Children on Transit: A Personal Note

Kids_on___bwayA few days back, frequent commenter Engineer Scotty did a much discussed guest post on the problems of travelling with small children on transit.  He suggested, I thought, a reasonable range of accommodations that transit agencies should make (many of them good things to do anyway) and also talked through some things the parent can do to make the situation easier.

Scotty has twins, so he often drives a double-wide stroller/pram.  To people who don’t like the company of small children, a double-wide pram seems to evoke the same emotions that a Hummer evokes in car-haters like myself.  It seems huge, excessive, “in your face.”  As Scotty observes, it can get on a bus in pretty much the way a wheelchair does, but like a wheelchair it takes a lot of space and demands some accommodation from other passengers if the bus is crowded.

It’s been interesting to watch this post’s reception for several reasons.  First of all, a lot of this blog is about explaining concepts that not everyone has thought about, and on which many don’t have a strongly-held view.   But when the subject is children on transit, everyone’s interested and everyone has an opinion.  Scotty’s post was featured by Streetsblog, and it drove my traffic to a level not seen since Portland shock-blogger Jack Bogdanski attacked me for suggesting he pay the real price of parking in downtown Portland.  

But it’s also been interesting because if Scotty pushed his double-wide into a room where I was sitting — a bus, a train, a restaurant — I’d instinctively try to move as far away as possible.  I seem to have a condition called hyperacusis.  It means that I hear sounds as being louder they are, high pitches in particular.  A sudden high-pitched sound is literally painful, and from the reaction on my face when that happens you’d think I’d just been stabbed.  Young children make sudden high-pitched sounds all the time, so it’s often painful to be around them.  I can have the same response to women who are inclined to soprano bursts of excitement.  Not surprisingly, I have no children of my own, and my closest female friends are all mellow contraltos.

Now, reading the last paragraph, you may have the same reaction that many people have when hearing of someone else’s disability:  Sorry to hear that, must be tough for you, perhaps there should be organizations to help you out, but really, there’s a limit to the accommodation you can expect in a public place.

That’s exactly what used to be said to people in wheelchairs, but in the 1980s they pushed back hard and got a range of legislation — including the transformative Americans with Disabilities Act — that guaranteed their accommodation in public space, and their right to be treated as equal citizens rather than objects of pity.

I suppose I could start a campaign to have hyperacusis treated as a disability under those laws, but the changes I’d need to adapt public space to my disability would be too destructive to other people’s equal enjoyment.  Children make sudden high-pitched noises that hurt me, but children are also a necessary part of society and need to feel welcomed if they’re to grow into healthy adults.  A society in which hyperacusis was a fully accommodated disability would be a society where “children should be seen and not heard” — a sentiment that was common in my grandparents’ generation but that now seems uptight, Victorian.

What this means for me is that people with children — and groups of excited young women — often cause me to move away.  I adapt, defer, and if possible, avoid.  When I enter a cafe or bus, I immediately scan the space for children and groups of young women, and identify the spot most distant from them.  If I’m already there and they sit near me, I may move; in a worst case, I may feel I’m being chased around the space, or even chased out.  The other day in a cafe in Sydney, one such woman saw me moving away from her and asked if she and her friends had been too loud.  So I actually had the opportunity to explain all this:  No, you’re not too loud; you’re a young woman making sounds that young women make; I’m just unusually sensitive to loud, high sounds.  I’m grateful to her for making me articulate this.  Most of the time, when moving to avoid painful sounds, I just have to accept being perceived as an angry, uptight killjoy.

What does this mean for public spaces like transit?  Transit is the consummate public space, but it’s enclosed and constrained by its transport function; more like a cafe than a public square.  It’s likely to put us in direct contact with difference, including differences we find painful.  This is why transit was a major battlefield in struggles over segregation and apartheid.  Transit remains a site of anxiety about being near people who are different, and who behave differently.

Every society finds an ethical line between differences we can object to (certain levels of rudeness, hygiene, noise) and those differences that we are expected to welcome (not just race, class, age and gender but language, body type, styles of dress, styles of behavior, and of course a range of disabilities, not including mine).  There are a lot of subtler lines that are hard to draw, because they’re matters of social convention that properly shift over time and space.  Does people’s right to speak their own language extend to profanity, for example?  I’ve seen people thrown off of buses in Texas simply for saying f**k, while in most big cities, that word is just normal urban noise.

Everyone who gets on a transit vehicle is already consenting to substantial accommodation and compromise.  Some of us are even consenting to a high risk of pain.  Successful transit is crowded, so it puts us in confrontation with difference, and sometimes, for some of us, the results can be physically painful.  Yet I see no alternative to transit, and no alternative to children, so I’ll also advocate for Scotty’s right to bring his young kids onto a bus with me, even though I’ll try to move away if he does.

(Photo: lauratitian via Flickr)

8 Responses to Children on Transit: A Personal Note

  1. Aaron W. March 5, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I ride transit by choice. I have a 3 y/o son who I’ll take downtown, to basketball games, etc. via both the bus and light rail. After returning home from his first Blazers game, we were on the train and he was excited. A couple of minutes in to the ride a guy sitting 10 feet away got up and said “I F—ing hate kids” and went to the opposite end of the train.
    Fine, to each their own, but what struck me as particularly interesting was that this my son was what had caused him to move to the other side of the train not the young kids loudly proclaiming how excited they were to celebrate Fat Tuesday, not the two guys who were loudly having a discussion about how it was okay to regularly verbal abuse their girlfriends and/or wives because they didn’t actually hit them, not the smelly drunks. A 3 year old kid. I guess we’ve all got our crosses to bear.

