Seattle streetcarI rode the Seattle streetcar today with my nearly two-year-old daughter. It was her first “school” field trip, and her classmates had been excited about it for weeks. There were lively debates in the Rainforest Room about whether the streetcar would be purple or orange. Edie, who wore her lavender shirt for “trolley day,” picked wrong but didn’t mind.

Her daycare class had prepared for the round-trip ride from South Lake Union to Westlake by learning about different kinds of transportation: making trains out of chairs, creating pictures with car wheels dipped in paint, watching seaplanes land in Lake Union, scooping up pebbles with bulldozers, reading books like Donald Crews’ “Freight Train.” But if my kid is any judge, it doesn’t take much to get them excited about mass transit.

“Bus” was one of her first words. She startles strangers on the street by yelling it at the top of her lungs whenever she sees one. Yet she hasn’t actually ridden on one yet. And as I saw how fascinated she was by the streetcar—looking at its reflection in buildings, watching the floor joints move, trying to lick the windows, I found myself asking why I hadn’t done this before.

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  • In truth, there are lots of reasons: in the beginning, I was overwhelmed by leaving the house at all with a new baby. Then there was era of strollers and bottles and coolers and bags that were hard to juggle. And just around the time we could leave the house with far fewer trappings—only an extra diaper and water bottle, she got squirmy.

    But the real issue was that after spending untold hours researching carseats, installing anchors, wrestling one into the back seat, getting it checked, getting your kid into it a jillion times, double checking every time you leave the curb to make sure you didn’t forget to buckle it in a sleep-deprived haze, the idea of letting your toddler sit in a moving vehicle—not strapped into anything—can seem a little weird and scary.

    I admit that my grasp of physics and relative risk is not the best. And I probably knew that the images in my head of a three-foot, towheaded kid soaring through the bus aisle in the event of a fender-bender were not entirely realistic. But I hadn’t done any research, and my gut-level aversion won out.

    After looking into it, the mom in me still sort of wishes there were seat belts in buses (you can find plenty on that debate here and here), but here are some numbers that made me feel better.

    A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2007 found that, statistically, you’re far more likely to be injured or killed riding in a car than a bus. In fact, riding a bus is safer than walking, bicycling, driving a car, or hopping on a motorcycle. Whether the reason is that sheer size of a bus distributes the crash forces differently or that they travel more slowly, the raw numbers are pretty compelling.

    Here are the annualized injury rates (based on 100 million person trips in the US):

    • Motorcycle: 10,336
    • Bicycle: 1,461
    • Car: 803
    • Walking: 216
    • Bus: 161

    And here are the comparable fatality rates:

    • Motorcycle: 537
    • Bicycle: 21
    • Walking: 14
    • Car: 9
    • Bus: 0.4

    The study also breaks down injury and fatality rates by age. Based on its results, it appears I’m not the only one who hasn’t been taking their toddler on the bus. For children aged 0-4 nearly all of the reported injuries occurred while riding in cars or walking.

    Now that I’ve seen what delight my daughter can find in a 1-mile streetcar ride, we’ll definitely do the bus next. And I’ll be mindful that we have a greater chance of getting hurt walking to the bus stop than riding on one.

    Note: For other parents out there, Bus Chick blogger Carla Saulter offers excellent advice on riding the bus with little kids. She’s a mindbogglingly competent car-free parent, but doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges.