Why My 12-year-old Is Riding Public Transit Alone

I’m nervous posting this because of the freakout when Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old ride public transit alone.  I don’t want to be the next “America’s Worst Mom”!  But I think it’s important to talk about how to approach children’s independence safely and gradually so that they learn the skills they’ll need as adults.

Nicholas is 12 now.  He was 11 last summer when he started riding Pittsburgh city buses by himself.  His father and I think he could have handled it just fine when he was 10, too, but his day camp required that an adult sign him in and out every day until age 11.

Nicholas has been attending this day camp at the Carnegie Museum of Art & Natural History since he was 5.  He used to go every week as his summer childcare while we were working.  Now that he’s old enough to keep himself occupied while his father works from home, he only signs up for the week-long camp sessions that interest him most.

I used to work 4 blocks away from the museum, taking public transit to/from the bus stop right outside the museum.  It was easy for me to drop off Nicholas on my way to work and pick him up on my way home.  But the summer he was 9, I was on maternity leave until late July, and he wanted to attend some weeks of camp anyway.  Baby Lydia and I got an early start practicing getting out of the house on time, in order to drop off Nicholas by 9:00 each morning and pick him up at 3:00!  (When I wasn’t working, he didn’t stay for the optional “post-camp” until 6:00.)  We enjoyed the daily outings and sometimes did other things before heading home.

Last summer, I was between jobs.  My feelings about time were very different from maternity leave; I felt constantly busy and stressed about job-searching and trying to catch up on all those projects that are hard to do while working full-time.  It was a great relief to hear that Nicholas was excited about finally being old enough to sign himself in and out of camp!

We prepared carefully for his first solo bus trip.  Here are the details to consider and the ways they worked out for us:

  • Route: Because he’d been riding the bus to and from camp with me for years, Nicholas was very comfortable walking from our house to the bus stop and from the other bus stop to the museum.  However, multiple bus routes use each stop.  We reviewed which ones go where he wants to go.  Getting to the museum is easy because any bus with a 61 on it goes there.  Coming home, though, all four of the 61 routes stop at the museum, but only the 61C and 61D go down the hill toward our house.  Nicholas told us a couple of times last summer that he’d accidentally gotten on a 61A or 61B, but he noticed as soon as it went the “wrong” way, got off at the next stop, and walked back.
  • Schedule: These buses run frequently, but it’s worthwhile to look up what time you need to leave to be sure of arriving on time.  Nicholas has been very responsible about leaving the house before 8:00 so that he’s likely to reach the museum by 8:30 (when camp check-in opens) and, even if there’s a delay, he’ll certainly get there before 9:00.
  • Fare: Children 6-11 years old pay half-price.  I used to buy books of 10 half-fare tickets, which were more convenient than cash fare although the cost was the same.  I bought several books at once to stash at home.  When we were traveling together, I kept the tickets in my purse with my own bus pass, handing Nicholas his ticket just before it was time to pay.  Last summer, he kept the book of tickets in the pocket of his lunch kit and used my strategy for remembering to get a new book: After using the last ticket (or using the next-to-last on the way home, which means you don’t have the 2 you need for the next day), hold the cardboard backing in your hand until you get home.  When he turned 12, I got him a ConnectCard, which I can reload online; he lets me know when the balance is getting low.  (Ironically, PAT started offering a kids’ ConnectCard the week after he turned 12!)
  • Safety has a few subcategories, which are listed here in descending order of how much I worry about them.
    • Traffic: We’ve been teaching Nicholas how to cross streets safely, and how to watch for drivers who might break the rules, since he was very young.  We also have a rule that he can’t listen to his iPod with earbuds when he’s walking because it could interfere with his hearing an approaching vehicle.  Of course, we have to trust him to follow this rule.  The times I’ve spontaneously seen him on the street when he didn’t expect to see me, he didn’t have his earbuds in.
    • Valuables: Nicholas routinely carries his iPod, his ConnectCard, and a small amount of cash.  He’s been very responsible about keeping track of this stuff.  Pickpockets and muggers are rare in Pittsburgh, especially in these neighborhoods in daylight, so we’re not too worried about theft.
    • Strangers: Experience commuting with me and going to public places in general taught Nicholas about the situations in which it’s okay to talk to strangers and strategies for avoiding conversation with people who make you feel funny.  We really don’t worry that he’ll get molested or kidnapped–I used to work with crime data, which has given me some perspective on risk.
  • Etiquette: Years of experience taking transit with Nicholas made me confident that he knows how to behave himself without constant parental reminders.
  • Communication: I’m not into cell phones and constant contact.  My partner Daniel has a cell phone, but I don’t and Nicholas doesn’t.  His iPod Touch can do Google Voice calls, texts, and email when connected to Wi-Fi.  He sometimes contacts us from day camp or school when he feels it’s important.  But he can’t call us from a moving bus or the street to tell us if he’s delayed.  We don’t worry about this because I can’t do it, either, yet it’s very rarely been a problem.  The distance between the museum and home is about 3 miles, so even if transit were totally unavailable, Nicholas could walk home in 45 minutes.
  • Trust: We are confident that Nicholas will go to camp and come home again, not run away to join the circus.  He’s been walking home from school by himself since third grade and walking to school by himself since fifth grade, never being truant or even tardy.  There have been only a few times when he accidentally stayed out later than we expected without calling.  Daniel gradually has increased the amount of time between school dismissal and when Nicholas needs to come home or call, and the range of places Nicholas can go after school without special permission, without any problems.