  2. EngineerScotty March 5, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    A beautiful post, Jarrett, and an excellent summary to some of the debate that prompted this excursion. I’ve never heard of the name of your condition–though when I was in junior high, a well-respected band teacher (who was quite influential on me) was forced to stop teaching music, apparently due to this condition or something similar.
    It probably cannot be emphasized enough that parents in public places need to be responsible; and ensure that your children respect the rights of others. However, this does not mean avoiding public places altogether. A common thread I hear from anti-transit advocates, is that many people prefer automobiles precisely because they aren’t in close proximity to those they may not like.
    This, I think, illustrates the need to raise children with an open mind–far too many people instinctively dislike those of the “wrong” race, or dress, or socioeconomic status, or handicap, or sexuality, or lifestyle–or family choices. The anti-transit folks have a point–there are lots of people who won’t ride the bus or the train (especially, it seems, the former), precisely because they don’t want to mingle with the riff-raff (whoever the “riff-raff” may be). That isn’t a reason not to finance and build transit, however.
    What behaviors we should accommodate in public, and what we should not, is ultimately a social decision. One thing I’m sure of, is that any sanctions or exclusions ought to be based on “behavior”, not based strictly on identity or class. If someone doesn’t pay the fare or causes a disruption, by all means, kick ’em off. If someone is a documented repeat offender of these sorts of misbehaviors, exclusion is certainly appropriate. But anything beyond that is suspect.

  3. Paul March 6, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    I think what it comes down to is this simple statement
    “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time”
    Personally I’ve never seen anyone in Vancouver get upset about a kid being on board. And if somebody whether they are an adult or a kid is causing a commotion. They most likely will be kicked off. Although on certain routes in certain areas at certain times on certain days. People do expect some things to happen.
    Anyone getting on a bus on a Friday or Saturday night in Vancouver. Would not be surprised to see a few drunk kids in the back talking loudly. And while it can get annoying. I also realize that I’d rather them be there than driving.
    As for strollers all buses have areas in the front that are reserved for them. The same area is also reserved for wheelchairs, walkers, elderly, disabled people, and mothers to be. And so long as there is room on the bus you can enter. No room wait for the next bus.
    The biggest problem I find isn’t with any of the above mentioned groups. It is with the people who are fit and active and they decide to just stand up front. Thus plugging up the way to the back of the bus. And getting them to move towards the back is one of the hardest things to do. A few times I’ve just pushed my way back and slightly pushed them to the side.

  4. Jennifer March 8, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    It cracks me up that you refer to Bojack (Jack Bogdanski) as a “Portland shock-blogger.” He’s actually a tax professor (full disclosure: Bojack taught me everything I know about tax law) at Lewis & Clark Law School, and is really a mild, moderate, and very thoughtful & smart guy who loves Portland. I almost said something then but figured it was just one of those spats bloggers get into. But now I’m seeing it more as a revelation of how people appear via some quick internet reading vs. how they appear after reading them over a long period of time or knowing them in person.

  5. Alon Levy March 8, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    Jennifer, there are lots of people who are shrill when they write but come off as nice in person. For example, some of the most virulently anti-religious people in the US, including Dawkins, come off as so mild-mannered in person that people who meet them only seem to talk about how pleasant they are as people.

  6. EngineerScotty March 16, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    CNN has an interesting article about babies on airplanes, here.”>http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/03/16/babies.crying.planes/index.html?hpt=C1″>here.
    A couple obvious differences between long-haul flights and transit:
    * The duration of the trip.
    * Air pressure changes.
    * Can’t exit the plane if a child is being unruly.
    * On-board restrooms and entertainment options
    * Strollers aren’t a problem. (You can check them at the gate for free; they aren’t allowed in the passenger cabin of a plane–but generally aren’t needed there).
    Of course, in memory of Peter Graves, I’m reminded of the classic scene in Airplane when a woman comes to the ticket counter carrying an infant carrier (with baby inside) and her purse, and is informed by the gate agent that she’s allowed only one carry-on. In the next scene you see Mom waving good-bye to her baby, as the infant carrier (baby STILL insided) rolls away on the luggage belt into the bowels of the baggage-handling system. :)

  7. lorea bier March 21, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    i was on the bus saturday night with a baby and stroler that would not close the driver acll the trimet want to be cops thae hole thing ended with the real police coming to my home telling me i could go to jaill over not folding a broken storler i was very up set and mot to nice to all involed but shoul the police be bugging me or getting real bad people off the streets i was so up set and cant afforid a stroler that is trimet ok maybe the need to come up with a speical pne we parents can buy cheep.. so no more mean rude drivers treat people like dirt if any one has had this happen lets get together and do something for all of us thanks for reading this

  8. lorea bier March 21, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    i was on the bus saturday night with a baby and stroler that would not close the driver acll the trimet want to be cops thae hole thing ended with the real police coming to my home telling me i could go to jaill over not folding a broken storler i was very up set and mot to nice to all involed but shoul the police be bugging me or getting real bad people off the streets i was so up set and cant afforid a stroler that is trimet ok maybe the need to come up with a speical pne we parents can buy cheep.. so no more mean rude drivers treat people like dirt if any one has had this happen lets get together and do something for all of us thanks for reading this