Each time I travel, I find that the most disorienting part of the trip is what I eventually end up wanting to replicate at home. This summer, I sat on a subway platform beneath Stockholm, mulling how I could bring a stress-free transit-riding experience back with me.
My three-year-old sat next to me, enthralled by a wall of colorful geometric graphics on the station, each of which was decked out in a different theme. My nine-month-old babbled to other babies in strollers better designed than most cars, making their way underground thanks to efficient, ubiquitous elevators.
My husband and I were pleased that we knew exactly how long we would be waiting, thanks to accurate real-time arrival information on a screen above us. I looked up: three minutes—a headway unheard of in our city.
Like the pickled herring marketed as a parting memento at the airport’s duty-free shop, I wanted to find a way to stash this feeling in my carry-on and deploy it during my daily journeys around Los Angeles.
We try to use public transit as much as we can in LA, where we live. But using Stockholm’s family-friendly transportation system was almost jarring at first because we never really had to “decide” to use it—transit was always right there front of us, and it was the easiest way to get around, period.
From the airport, the fastest path to our hotel was an express train to the city center. When we went to visit friends in the countryside, a regional train provided a direct route to get out of town. When we traveled to another city, we booked seats on a high-speed train. We didn’t even take car seats to Sweden for our two kids. We didn’t need them.
It wasn’t always a completely romanticized vision of European travel: We missed stops, traveled the wrong direction, paid almost triple the amount we should have for a transit pass by accident, and were delayed five hours by a train that broke down in rural Sweden. (Actually, for my three-year-old, the excitement of having to change trains in a cow pasture was a highlight of the entire trip.)
But even during our roughest travel experiences, the infrastructure was forgiving. There were shady places to wait. There were water fountains. There were public bathrooms—with baby changing tables.
During my first international trip with two small children, we rode on trains and buses that had their own dedicated sections for families, with places to secure strollers and a variety of seating arrangements. But it wasn’t just about the kid-centric accoutrements. I saw that the real beauty of reliable, accessible transportation is that it allows people of all ages and abilities to move freely around a city—at their own pace.
Even Sweden’s streets carved out spaces to give everyone more options. I saw older adults hauling grocery carts two abreast along wide sidewalks. There were dedicated paths completely separated from cars where kids rode bikes in squealing, adult-free packs. Toddlers could walk down residential lanes which had barriers installed on either end, forcing vehicles to wiggle slowly through a narrow gate to access the street.
Of course, in Sweden, we were on vacation. Our commutes were to museums, our itineraries flexible enough to allow for a spontaneous meander through cobblestoned alleyways.
But what’s the real reason that we Americans don’t always permit ourselves this same type of transportation freedom when we’re at home? Is it always about time? Is it culture?
I hear the same refrain from just about anyone who’s recently returned from an international trip: “Of course I’d ride trains here—if they worked!”
The thing is, most American trains—and buses and regional rail and streetcars—would work better if we rode them more.
Ridership is down on nearly every major public transit system in the country. The argument is that agencies have failed to invest in basic upgrades which would have improved service and frequency. But on the other hand, these agencies can’t be effective when governments continue to prioritize cars—both financially and physically.
Sweden, for example, subsidizes infrastructure improvements meant to eliminate the need for cars as part of a nationwide strategy to eliminate traffic deaths. The U.S. subsidizes widening highways.
But what most Americans don’t know is that, in most cases, riding public transit is the best way to get public transit back on track. Especially if it helps get a car off the road during rush hour.
After many transit-ridership records were shattered during the first Women’s March in January 2017 to protest the incoming administration, including what was likely a record-breaking day for first-time riders, I wondered if there would be a groundswell of people riding public transit as a form of political action. Judging by its recent decisions to withhold funding for major transit projects across the country, trains are clearly not the future that the Trump administration wants.
According to Darnell Grisby, director of policy development for the American Public Transit Association, it is the people who ride transit rarely or infrequently—including those who have the choice to take other modes, known as “discretionary” riders—who can make the biggest impact. If infrequent riders start taking transit once a week, or even just once a month, he says, it could make a difference in ridership trends nationwide.
In Los Angeles, a study by UCLA researchers looked at how those infrequent riders—about three-quarters of Southern California’s population—could boost regional transit budgets. By their calculations, if just a quarter of those infrequent riders replaced a driving trip with a transit trip every two weeks, annual ridership would grow by 96 million—“more than compensating for the losses of recent years.”
At the same time, the UCLA study reports, getting that number of cars off the road would alleviate congestion enough that it would make the buses and trains run more efficiently. And help achieve the region’s climate goals. Everyone wins!
I know the arguments: It’s not fast, it’s not reliable. It doesn’t go where I want to go.
But incorporating a transit trip doesn’t have to mean switching up your commute. According to 2017 Census data, a majority of trips taken in the U.S. are not made for work, and one-third of all trips are three miles or less. Surely there’s one extremely low-stakes bus ride or subway journey that all discretionary riders could take each week to replace a trip in a car.
Getting my three-year-old to school in the morning is the perfect example. I could drive her in seven minutes, but if we time it right, the bus ride only takes 17 minutes door-to-door. Sometimes we have to wait a little longer for the bus, it’s true. But sometimes we also have to wait in traffic or circle for parking. Sitting at the bus stop for a few extra minutes is way better.
Maybe your schedule doesn’t allow for this kind of trip every day. But one day a week? It’s doable. For my daughter, it’s the greatest adventure. And, I’ve realized, it’s good for me, too. As working parents, we take vacations so we can have more quality time with our kids. Riding transit with our kids means we’re guaranteed more quality time spent with them every day—not just when we leave town.
Not all parents have that choice. Since we’ve been back from our trip, I’ve been looking at ways my city can make transit trips easier for families who aren’t discretionary riders like us. Making stations and vehicles more accessible for strollers, providing better real-time arrival information, and designing more pleasant bus stops could go a long way. So could making the walk to those stops safer and more direct.
If you’re not a regular transit user in your city, riding the bus or train might take a little more time, require more advanced planning, or push you out of your comfort zone.
But real-time information apps now eliminate nearly all the uncertainty around wait times. The same apps can also connect you with a bike or scooter to get you from the station to your destination—something else you might not consider doing unless you were on vacation.
And if we approach trips around our city with the same wide-eyed wonderment that we do when we’re traveling in new places, we can see what it will take to improve transit—and advocate for those changes. In the long run, the journey will be better for everyone.