Soon after reading Matt Boresi’s list of activities on the El (I am firmly in camp ‘El’ over ‘L’, and will fight to the death for that spelling right, by the way.), I found myself on the 151 bus with my toddler going to the zoo. While bumping along, I realized that while the El has its own peculiar traveling-with-small-people etiquette, CTA buses can prove to be their own maze of social cues.
I live in a neighborhood where I find myself getting around the city on the bus just as often as–if not more than–the trains. This is what I’ve learned: An advantage of buses is, if you get on the right bus route, you’ll normally be dropped off within a block of where you want to be, whereas with the trains you’re sometimes hoping for within half a mile. Buses tend to offer a more “personal” experience. You have an interaction with the driver, but negotiating seats can be tricky. You secretly judge people who are fully able-bodied who ride for two blocks. You see people in their natural neighborhood-y environments. It’s all human scale, for better or worse. Often worse.
Perhaps because of this human-scaled nature of the buses, taking the little ones can be more intimidating than the trains. There’s much less room for error, and you have actual power to make the bus go faster or slower depending on your actions. It’s a lot of pressure.
But fear not, intrepid bus-goers! I am here for you. I have made all the mistakes so you don’t have to. And so, without further ado, may I present to you my top six tips for riding on the CTA buses with little ones.
Plan your trip correctly
You will more than likely plan out your route with an app such as Citymapper or Google Maps. Whatever estimated time it gives you, double that. Doubling your estimated time is the only (and I mean only) way to properly ensure your bus trip will take the exact amount of time your mapping app says it will. When you do this, your bus will arrive 35 seconds after you arrive at your stop as if on call. It will be mostly empty and thus breeze through half the stops, and you will arrive with far too much time on your hands.
If you allow the correct amount of time, or even little bit padded, you can count on your next bus arriving in 35 minutes, bunched with five other buses on the same route and then hitting every.single.stop. on the way to your destination. Bus travel allows for two arrival times: early enough to not know what to do with yourself or late with a side of existential crisis.
Getting on and off the bus
If you have a stroller with you, the correct way to get on and off the bus is with the front of the stroller facing the driver. A CTA driver once gave me this hint and it hasn’t failed me yet.
Fold the seats up
You might not realize it, but the handicapped seats actually fold up so your stroller isn’t sitting in the aisle. For the love of all that is public transportation (which, okay, fair, might not be a lot), do this. If a handicapped person is already sitting in them or comes on the bus after you, they have right of way. If people get out of the priority seats to make way for your stroller, thank them profusely.
Channel Kenny Rogers
Are you traveling within an hour of rush hour? Are there are lot of handicapped individuals on the bus and it’s not your day? Is it super crowded? Well, in the words of the immortal Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to fold ‘em. Strollers, that is.
It’s hard to not stuff that undercarriage full while out on the town, but as someone who has unloaded an entire stroller’s worth of junk onto Michigan Avenue while an angry bus full of people has given me the (rightful) death stare, I should have known better. The folded strollers can be put on that flat level surface at the front of the bus, but be warned in advance: it can be tricky to get it back out with a baby to wrangle as well. Consider taking a lighter stroller if you are going to be traveling at peak times. (Special shout-out to all the kindly strangers on the CTA who have held my child while this has happened. You all are the best.)
Give only dishwasher-safe/sterilizable toys to your children
It doesn’t matter if your child has never let a toy out of his grip in his entire life. Something happens to children’s brains when they get on buses that makes them toss every item they can get their hands on onto the floor. And if you’ve ridden buses long enough, you know there are things that have happened on that floor that cannot be unseen. Do not be in a position of trying to figure out how you’re going to keep you child’s favorite stuffed lovie out of sight and mind for the rest of the day until you can get home and disinfect it.
Try to enjoy it
Sure, the buses can be tough to love sometimes. Bus bunching, vanishing buses (“Bus Tracker said two minutes, eight minutes ago!”), and curmudgeonly people can all make it a headache. However, being on the bus is actually fun for kids. Get into that headspace, too! How many kids in America can actually sing “The Wheels on the Bus” with authority these days? And for every painful interaction you can have on the bus, there are more neutral, and dare I say it, even good ones. Learning to interact with a multitude of people is a skill, and one you’ll never get more practice on than the city bus. But, if you do happen to lose that zen in the hustle and bustle, remember this: you’ll never be the craziest person in the vehicle, which is more than you can say in your own car. And that, my friends, is a city win.