We agreed that on the Monday morning of each camp session, I accompany him to the museum just in case there’s any problem with his registration or any special permission slip to sign.  (Some of the camps have field trips or ask parents to sign release forms about allergen exposure.)  If a camp has an event for parents to watch the kids perform, walk through their installation art, etc., Daniel and/or I attend.  If Nicholas makes a large thing that he wants to bring home, he asks us to pick him up with the car on Friday.  Other than that, he takes the bus on his own.

My new job is even more convenient to public transit than my old one, but it’s farther away from the museum.  Also, now I’m picking up Lydia from preschool after work, which means taking a bus that doesn’t pass the museum and not having time to pick up Nicholas on my way to getting Lydia by 6:00.  I’m very grateful that he can get himself home!

Last summer, after several weeks of independent commuting, Nicholas happily told us that he’d realized he was running very early one morning, and rather than stand around waiting for camp to open, he “went for a little adventure.”  He stayed on the bus as it went around to the far side of the Cathedral of Learning, the University of Pittsburgh skyscraper surrounded by a large lawn.  When Nicholas and I commuted to and from his preschool together, every evening we got off our first bus north of the Cathedral of Learning and caught our second bus at the south of it, and at some point we started going into the building for a drink of water every day.  Nicholas reported last summer that he’d walked the same path we used to walk every day and gotten a drink from the same fountain, marveling at how low it is–he remembers having to be lifted up to it!  He clearly enjoyed this little walk down memory lane–and he still got himself to camp on time.

After that, he asked if it would be okay for him to leave early on purpose one day and treat himself to breakfast at the Bagel Factory across the street from the museum.  That is exactly the kind of independent thing we want him to do!  Obviously we’re not going to fund a lot of restaurant meals, but he can have the occasional treat.  Bubble tea and frozen yogurt are available near the museum, too, and it’s fine if he wants to spend his allowance on a snack.  Just be home in time for dinner….

Since last summer was such a success, we’ve been willing to consider letting Nicholas go other places on his own.  I wrote about gradually expanding his range for walking alone when he was 8 years old; by the time he turned 11, he was allowed to go anywhere in our neighborhood on a casual basis.  A few months ago, he and 3 friends cooked up a plan to walk to Target (3 miles away in a different neighborhood, but a simple route as it’s almost all on one street, which is a pleasant one with sidewalks) and got the approval of Daniel and the other kids’ parents.  They started after school and weren’t home until after dark because it was winter.  They had a great time and were giddy with self-sufficiency!

In the spring, we learned that the public schools’ gifted center (where Nicholas spends every Monday of the school year) was offering a free summer day camp but not providing transportation.  We told Nicholas he could go to this if he would get there and back by himself.  We live in the East End.  The gifted center is in the West End.  Nicholas and I used transit.google.com to see how he could get there.  He would take a bus Downtown, then a bus to the West End, and then walk almost a mile through the quiet residential neighborhood around the gifted center.  I told him I was sure he could handle it, but it might be kind of a hassle, especially if the weather was very hot or raining.  What swayed him was the realization that, because the transit+walking trip would take over an hour and the camp started at 8:30, he would have to leave home even earlier in the morning than he leaves for school–“That’s no summer vacation!”  He might have been willing to make the effort if this camp had been much more interesting than the museum, but it was only about equally appealing, and the museum is more convenient.

We also had an opportunity when Nicholas was very eager to get something from the craft store in the suburb just across the river on a Saturday night when Daniel was out of town with the car and I had a migraine.  I was not willing to take a bus ride, wrangling a two-year-old who would be kept out past bedtime, to a fluorescent-lit, perfumey store!  Although I felt a little nervous about sending my kid out into the darkness (winter, around 7pm) to a strip-mall that’s a popular weekend destination for high school and college students, I thought he probably could handle it.  I drew him a map showing where the bus stops are relative to the craft store.  He looked up the bus times.  And then he decided he didn’t really want to do this.  That’s fine.

This morning, just before I left for work, Nicholas called home immediately after arriving at the museum.  He had realized, riding past the construction site on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, that the stop where we normally catch the bus to the airport is now closed for construction, and we’re planning a plane trip next week!  He wanted to make sure we had an alternate plan for catching the airport bus.  Yes, I took that into consideration when planning our itinerary.  But I’m thrilled that my 12-year-old is thinking through these things!

Visit Be Clean Be Green With Kids and Waste Less Wednesday for more environmentally friendly articles!

7 thoughts on “Why My 12-year-old Is Riding Public Transit Alone

    • I was surprised how many skills are involved, when I wrote them all out! But I hope that thinking through them, understanding what skills a child already has and figuring out how to help with the others, will increase parents’ confidence that their child is able to handle the experience.

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