I took my eleven-year-old son on a small adventure over the weekend: bus travel.
It's not that riding around on the city bus is particularly exciting in and of itself. Because there are four children, we don't do it much, except once in a while when the car is in the shop. It is always a little bit of a treat for the kids ("Hurray! We're going on the bus!") until the trip turns out to be much longer than it is in our car.
Saturday, though, my son and I went so that he could practice riding the bus with an eye to someday going by himself.
I've always thought that by the time my kids were fourteen or so, earlier even maybe, they ought to be comfortable using the city bus system to get around Minneapolis and St. Paul, completely independently. It's all part of my "don't drive kids all over creation" plan: at some point I want to say "Hey, kid, here's some money, go to the mall and buy some pants that fit you," and the sooner the better if you ask me. Anyway, not too long ago I did the math and realized that if the kids are going to be using the bus system independently by fourteen, I need to get started on training.
My first thought was to find some single, repeatable destination, like a weekly karate class or something, an easy bus trip from the house. Something I could ride with an older kid a few times, and then send him to do by himself after that. I considered, for example, a karate class a mile and a half away that had a bus stop right in front of it.
When the karate instructor refused to quote me any prices unless I took my kids in for a "free demonstration class," (yeah right -- like I'm going to give my kids a taste of a fun activity before I know how much it costs?) I abandoned that idea and was looking for a new one when I realized that I could go about it very differently.
It turns out that two of the north-south bus routes that pass near our house are "part of the high-frequency network," meaning that the buses come every ten to fifteen minutes all day long. They're simple, straight routes along one major street. They pass many interesting destinations. The distance along the routes are easy to navigate because Minneapolis has numbered streets. And it occurred to me that I could simply work, as a first skill, on riding up and down one or both of these two routes.
So Saturday we set out for the bus stop, a half-mile walk, with the intention of going to the downtown Target store to buy school supplies. My son carried his backpack to lug the things home. We waited a few minutes, boarded the bus (another bonus: only one route stops there -- no getting on the wrong bus by accident), asked for transfers for the return trip, and trundled into downtown. Once there, we had a drink in the Target snack shop while we spread the bus schedule out on the counter and practiced figuring out the time tables. When I was satisfied that he could work out how long the trip home would be, when the bus would arrive at the nearest corner, and which buses he shouldn't take, we folded up the map and went shopping.
Outside the store we transferred our stuff into his backpack, and a couple things into my purse, and then we walked towards the center of downtown. I was thinking I might show him the place in the middle where all the transfers happen. But we got tired and thirsty and decided to ride back out, past our house, and get a snack. We used our transfers to get on the return bus.
On the way out there was a minor altercation: a woman was playing a radio, a second woman yelled at her to turn it off, a man yelled "Don't yell in my ear." The second woman complained loudly about drivers who didn't enforce the rules. We thought the trouble was over when she got off the bus in a huff at the next stop, but then the driver pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for ten minutes while people got increasingly nervous about missing their connections. It transpired that the complaining woman had called the police, and that this required the driver to pull over until he was authorized to continue, which did not particularly enthrall our fellow riders. (The consensus was that if she was going to call the police, she shouldn't have got off the bus and left the rest of us to deal with the consequences.) Eventually the driver got going again.
A learning experience. We stayed on the bus, things calmed down around us, and we went on our way.
I got us off at a little strip mall with a coffee shop in it -- my son loves coffee shops -- and we went in and had chai while I checked my email and he read the neighborhood notice board. Then we went back out, crossed the street, and waited for the return bus. It was a few minutes late so we had to wait a whole fifteen minutes (another learning experience) and by that time our transfers had expired (thanks a lot, cop-calling bus lady) so we had to pay another fare (learning experience).
This time I sent my son in front to pay his fare and ask for transfers and a schedule by himself. He also had to figure out where to get off. He pulled the cord all right at the right time but sat politely in his seat until the bus had stopped, and so by the time he got to the door there were already people coming in and we had to excuse ourselves to get past. I explained as we headed down the street that, yes, ordinarily it is good to stay in your seat in a moving vehicle, but on the city bus they expect you to be right by the door and ready to get off before the bus stops moving.
A fun and purposeful outing for both of us. He definitely needs a lot more practice, and the next time he needs the responsibility of reading the schedule and making all the decisions. But sooner than I think he'll be ready to ride.