When you live in an urban area, your kids don't need a parent to chauffeur them around. Are they old enough to ride the rails or buses alone, though?

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Kids Should Be This Age Before Taking Public Transportation - child on subway, train, bus
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Allowing your kids to go on public transportation alone may seem daunting, but they might be more ready than you think—especially if they’ve passed the age when kids can stay home alone. And if you’ve figured out how old you have to be to babysit? Your kid might be more than old enough to go out on his or her own—but maturity levels matter, too.

“Among the primary goals of parenting are the establishment of competence and resilience, which they will carry with them in those post-high school years,” says John Duffy, Psy.D, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, and author of the upcoming Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety (To buy: $19; amazon.com). “I would argue that parents today tend to be pretty cautious and typically wait longer to allow children these freedoms and responsibilities. My bias would be to start a little earlier than you think.”

Is there a magic number, though? It depends on if your child is going to and from a specific destination or just wandering around the city. “I think if they’re mature enough at 12 or 13, they can certainly travel to school or go shopping, but they shouldn’t be heading to unfamiliar places just yet,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in Westchester, New York. “There is also a certain street savvy you have when you grow up in a city because you’ve likely been taking public transportation for a while so you’re more familiar with it.” Still, your individual child’s maturity and readiness still is a factor, so follow this advice.

Do a trial run

If your child is going to start taking the subway to and from school, you need to make sure they’re familiar with the ride and the stops, especially if there are any transfers. “You’ll want to do a few trial runs (more if you know your child may be anxious), so they get accustomed to the route and the culture and atmosphere,” Dr. Duffy says. “While doing so, it’s important to state that you have confidence in your child’s ability to manage the new task.”

Once you think your child seems comfortable, you can tag along while keeping quiet, allowing her to take the lead so both you and she can feel secure that she knows what she’s doing.

Travel in groups

There is safety in numbers, so it’s always better to travel in groups—two people is a must, but more if possible. “Not only are they safer from danger when in packs, but it’s more kids to navigate the subway or bus system, or to share their sense of direction,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says.

Come up with a backup plan

As anyone who takes public transportation knows, it’s not always reliable. “It’s important that your child is mature enough to handle any crisis or unexpected obstacle and won’t panic or be unclear what to do if the line isn’t running, if the bus breaks down, or if there’s an accident,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says. “In advance, you should go over all of the ‘what-ifs’ and have a clear safety plan with your kids.”

Give them a cell phone

If your child is going to be navigating the big, bad world alone, you’ll want to make sure they’re equipped with the right tools. A cell phone is essential.

“I’m in favor of giving kids a cell phone since safety can be an issue with any of these new challenges,” Dr. Duffy says. “It will provide you, as a parent, some relief, knowing you can stay in contact when they’re out in the world alone.” Make sure they’re texting you before they leave one spot and keeping you posted about where they’re heading. They also need to keep you in the loop should there be a change of plans.