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Child-Friendly Transit

by Andres Salomon, NE Seattle Greenways

Andres and Atom travel around Seattle by bus and bike

Andres and Atom travel around Seattle by bus and bike

December 7, 2015

Seattle voters recently approved the Move Seattle levy, which contains funding for a number of exciting transit projects. Seattle’s Department of Transportation is currently planning at least two of these projects; a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line running along E Madison St, and another BRT line running from Northgate to Downtown.

Bicycles and transit go hand-in-hand, with bicycles (and bike share) helping with transit’s “last mile” problem. Transit also compliments biking, allowing people on bikes to increase their range, skip dangerous segments of roadway, bypass hills, or act as a backup option when they can’t or don’t want to ride. Unfortunately, our current public transit systems are failing families who want to bike. Even when bicycle facilities are integrated with transit, they are often designed for only certain types of bikes – non-standard bikes such as family/cargo bikes don’t fit.

If we can design our BRT and other public transit systems to be truly family-friendly, not only do we allow families to reduce or completely eliminate car ownership, but we also create a transit system that works for all ages and abilities. In order for a BRT system to be truly family-friendly, families should be able to safely and comfortable walk or bike to stations. However, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways has already talked a lot about safe routes, so this will focus on BRT itself. Some of these things are more important than others, and people have different preferences, so I haven’t attempted to prioritize anything. This is simply my ideal, family-friendly BRT system.

Let’s start with waiting for the bus:

* High-frequency. Kids aren’t going to want to sit still for 30 mins while waiting for the bus, and when you have multiple kids (and a spouse), it’s pretty hard to check OneBusAway and time it right. Someone’s going to lose a shoe (or hide your keys), you’re going to leave the house and have to go back for someone’s favorite stuffed bear, or maybe everyone will be already outside and ready to go. Once you’re outside, there will be stops to look at a caterpillar, or wanting to go into a store, potty breaks, etc. You just can’t time public transit with kids. You need a bus or train that just comes regularly. Ideally, every 5 minutes. Without kids, I’m fine waiting 15 minutes while I read a book or check email. With kids, every minute is spent telling them to behave, trying to find something to keep them entertained, etc.

* Safe. The bus stop needs to feel safe. This means good lighting, a good distance away from fast-moving cars, and clean (especially no broken glass, random liquids, garbage, etc). It also means that there’s nothing capable of being broken. For 1-3 year olds, parents will have to make sure they’re not going to fall or touch anything that will hurt them. For 3-6 year olds, parents will have to keep them from breaking/destroying things or venturing out into traffic.

* Entertaining. Stops with things that keep kids (and adults) entertained are the best.

Murals/paintings are nice and simple, but there’s plenty of options here. Historical timelines with pictures. Here’s an example from Kendall Sq Station in Cambridge, MA. Pull the lever, and it plays music: http://www.paulmatisse.com/kendall-band/. Or, maybe just interesting people/storefronts. Kids like to people-watch, too.

* Dry/sheltered from wind/warm. Everyone likes this, but it’s especially important for traveling with really young kids. It’s also nice for your bike to stay dry.

* Space. Kids will get bored quickly if there’s 50 people crammed into a small space waiting for the bus and nowhere to run around. If you’re carrying the kids in a stroller, plus carrying multiple bags, you want somewhere (dry) to put your stuff down. If you’re riding a family bike, you want to be able to lean it against something.

* Not too loud. Your kid fell asleep on the way to the bus stop, let’s not wake him/her with loud beeping, announcements, or car horns.

Boarding the bus:

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Stairs pretty much guarantee that only fit, able people with light bikes will be able to use this bike space.

* Pay before boarding. When you’re getting on the bus, you’re shepherding your kids and belongings, trying to make sure there’s a spot for strollers, carrying heavy things (smaller children, or bigger children who are upset and need to be held), holding hands, trying to find a space where everyone can sit together, etc. The last thing you need to be worried about while doing all that is getting out your wallet or purse (oops, you didn’t just drop that, did you?) and swiping a card or pulling out money.

