Navigating a Subway System: Things My Three Sons Better Know Before Moving Out

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What makes a good traveler? The most important element is confidence, being comfortable beyond familiar surroundings. Subway system and light rail system...

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.

Life Lesson #20- How to Navigate the Subway System of a Major City

We had spent most of the day at Seattle Center, including time on the observation deck of the Space Needle. It was mid-afternoon and we wanted to head down to the Public Market.

Since it was farther than we wanted to walk, we considered an Uber. But the famed monorail had a station right where we were and would get us just a few blocks from the waterfront.

So my sons, wife, and I bought tickets, boarded, and a few minutes later arrived at our destination.

Seattle’s monorail is like a starter kit for anyone using a light rail system.

Seattle’s monorail is like a starter kit for anyone using a light rail system. There’s only one line and it has just two stops- it simply zips back and forth between Seattle Center and Westlake Center. It’s also unintimidating because it’s above ground and offers great views of the city.

The next day we used Link, Seattle’s extensive light rail system, to go from downtown out to the University of Washington campus. That required considerably more work on our part to decide which line we needed, identify where the nearest station was, figure which direction of the train to take (we didn’t want to end up way out in Tacoma), and anticipate when to disembark.

This wasn’t my sons’ first experience with public transportation. They had ridden New York City subways many times, been on San Francisco trolley cars, and taken buses in various cities and towns.

But Seattle was the most recent and the first time my wife and I were more intentional about showing them the ropes. Why?

First, it’s a step towards independence and pushing them out of our suburban nest; the fact of the matter is that at home in Charlotte almost all of their transportation needs are met by school buses and my wife’s minivan.

Second, facility with public transportation will likely be needed for working and living in increasingly prevalent urban regions (driverless cars may well change that equation, but we’ll have to see).

And third, being comfortable with city travel paves the way for world travel.

I’m partial to the New York City subway system because I cut my teeth on it. I lived in NYC for three years right out of college. I learned my way around the system by riding, obviously, but I also spent a fair amount of time studying the map in my apartment (yes, I am a geek).

I think the system appealed to me because of how it’s organized. The color-coding and alpha-numeric nomenclature clicked with my brain (again . . . geek).

MTA New York City Subway System

Early on I gave myself a spatial ordering challenge in NYC- to always know exactly where I needed to walk upon emerging at street level after a subway ride (no glancing at signs, asking for directions, or consulting a map).

This meant that I had to visualize the map as I rode and then concentrate on my direction (uptown, downtown, east, west, etc.) as I made turns ascending on stairwells and ramps. I wasn’t perfect, but I had a very high success rate.

One of my sons reading the New York Subway System map

With Seattle’s Link system now under their belt, the next time our sons visit their cousins in New York they will be ready to delve into the Big Apple’s subways. In my day I bought physical tokens- quarter size coins. Now it’s about swiping MetroCards.

What will the next iterations of payment be? Phones? Biometrics? Regardless, the guys will need to know how to read the map, determine routes, and navigate stations. And if they can master the NYC subways, they’ll be good to go anywhere.

One of my sons reading the light rail system map

Riding a subway, light rail, metro bus, or ferry is a microcosm for travel. You’re taking a trip, albeit a potentially very short one. And my wife and I want our sons to be good travelers.

What defines a good traveler? Perhaps the most important element is confidence, being comfortable beyond familiar surroundings. It’s natural to be disoriented upon arriving at a new place (and facing the map of a novel metro system).

That also should provide a healthy adrenaline rush as you take it all in, followed by developing a sense of familiarity as you get your bearings.

Using public transportation in Seattle

Before Seattle, we were in Vancouver, British Columbia. My wife found us a hotel right downtown and a block away, as it turned out, from super-cool Davie Village (Vancouver’s version of Greenwich Village).

Talk about diversity– we were there in June and rainbow flags were ubiquitous.

What’s more, that place is a smorgasbord of international cuisine. My sons have become foodies, and for a single dinner, we got take-out from four restaurants: Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, and Mexican.

And every morning we got pastries from the same bakery right across the street from where we stayed. In just three days we established our personal neighborhood.

Technology has the potential to bring experiences to us. It’s already possible to traverse the globe via virtual reality. That’s all really exciting, but my sons are never going to undervalue real experiences against virtual reality- not on my watch.

Being a good traveler means wanting to be there, wherever there is. It also means having confidence on the landscape of a complex world. It’s about appreciating diversity in dimensions such as ethnicity, economics, and politics.

On this trip our guys saw many homeless people, sparking conversations about what that means and how that issue could be addressed. They also got to hear a bit of what people outside the United States think of our country and our leaders.

Travel also reveals the many similarities that bind all of us.

We may speak different languages, but we all have senses of humor. We may have different cuisines, but everybody enjoys food that is fresh and flavors that are sweet. We may listen to different music, but the impulse to dance is universal.

And trains connect us just about everywhere.

My sons in Seattle

Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!

Click here for more content by Dr. Craig Pohlman!

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