I always thought I’d gain knowledge as I got older; instead, it seems to be leaking away. I know almost nothing for certain, except that the only book you really need is Keith Richards’s autobiography Life, since it contains a breakfast recipe and rules for surviving a knife fight. I’ve also discovered the hard way that you can’t survive on Twizzlers.
But one thing I definitely know – I’d put all my money on this at the roulette table – is that there isn’t a parent on Earth who chooses to take a stroller on a bus at rush hour for the sheer joy of it. No mother has ever woken up and said, “I know! I’ve got nothing better to do today, so I’m going to take this unmanageable barge and its screaming barnacle, ram it up the Niagara Falls of the bus steps, steer it around the shoals of fuming fellow passengers and crush a few toes in the process. What japes! It’ll be better than a Jell-O party at George Clooney’s house.”
You might think, from the tone of the debate over strollers on public transit currently raging in Toronto and elsewhere, that this is exactly what parents do. The Toronto Transit Commission is going to look into the issue, after a commuter complained at a public meeting about the crush of prams on buses.
As well, earlier this month, a Toronto mother claimed that a bus driver made disparaging remarks about her taking her child on the bus, and suggested, not entirely politely, that she get a smaller stroller and perhaps not travel at rush hour.
There can be few issues more inflammatory to the squashed urban hordes. Even those who have not seen the inside of a bus since Methuselah was in diapers have an opinion: Those contraptions are too big! You should just fold the damn thing and carry the baby – and your purse, and your shopping, and your briefcase, and the angry five-year-old who’s decided to sit and cry in the middle of the aisle. (This might actually be possible if you’re an octopus in the employ of Cirque du Soleil, or if you travel with an army of litter-bearers.)
I take public transit in Toronto every day. I took it when I lived in London, and my tiny daughter was riding in a cheap little pushchair, and I would jockey with five other women for the three spots in the buggy bay. That aggressive city, where people are often a crisp’s-breadth from a punch-up, struggles to this day with the issue of strollers on buses. A couple of years ago, a mother with a pushchair was severely beaten on a London bus by another parent in a fight over stroller space.
I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that the parents with small children you see on the bus are not there because they want to be, or because making your life miserable is the goal of their day, but because they have no choice.
I’m all for baby-free spaces, by the way. Child-free hotels and child-free restaurants are a great idea, and I wish I could visit them more often. When Air Asia announced it was introducing baby-free zones on its planes, I applauded. On a flight, I don’t want to sit next to a drooling creature that has no control over its limbs and is permanently attached to a bottle. But I don’t want to sit next to a baby, either.
Those spaces are a matter of choice. Buses often aren’t. The issue is also broader, and more pressing: As we increasingly choose to live in the heart of the city, we have to make some concessions in order to reap the great joys of urban life. Learning to live together in small spaces is Houdini’s work: Our park, my dog. Our sidewalk, my cigarette. Our bus, my stroller. But at the very moment we’re required to be more tolerant, we’re losing all capacity to be inconvenienced, even for a moment.
It’s worth thinking about, the next time you see a woman with a stroller on the bus first thing in the morning, or after work. You may wish she weren’t there, but you can bet she’s wishing the same thing, twice as hard. She might not have a car, or her partner took the car. She might not have a partner. (All of this applies equally to stroller-pushing dads, obviously.)
If there are five bags hanging off the handles of her buggy, and possibly another small child, it’s because she doesn’t have a trunk. Or a Sherpa. So smile and offer a hand. We all start out in strollers and end up in mobility scooters; during the happy time in between, we can afford to be a bit generous.