Germs getting a free ride on public transportation

  • By Zuzana Bleha   •   July, 2016

If you live in a major city, chances are you use public transit either daily or often. It’s likely so incorporated into your commute or daily errands, that it has become automatic and you don’t give it any thought.

Try to think back when you first started using public transit and you stepped into that subway, that bus or that train to find hundreds of strangers packed into a small space, breathing, coughing and perspiring. Were you squeamish then? Well considering 80% of bacteria is transmitted by hands and 76 out of 100 people either don’t wash their hands at all or don’t use soap, you might have reason to be. Let’s have a look at what is lurking in our public transportation system.

Taxis and Ride-Hail Vehicles

Subways are convenient and quick, so it’s no wonder they are a favorite mode of transportation option in cities. They also pack a lot of people in small spaces, creating a prime bacteria-breeding environment. A subway system, like New York City’s, can average approximately 5.7 million daily rides. That’s a lot of people leaving their “germ print” every day. In fact, a study by TravelMath that tested subways of major U.S. cities, deemed New York City’s subway the germiest of all! Surfaces had over 2 million CFUs per square inch. Some of the samples taken contained Staphylococcus aureus (a common cause of skin infections, sinusitis, and food poisoning), E. coli, Salmonella and Serratia marcescens (a leading cause of hospital acquired Infections). Other subway systems weren’t nearly as bad as suspected, for example, San Francisco showed only 484 CFUs per square inch and Chicago with 180 CFUs per square inch. Not bad considering the daily ridership.


Don’t be fooled if you prefer to take a taxi or ride-hail vehicle over the crowded subway or bus, thinking it’s a cleaner and more comfortable option. A recent study by NetQuote, swab tested parts of Florida cabs and ride-hailed vehicles in an attempt to measure a number of germs within them. While you might expect that taxis were germier, it was the ride-hailed vehicles, like Uber and Lyft that took the cake, with over 6 million Colony Forming Units (CFUs) per square inch on average compared to 27,000 CFUs per square inch. What was the germiest surface? The seat belt was hands down the most germ-filled surface in both taxis and ride-hailed vehicles. Next time, you’ll remember to bring your hand sanitizer and clean your hands when you exit.


The duration of time that you’re stuck on a subway or in a taxi is often quite short. On the other hand, when stuck on a flight that lasts several hours with no easy exit strategy, you’ll likely be breathing in the air and touching the germs of hundreds of people for an extended period. This can be disconcerting considering studies have shown that most the commonly touched surfaces on an airplane contain some nasty bacteria, including fecal matter! For example, a study performed by TODAY’s investigative team found the most contaminated surface was the tray table – you know, the one you eat on! Other highly contaminated surfaces were the seat beats, the cabin toilet, magazines and reading material, window blinds, and air conditions controls. What’s more, is that some of these bacteria can last on these surfaces for days. In particular, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus survives for up to 7 days and E. coli O157:H7 lived for 96 hours. That means, that if the airline doesn’t do a particularly good job of cleaning and disinfecting the plane, you could be exposed to harmful bacteria from previous flights. All this to say, remember to wash your hands properly before you eat or touch your face and it’s always a good idea to bring along a hand sanitizer in case the airplane washroom line up is too long.

Proper hand washing for prevention.

So before adopting a hermetic lifestyle away from public transportation, people, and germs, let’s remember that preventing the spread of infection, is in our hands – literally. Proper hand washing is the number one way to prevent the transmission of germs in your everyday life. Remembering to wash your hands, and doing it right goes a long way. Here are some hand washing tips to carry with you on your next commute:

– Learn how to wash your hands properly for at least 20 seconds
– If no running water is available to you, and your hands are not visibly soiled, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
– Clean your hands before you eat, after you eat, after you use the restroom, before touching your face, after touching your pet
– Cover your sneeze or cough with the crook of your arm
– Don’t forget to clean your mobile phone and tablet frequently, because we touch it and talk into it all the time, it has more bacteria than a toilet!

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