents should take the bus and [subway] with their kids as often as they can and teach them how to travel."

Safety first
Indeed, there's a lot to learn. Doug Johnston, Training Coordinator with Regina Transit, lists some of the most important safety rules. "Don't try to touch the bus as it's driving by," he says. "Don't throw things at the bus. On board, remain seated. Don't yell and scream. Don't stick your hands out the windows. Know which bus you need to take." Raynald Marchand, Traffic Safety and Training Manager with the Canada Safety Council, adds: "You may have people standing, so grab onto something solid. Once they [children] get off the bus, check traffic flow -- it's not like a school bus which has its four-way signal on." On the subway, says Savard, kids need to learn "to stay away from the edge of the platform, to stand on an escalator and check their shoelaces." Trailing shoelaces and long scarves pose safety risks because they can get caught in the machinery. And, he adds, children should be respectful of "all the civic issues like letting people get out of a vehicle before boarding."

Maturity matters
But being ready to take transit alone involves more than learning courtesy and safety procedures. Marchand points out parents need to consider whether their children have the maturity to cope should something go wrong. What age should kids consider travelling solo on public transit? "Twelve years old, Grade 6," Marchand recommends. Without a mature attention span, children can easily get distracted and miss their stop. "Now they've got potentially a hazardous walk," he explains. "The parent should feel comfortable that the child could cross any street in the city. Safely." Savard says: "We don't encourage young kids to take the bus or Metro alone until they are at least 10 or even more."

Just in case
All three experts agree children need basic streetproofing skills and a plan for emergencies. Make sure children have money to call home in case something goes wrong, suggests Marchand, plus they should have an extra fare in hand.

"If they get lost," says Savard, "go to a uniformed transit employee in the [subway], and if in a bus, go to the driver. And not to talk to any other stranger!” Johnston sums it up: “If there's ever any questions, make sure that you ask the operator. Because he's there to help. That's his job."

Some transit companies have even formalized systems to help kids. Johnston teaches Regina youngsters about the city's SafeBus program, developed in tandem with community agencies like Block Parents and the police. "It's just another form of 911," he explains. "If you ever are lost, hurt or scared, you can stop a bus. Anywhere, anytime. It doesn't cost you anything. And the bus driver can talk directly to the police, or whoever they need." The program helps about 40 people a year, 40 per cent of them children. "[SafeBus is] just another option for kids," says Johnston. "It's trying to keep kids as safe as possible out there."

So go ahead and make your spring a travel learning experience. The transit systems are on your side.

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