Lessons We’re Learning Riding Mass Transit

Post written by Leo Babauta.

For almost a year now, my wife Eva, my six kids and I have been walking and riding mass transit almost exclusively.

We have bikes but we’re still new to them, and we also use City Carshare for longer trips out of the city. But for everything else, it’s walking and mass transit — for meeting with people, going to restaurants and movies and museums and parks, for grocery shopping (we only buy what we can carry), farmer’s markets, fairs, visiting relatives, and more.

It’s been one of the best things ever for us.

We’ve adjusted from being car users when we were on Guam. I love walking tremendously (I can walk anywhere in the city), but I also love the mass transit … for the lessons it has taught my family.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:

1. How to wait. Mass transit isn’t always on time (surprise!). But rather than look at that as a reason why riding buses and trains suck, we learn how to see that as an opportunity. My boys climb trees while I do pullups and (admittedly rudimentary) gymnastics from a low branch. We tell jokes and I swing the little kids around. We share things with each other, make each other laugh. It’s a good time.

2. How to walk. Mass transit doesn’t take you everywhere, so we walk more than most families. That’s a great thing. Even my little ones are in pretty good shape and rarely complain about walking. We deal with the weather, which is something most people don’t do, as they’re cut off from the world in their glass and metal boxes. Truthfully, we don’t always walk — we love to race each other up hills and be out of breath. It’s wonderful.

3. How to deal with humanity. We’re often shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, which is something you never experience with a car. We deal with smells, with annoying people, with those who talk loudly, with the mentally challenged, with plain crazy people. In other words, with people. And this is a great thing. We learn that we come in all shapes and sizes, that life isn’t the perfect picket fences you see on TV, that the world is real … and that that’s OK. We’re learning to celebrate differences.

4. How to live sustainably. We haven’t cut our emissions to zero, but by the simple act of giving up a car, we’ve cut our use of resources and our emissions down more than most people will by recycling, buying less, using less heat, using less paper, etc. I’m not saying this to brag, or to judge others. I’m saying we’re learning, and while we have a lot to learn, I think we’re making progress.

5. That transit can be more convenient than cars. Sure, it’s nice to be able to hop in your car and go somewhere quickly, no matter the weather. That’s convenient. But there are inconveniences with cars that we forget about: the frustrations of parking (especially in San Francisco), traffic jams, rude drivers, car accidents, flat tires, car maintenance, having to stop for gas, having to actually drive instead of relaxing on the trip, sitting all the time instead of moving around, and more. Again, I’m not judging cars, but all of that, if you think about it, makes riding on a bus or train actually seem nice.

6. How to live frugally. My kids aren’t poor, but I want to teach them that there are good ways of living that don’t have to cost a lot. That spending money for conveniences isn’t necessarily a good thing. We shop at Goodwill, ride transit, cook in big batches, eat little meat (my wife and I eat none). We’re not the most thrifty ever, but we’re teaching the kids that it’s possible. (Read more.)

7. How to live with less control. When you have a car, you feel that things are under your control (forgetting about traffic, accidents and the like). But when you’re riding mass transit, things are not under your control. You’re at the mercy of the schedule, of drivers, of other people slowing the system down, of trains breaking down and backing the system up, and so on. You learn to let go of the illusion of control, and to deal with changes as they come. This is a miraculous lesson.