My Multimodal Mom: Growing Up With Public Transport


When my brother and I were young, my mom would take us on Transportation Days.

It goes like this: You can’t take any mode of transportation more than once. We would start from home, walking the two blocks to the commuter rail station. We’d take the train into Center City (Philadelphians’ name for “downtown”), then a bus, switching to the subway-surface–the Southeastern Pennsylvanian Transportation Authority (SEPTA)’s name for a trolley), then maybe a taxi. We always considered taking a horse-and-buggy in the historic district (Society Hill or the Independence Mall area) but we didn’t like the way the horses were treated, so we never did.

At the end of the day, we took the subway to our closest station, where her friend was waiting to give us a ride home – our first car ride of the day.

My mom was never a big bicyclist, but if I have kids, a bike ride will definitely be part of our Transportation Days.

The brilliance of Transportation Days is not only that she taught us how to get around. It’s that her instincts were multimodal. She understood that car dependency was a failure of the imagination and, most likely, a failure of confidence–the product of a childhood not spent navigating subway tunnels.

Once you learn the route map and step with assurance over the gap between the train and the platform, nothing is scary anymore. New cities are just light-rail lines to be explored. And your personal car, if you have one, becomes just one more tool in the toolbox–and more often than not an inadequate one, limiting both your mobility and your wallet.

On Transportation Days, we might stop for lunch on Chestnut Street or buy a new book or toy, but the transportation was the point. First, it was exciting enough to watch the world zoom by from the train window. As I got older, my mom helped me unlock the mysteries that would otherwise have paralyzed by first attempts to do it myself: How do I know where to get off? How do I know how much it costs? How do I know when I need tokens, and when I need tickets, and where to get them? What track, what line, which direction, where’s the stop, and will I get wet when we go under the river? (I never understood how we didn’t.)

I’m writing this right now on an airplane, the other mode we neglected on our Transportation Days and, we now know, the dirtiest and most polluting of them all. My flight routed me through Philadelphia. A layover well spent: My multimodal mom met me for dinner in the airport. She took the SEPTA train to meet me.

For tips on how to wean yourself off your car, visit the American Public Transportation Association‘s website.


Tanya Snyder is the Capitol Hill editor of Streetsblog, an online news source about livable communities and alternative transportation. She has covered federal Washington for NPR affiliate stations around the country and for Pacifica Radio’s national newscast–and she’s covered local Washington for WTOP-FM and various local papers. Wherever she works, she gets there by bike.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.