Riding the subways alone, but at what age?


Long gone are the days when the New York City subways were overrun with graffiti as they were in the 1980s.

I called my mom yesterday afternoon to quiz her on my childhood. “How old was I when you first let me ride the subways alone?” I asked.

She paused, unable to come up with the answer off the top of her head. “Um, 12, maybe?” she said. I thought back to a few nights during the winter of 1995 when I would traipse off to my friends’ B’Nai Mitzvot parties on the subways all by myself. While I have no recollection of the first time I rode the subway alone — it was that monumental a part of my growing up in New York City — I was at most 12 years old.

To me, riding the subways alone was a non-event. It was just another part of living in and growing up in New York City. We learn to cross the street alone; we learn to go to school alone; we learn to take the subways alone. We survive and thrive. A child of New York can tell you how to get from Bay Ridge to Bedford Ave., from TriBeCa to Tremont Ave. Sticking them in the woods with a map and a compass is another story altogether.

But something happened two weeks ago that has been an utter surprise to me. It started when New York Sun Lenore Skenazy left her nine-year-old son — at his request, mind you — in Bloomingdale’s with a MetroCard, a subway map, a $20 bill and no cell phone. She told him to find his own way home. Lo and behold, he did it. By using his city smarts and taking the subway and bus, he managed to make his way home in the middle of a Sunday among some of the city’s most crowded transit corridors.

Still, the backlash has been borderline ridiculous. Skenazy and her sonappeared on the Today Show (video in the link) seemingly to defend her actions when her New York City-based friends started calling her crazy and a bad mother. Their rationale? These parents were afraid that Izzy, now 10, would get abducted in the big, bad New York City subways.

They told stories about Elizabeth Smart and some girl in Florida who took the back way home through vacant lots and found herself in some trouble. What if that happened to poor Izzy on a Sunday in New York City, one of the safest large cities in the world, and in the subways where crime is at a record low?

Meanwhile, other bloggers started to weigh in. Louise Crawford of SmartMom fame wrote that she supports Skenazy but wouldn’t allow her daughter to do the same thing. Crawford blames parents today, and so do I. Parents who coddle their kids because they’re afraid of something that in the vast majority of cases doesn’t happen are engaging in urban behavior that is counterproductive to the surrounding environment.

I grew up with my parents’ trust. They allowed me to ride the subways by myself, and I grew to love the subways because these underground trains shepherded me around the city. But at the same time, they also taught me how to ride the subway from an early age. They taught me how to read the subway map and where to wait for trains. They taught me to avoid empty cars and ride with the conductor. That’s still sound advice now that I’m far removed from my 12-year-old self. This type of urban education starts young, and it can’t happen until parents remember how they learned the city and remember that Bad Things do happen but now if you’re careful.

Skenazy has continued to rail against the way parents shelter their children because of the way the media overplays one-off incidents. And she’s right. Her son proved that children today can fend for themselves, and even if he did it on a crowded Sunday afternoon along well-traveled routes, it’s refreshing to see some urban independence these days.

Categories : MTA Absurdity

16 Responses to “Riding the subways alone, but at what age?”

  1. Ellie says:

    NYC is safer than any other place I have ever lived – and the Subways are definitely safer than any highways I have ever been on!

  2. R2ro says:

    Fall of 1992. I was 12 1/2 yrs old and commuting to the Upper West Side from Queens.
    The first few weeks of school, my mom would accompany me (she was always over-protective) but I soon MADE her realize it was impractical for her to keep doing this long-term (she works downtown).

    My logic then was that I was riding during rush hours w/ tons of people. Plus, like you, I have the sense to avoid emptier cars at other times; it’s wiser to be near the conductor.

    I’ve been on the subways as long as I can remember. I don’t think there’s a “right” age for a kid to be in the subways alone, rather it depends on the child’s maturity level.

  3. Todd says:

    I don’t know man, this is a tough one. I’m really glad I don’t have kids yet!

  4. Victoria says:

    I bet I wasn’t allowed to ride the subway alone when I was 12. Considering it was the same people making the decision, I call that sexism!!!!!!!!

  5. Ariel says:

    I hear what you say about coddling kids being counterproductive. It is sad to see people who have been babied by their parents all their lives and are now hardly street smart. Part of growing up in a big city is learning to deal with different kinds of people alone, because your parents will not always be there to save you if trouble surfaces.

  6. Shelly says:

    I was born in the 1950s. My mother didn’t let me ride a bus(!) by myself until I was 12 or so. And even then, she preferred I be with friends. I wasn’t allowed to ride the subway alone (to go to the beach and shopping) until I was 13 or 14 and then, only with friends. I don’t think I actually rode the subway alone til I graduated high school. It wasn’t the safest place to be, and in the ’60s, my mother told me I could take the subway with friends into Manhattan from Queens, but only if we took the bus to the subway line that didn’t go through the bad neighborhoods.

    IMO, it’s not whether or not the subway is safe, because nothing really is completely safe, but how much judgment a kid has and at what age. Maybe that 9 year old could handle problems that come up, like a rerouted train that might bring him to an unfamiliar place, or some other things that come up, like a group of older kids trying to hassle him. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a kid take the subway alone until at least 11 or 12, but I wouldn’t impose my standards on anyone else.

    I always think of Etan Patz’ parents. He was only 6, but he was only walking a short distance to school. And he was never seen again.

    Still, I don’t think this is anyone’s business except the parents and the child’s. An adult or teen can come to harm on the subway just as easily. Why would it be okay for the 18-year-old girl who might get abducted and not the 9-year-old boy? I agree that kids today are coddled too much. My parents didn’t coddle me, but they did worry. I like to think they found a good balance. It’s partly a guessing game, part knowing your kids and their city smarts. Back in the ’60s, in a quiet corner of Queens, it was hard to develop those “smarts.” Today, it’s probably a lot easier.

  7. One of the things I remember learning at a young age about the subway was that there’s no need to look for the train if you’re at an indoor station because you’ll feel the train coming before you can see it.

  8. How did Skenazy get home?

  9. Alon Levy says:

    When I was in 7th grade, I took the bus to and from school, all by myself. That was in Tel Aviv at the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the bus in question is the country’s busiest and most frequently bombed line.

    • Frank White says:

      I too rode the subway to school all by myself in 1980, and the train in question was the #5 Dyre Ave Line, also the busiest and most frequently bombed line.

  10. Someone says:

    The age of 9. I took the subway to school alone at that age.


  1. […] SecondAvenueSagas picks up on the debate about at what age a child should be allowed to ride the subway by himself. SecondAve estimates he was 12 when he undertook this Gotham rite of passage. […]

  2. […] few weeks after the story first broke, I defended Skenazy. I grew up in New York City when the subways weren’t as safe as they are now, and I first […]

  3. […] A ride on any subway during the 70s and 80s usually meant containment within a car coated in graffiti tags. The most artistic, colorful pieces (like the one below, by Lee Quinones, 1976) were hung on the outside. (Photo courtesy Second Avenue Sagas) […]

  4. […] A ride on any subway during the 70s and 80s usually meant containment within a car coated in graffiti tags. The most artistic, colorful pieces (like the one below, by Lee Quinones, 1976) were hung on the outside. (Photo courtesy Second Avenue Sagas) […]

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