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Perils and perks of teens taking transit

It’s happened to you before. You’re taking the subway home one day, just beginning to zone out, gazing tiredly into middle-space, musing about what to make for dinner. And then you wake up in a great big hurry, registering HUNDREDS of teenagers pouring into your subway car. Where did they come from?!

As the teens populate the car, the air thickens with chatter and laughter. As they plop themselves down beside you, crack their gum in your ear, and leaning into your personal space, you start to calculate how many subway stops until you get off.

That’s when you spy the teacher using her magic to keep a few rowdies from standing on the seats. The nickel drops, and you breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a school trip! Which means that someone (else) is responsible for keeping the mob in check.

I used to dread meeting teenagers on transit. But those of you who know me a little, are probably guessing that my opinion has shifted over time. And you’d be right. I ask you, should it not be inspiring to cross paths with young people at ease in the public realm?

Most teens do not ride in packs but rather in clusters headed to the mall, or by themselves making their way home from school. Their presence indicates that someone taught them how to use the system, and then gave them the freedom to use it responsibly. And they do. They plan their trips, figure out the bus routes, make sure they have tickets or exact change, watch for their stops. Some will even remember to pack an umbrella. Teens’ sense of independence takes a huge leap when they can get themselves from point (a) to point (b) all on their own.

At first teens might be nervous and make mistakes – my daughter ended up going in the wrong direction on one of her first solo trips. She had the good sense to remember that the bus would turn around at the end of the line, so she just stayed on the bus. An excellent 20-minute lesson, if you ask me.

Speaking of lessons, consider the exposure to the real world that a subway ride offers. Transit is the great equalizer. Everybody takes the bus, not just teens humming to music blaring from their headphones while tap-tap-tapping a message out to countless friends. Your teen will see university students, moms bouncing babies, hipster dudes, homeless people, downtown lawyers with their faces buried in the business section, construction workers smelling a tad ripe from a long day of hard work and seniors heading off to the discount store. Bus fare pays for not just transportation but unparalleled access to a whole cross-section of people from urban society. Your child might even pick up some good manners when someone offers a seat to an elderly passenger, or says “excuse me” when trying to manoeuvre through a crowded subway car.

Of course, you’re going to be nervous the first time you send a precious child to ride transit alone. After all, there could be robbers, rapists, and very bad people on the bus! Too true, but we know that many more good people take transit as well, many of whom would jump to help out a youngster who’s lost or in need of help. It’s not a perfect world, for sure, and there are risks. You know your child best, so you and your teen must decide when is the right time, and how much risk you want to take. Would I let my 14-year-old travel transit after dark? Not on your life. Just a line we don’t feel comfortable crossing yet.

So if you have a vehicle and the time, by all means, pick your child up when it’s raining or take them to that piano class off the beaten track, or pick them up from the skating rink. But don’t always chauffeur your children everywhere. You’d be depriving them of important exposure that can help them grow up, gain a stronger sense of independence, and in the long run become a better citizen.

Margaret Hoogeven is a local writer, editor, and mother of two school-aged daughters. She can be reached at mhoogeveen@sympatico.ca

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