Monday, March 10, 2014

Widening Youthful Horizons by Transit

In my last post, I wrote about the role of pedestrian outings, especially those that include slightly daring retail purchases, in widening the experiences of youths, helping them become familiar with their environment and putting them on paths to more productive and contented lives.

But on foot, or even on bicycle, isn’t the only way to expand youthful horizons.  Transit can be a powerful tool in delivering new experiences to youths.

I regret that the communities in which I grew up didn’t have transit systems and am thrilled that youths today have more transit access.  However, I’m concerned that many youths aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities.  Much like saying that “Those who don’t read are no better off than those who can’t”, “Those who don’t hop on-board a bus are no better off than those who don’t have transit access.”

I recall talking with a transit consultant who lives in southern Contra Costa County.  His children were fully transit-integrated, having ridden buses and trains from their earliest memories.  But his son found that many of the fellow students in his drivable suburban high school didn’t understand the opportunity to see new places via transit.

The young man saw a chance to make a few bucks.  For a fee, he would escort a group of classmates to the nearest BART station, show them how to use the ticket machines, educate them on the BART routes, and ride with them into the Mission District of San Francisco.

The students would come up out of the BART station, barely an hour away from their familiar suburban surroundings, and find themselves surrounded by hipsters and tacquerias, without an adult chaperone in sight.  The BART train was nearly as miraculous as a time machine.

Unfortunately, BART doesn’t extend into the North Bay.  Our transit opportunities, even with the coming SMART train, tend to be more modest, with few hipsters or tacquerias to be seen.  But there are still opportunities for youths to expand the breadth of their daily lives.

Petaluma Transit has bus access to a good number of interesting destinations.  The Boulevard Cinemas, the Boulevard Lanes bowling alley, the Swim Center, the Petaluma Community Center at Lucchesi Park, and the Factory Outlet Malls are only short walks from bus stops.  With slightly longer walks, destinations such as Shollenberger Park can also be reached.

Even better, Petaluma Transit offers summer passes to students, allowing unlimited rides for $24.  For less than $3 per week, a student on summer break can reach much of the community, without relying on an adult with a car.  (I sit on the City of Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, which reviews many of the policy and operation directions of Petaluma Transit, so am familiar with the summer pass program.)

But sales of the summer pass have never been strong.  Nor do many students ride the bus during summer vacation.

The lack of summer use is sufficiently concerning to Petaluma Transit that they’ve polled students on the subject.  As with any polling effort, there are numerous insights that can be gleaned, but two particularly caught my eye.

First, students said they couldn’t think of good destinations.  I agree that the Mission District isn’t convenient available by transit from the North Bay, but above I noted several destinations that have to be more appealing than hanging out in a bedroom strumming an ill-tuned guitar.  The excuse speaks of intellectual indolence, but it’s a front on which Petaluma Transit can make headway through education.

Second, and more worrisome, students noted that their parents wouldn’t let them venture onto the bus system, presumably out of safety concerns.

The fear of public places, especially regarding youth, has become an increasingly heard concern.  In a recent public meeting, a city councilmember began to wax nostalgically about riding Golden Gate Transit at age twelve to visit uncles and aunts in San Francisco.  He then caught himself, remembering that the meeting was being televised, and quickly backtracked, saying that he wouldn’t recommend that any current twelve-year-olds ride Golden Gate Transit into the City.

I agree that someone is more likely to meet sketchy folks on a bus than sitting on the living room couch playing video games.  But we’re equally likely to run across dodgy folks in a grocery store or a public park.  Besides, if our goal is to completely isolate our children from any risk, we’d be better off encasing them in bubble-wrap and propping them in the corner.

But if our goal, which I endorse, is to give our children the training to be effective and happy adults, the better course is to accept the slight risks of public interaction and to encourage them to learn how to navigate in the real world.  Riding a bus to a summer day of mild adventure is a fine start.

As a Cal graduate, I’ve often been asked over the years by anxious parents about how best to prepare their offspring for college years at Berkeley.  I assume they were expecting answers about academic preparation or developing good study habits.

But the advice I consistently offered was to give their child a chance to experience the real world before arrival in Berkeley.  If the first time a freshman encounters an unsavory personality is on Telegraph Avenue thirty minutes after Mom and Dad unloaded him at the dorm and headed home, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Of course, downtown Petaluma is nothing like downtown Berkeley.  But that makes it a good place to learn the skills of public interaction, and of learning to say “No”, before the stakes in the game of life becomes higher.

If you have children, I encourage you to research the summer transit programs in your community.  It might offer great experiences and lessons to your child.  And even if you don’t have children, your thoughts on how to make transit a better experience for youths are still welcome in this forum.

Schedule Note

Reminder: The March meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, March 11.  We’ll convene at 5:30pm.  We meet at the Aqus CafĂ© at 2nd and H Streets.

We’ll be discussing the first five chapters of “Happy City”.  Author Charles Montgomery takes the hypothesis that human happiness can be fostered by well-designed urban settings and embarks on a study of both happiness and urban design.  It’s well-researched, engagingly written, and worth your time.

But even if you haven’t yet read the first five chapters, you should enjoy the conversation, which I expect to be insightful and far-ranging.   All are welcome.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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