Transit Dispatches

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June 4, 2014

Are Fearful, Lurking Parents a Reason for Uninspired Transportation Choice?

by Paul Mackie - Also by this author

Photo by TheeErin

(This story was originally posted on MobilityLab.org)

I’ve been enjoying danah boyd’s book titled It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

She is a researcher from Microsoft, New York University and Harvard who toured the country for the past several years interviewing teens about why they seem so addicted to social media and whether they are destroying their brains and their lives in the process.

Her findings are basically that the kids are alright and it’s probably the parents who are crazy.

RELATED: Majority of millennials want access to better transit options

What does this have to do with alleviating traffic congestion by promoting better transportation options? Well, while the parents are aggrieved over their kids’ technological addictions, they are often pushing their children towards having virtual relationships due to their clamp down on the mobility freedoms most of us probably enjoyed in our own youth.

From boyd’s book, on page 90:

"From wealthy suburbs to small towns, teenagers reported that parental fear, lack of transportation options, and heavily structured lives restricted their ability to meet and hang out with their friends face to face. Even in urban environments, where public transportation presumably affords more freedom, teens talked about how their parents often forbade them from riding subways and buses out of fear. At home, teens grappled with lurking parents. The formal activities teens described were often so highly structured that they allowed little room for casual sociality. And even when parents gave teens some freedom, they found that their friends’ mobility was stifled by their parents."

Parental fear of letting kids have freedom to move around seems pretty irrational. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime against youth declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010. In 1994 and before, we were all undoubtedly biking around town with our friends and swimming unsupervised at fishing holes that would unquestionably be off-limits today.

Teens have apparently been brainwashed. They do a lot of self-policing of their mobility as well, according to boyd:

Teens regularly echoed parental fears, also arguing that today’s world is much more unsafe than it previously was.

It doesn’t help that public spaces – almost as if they are actual people – can practically be seen frowning upon kids when they try to enter. Policymakers have enacted countless freedom-crushing curfews and loitering laws. My old McDonald’s parking lot in Edwardsville, Illinois – where I spent countless hours socializing as a teen – will never be the same. Businesses as well ban teens, some even going so far as to install sound technology that emits high-pitched sounds only young people can hear.

Independent travel on public transit is often forbidden by the parents of teens boyd interviewed. “Even in cities, many teens never ride public transit alone except to take a school bus to and from school,” she writes.

"In 1969, 48 percent of children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family member. By 2009, those numbers had reversed; 13 percent walked or bicycled while 45 percent were driven. In a safety-obsessed society, parents continue to drop off and pick up students well into high school.

[Along with implications for childhood obesity,] walking or biking to school historically provided unstructured time with friends and peers. Even when teens commuted alone, they often arrived early enough to get some time with friends before heading home. This is no longer the case in many of the schools I observed."

We have to remember that when you’re younger, you always want to be older. Kids see adults in places like bars, clubs, restaurants, and even public transit where they are not allowed. Somehow within that mix, we, as a society, have to do a better job of helping our children go through the coming-of-age process in ways that will create the local and global communities for them that we once had as kids ourselves.

In case you missed it...

Read our previous blog, "8 Ways to Make Your Transit Maintenance Facility More Efficient."

Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab


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  • Paul Lindner[ June 4th, 2014 @ 8:30pm ]

    I sell bus tickets for one of the largest inter city bus companies. I get a lot of calls from mothers (but no fathers) wanting to know if it's safe for their 20 something year old to ride the bus. In the beginning I thought it was a joke or just a crazy or two who was way out there, but as time went on, it has become a passion of mine to answer all the questions and try to win them over to cutting their children loose. Also, as a former bus driver, I could relate horror stories I've heard, but these are isolated incidents, considering the millions of people who ride.

  • Judy Shanley[ June 5th, 2014 @ 5:36am ]

    Parents and families do have fears regarding encouraging the use of public transit by their children - regardless of whether these fears are based on real or perceived threats. Education, awareness, and incentive are important in facilitating the comfort of families (and children and youth). At Easter Seals Project ACTION – in our transportation education curriculum we developed a Family-Student Summit model whereby families and youth who travel independently provide their insight to those families and students who will be learning to use transportation options in the future. Employers are also part of the conversation to demonstrate to families and youth how important mobility is, thus the incentive. When transportation and mobility content and opportunities are embedded in student’s education, awareness is raised, and fears can be diminished!

  • Ted Ball[ June 6th, 2014 @ 11:32am ]

    I imagine all those spiffy new driverless cars will also be off limits!

  • KEITH CHARLES EDWARDS[ June 18th, 2014 @ 11:44am ]

    Much of it is ignorance. Theese children grew up in sanitized environments insulated from the rest of the world and other people of other races, etc.

  • Tom Harais[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:45am ]

    As long as I've been public transit I've said based in my own riding experience, that the major barrier to getting choice riders onboardwas an iirrational fear of a lack of safety. At my agency, not one administrative employee will allow their children to ride our buses! What does that say? If we could break that cycle with today's youth we'd be miles ahead in the long run. We could start by cleaning up our own act and reviewing our tolerance policies for near do wells who act out on our service and how that negatively affects perceptions of public transit as a gathering place for miscreants.

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Heather Redfern

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Marcia Ferranto

President/CEO, WTS International

Marcia Ferranto is President/CEO of WTS International.


Scott Belcher

President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)


Joe Zavisca

Joe Zavisca is an independent consultant specializing in paratransit service.


Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a leading U.S. voice of “transportation demand management.”


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