* Accessible. If there are stairs to climb, or even a single step, that’s a huge barrier for anyone using a stroller, wheelchair, etc. Sure, you can make a ramp, but that means having that feeling of other passengers glaring at you (whether that’s actually true or not) for delaying the bus. Have the bus entrance level with the platform, no additional steps, and with enough space inside to turn a stroller or bike. And no need for loud beeping to raise or lower the bus platform.

* No special requirements or process for bikes/strollers/shopping carts. Bike racks on the front of buses are designed for a specific size bike. They don’t work for many family/cargo bikes, smaller (kid-sized) bikes, folding bikes, tandems, recumbent bikes. Not only that, but there’s time and stress involved in standing in front of the bus, lifting up a bike, or working an (often dirty) mechanical attachment system, all while trying to watch a kid. There’s also time and stress involved with trying to fold up a stroller, unpacking stuff, etc. In the ideal system, you just roll your bike, stroller, shopping cart, wheelchair, or walker right onto the bus, and there’s an open space for you to sit or stand with your device. No unpacking, no lifting, no waking of sleeping babies.

Riding the bus:

* Visual and audio notifications. When it’s dark out but bright on a bus, you can’t see out the window. Stop notifications are important. Ideally, you can see a text or picture-based notification showing what stop you’re at, plus have a (not too loud) voice letting you know what stop you’re at.

* Comfortable. Good climate control, not too noisy, etc. On a hot summer day when you get on a freezing cold bus, it’s a minor annoyance for adults. For a family, that could turn into kids whining or having a screaming fit/meltdown.

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This design is flexible enough to provide space for strollers, adult and kid-sized bikes, wheelchairs, standing, or sitting. If it was just a bit wider, it could also fit tandems and cargo bikes.

* Space for bikes/strollers/shopping carts/luggage. Maybe there’s a dedicated open space, or maybe there are seats that lift up to create open space. Either way, there should be open space for this stuff. Obviously, this doesn’t scale – it’s fine to prioritize fitting people into transit over bikes and strollers. But there’s a lot of non-peak hours when families will be using transit. Right after school, parents taking kids to a multi-use trail (with their bikes). In the late morning, a parent taking a baby in a stroller to the doctor, or to the store. A senior doing her shopping in the early afternoon. A lunch playdate involving bikes and scooters. As far as rush hour concerns, this tends to be self-policing, as people don’t really want to cram their bike/stroller into a crowded bus unless they absolutely have to.

* Space for people. Just like people aren’t going to want to cram a bike/stroller into a crowded bus at rush hour, they’re not going to want to do it at non-peak hours either. That means the buses should be coming often enough that buses aren’t full all of the time. If that’s happening at random times, that’s a call for more service. For adults, it’s irritating standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a full bus. For families with kids, that’s a non-starter. Children that are 3-4ft tall are going to get smacked in the head by the backpacks of people who are 5-6ft tall. A parent wearing their child is going to find it uncomfortable to keep their balance while also making sure not to squish the child. You’re not going to

be able to keep an eye on three kids while surrounded by people with their arms up holding onto straps/bars.

* Cost. It should be cheaper to ride public transit than drive a car for a family of four. There are many ways to accomplish this – kids (and teenagers) ride free, free bus passes for kids from school, for adults from employers, and so on. Once you start getting to the point where it’s more cost-effective to drive and park than to ride transit, you’ll be incentivizing families to just take the car.

Exiting the bus:

* Clear path to the exit. Ideally, the bike/stroller/wheelchair space is near a bus entrance/exit. For a single adult, it’s possible (though annoying and time-consuming) to squeeze past a bunch of people to get to the door. For a family, especially with a stroller or other wheeled device, that may not be possible.

As the city begins constructing these BRT lines, we have an opportunity to make riding transit so easy, so inexpensive, and so pleasant that trips by bus become an integral part of daily life. Let’s make sure that these systems are designed with families in mind!