If you live in a big city, or even if you just visit one occasionally, you’re probably no stranger to public transportation. Whether you take the train, the subway, or the bus, public transit makes it easy and cheap to get around. But you may want to throw a bottle of hand sanitizer in your bag the next time you ride around the city. We hate to break it to you, but many public transit systems have thriving populations of germs and bacteria — including some that can make you sick.
Below, find out whether the public transportation system in your favorite city lives up to its grimy reputation. And check out which public transit system ranks as the germiest in the United States.
One study found that New York’s subways don’t fail the cleanliness test
Several groups of researchers have taken samples and conducted tests to figure out which cities’ public transit systems really host the most germs and bacteria. Their methods (and results) have varied. But one of the most reassuring studies comes from Jeff Rossen and the Rossen Reports team. As Today reports, the researchers took samples in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They quantified the germs they found with points. Anything over 100 points constituted a “failing” grade.
Surprisingly enough, they found that the subway in New York got a reading of just 31 points. That was especially surprising because the city’s bus handles had “nearly double the amount of normal bacteria.” So next time you’re in New York, perhaps take the subway instead of the bus.
Next: Buses in this city carry tons of bacteria.
But buses in Los Angeles host plenty of germs
The Rossen Reports team also took a look at the bacteria levels on the public transit system in Los Angeles. They found that the metro in Los Angeles is “about as germy as a New York bus.” Even worse? The swab came away with visible dirt. That really makes you think twice about touching anything on a subway car.
The above-ground transportation in the city didn’t fare much better. A bus pole earned a rating of 259 points. That’s more than 150 points over the threshold! The credit card machine in a Los Angeles cab, interestingly enough, scored even worse. But neither form of Los Angeles transportation scored as badly as the public transit in the germiest city.
Next: This city has one of the germiest public transit systems.
Chicago had the germiest public transit system, according to one group of researchers
Today notes that Chicago has a relatively clean reputation. But the city’s public transportation system defied expectations and took the crown as the germiest in America, at least according to Rossen’s research. (We’ll have more on different studies in the coming pages!)
A CTA bus in Chicago scored 730 points, more than seven times the acceptable threshold for germs and bacteria. But things just get worse from there. A taxi in Chicago earned a score of 909 points. And a test on an L train in Chicago yielded the worst result that Rossen had ever seen: a result of 4,032 points. As Today notes, that’s more than 40 times the acceptable amount of bacteria.
Next: Test results surprised these researchers.
Another team found that public transit systems have ‘surprisingly few’ germs
Of course, methods and results vary, so not all researchers agree about which cities’ public transit systems are really the germiest. Travelmath sent a team to gather bacteria samples from the handrails on public transportation systems in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco.
The team analyzed the data and found that “surprisingly few germs lurked on these surfaces.” But they found one major exception to the rule and discovered that one city had a particularly germ-infested public transportation system. Can you guess which city’s public transit had a gag-inducing amount of bacteria, according to the Travelmath study?
Next: This city’s public transportation system hosts tons of bacteria.
They said that New York City’s public transportation is a big exception
Travelmath found that while other cities’ public transit systems were relatively clean, New York City’s public transportation had a ton more germs and bacteria. The average number of colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch across all the cities was 400,147. But if take New York City out of the equation, that average drops to just 176 colony-forming units.
New York City’s samples revealed an average of 2,000,030 CFU per square inch. By contrast, San Francisco’s samples had 483 CFU. Chicago’s samples had 180 CFU. Samples taken in Washington, D.C., had 30 CFU. And Boston’s revealed just 10 CFU. That makes New York’s high bacteria population sound even worse.
Next: New York’s public transit has lots of germs for a very good reason.
Here’s why New York City probably has the germiest public transit system
Travelmath noted that there’s a pretty good reason why New York City seems to have the germiest public transportation system. “Though every public transit system we examined serves millions of travelers per year, the NYC subway transports more than three times as many travelers as the other four transit systems combined,” the group explains.
The ridership for New York’s public transit system tops 2.8 billion people annually. San Francisco, the second germiest transit system, transports just 132 million people annually. Chicago’s system transports 239 million people. Public transit in Washington, D.C., transports 271 million people. And Boston’s system transports 175 million people. No wonder commuters in New York get exposed to so much more bacteria!
Next: This city’s transit system had the most diverse population of bacteria.
Chicago’s public transit system had the most varied assortment of bacteria
Travelmath reports that the public transit system in New York contained an even split of bacteria types. The researchers found gram-negative rods, which cause respiratory and other infections, and yeast, which commonly live on skin and rarely cause infections.
But surprisingly, the transit system in New York didn’t have the most diverse population of bacteria. The researchers reported that the public transit system in Chicago hosted “the most varied bacteria types.” Fortunately, most types of bacteria found in the Chicago samples were types of yeast, which typically don’t cause infections.
Next: This kind of public transportation hosts a lot of bacteria, too.
Taxis and rideshare vehicles have lots of germs, too
Another easy way to get around a city — without driving your own car — is to take a taxi or an Uber or Lyft. But these vehicles aren’t free of germs, either. CNBC reports that a team from NetQuote took samples from seat belts, door handles, and window buttons in taxis and vehicles used by drivers for popular ride-hailing services. (The testing took place in South Florida, for the record.)
Though the researchers expected the taxis to have the biggest populations of germs, they found that the cars you’d get into if you called an Uber or a Lyft actually had more germs. The study found that rideshare cars host more than 6 million colony-forming units of bacteria, on average, compared to just 27,000 for taxis.
Next: You’ll find the most germs on these car surfaces.
In both a taxi and an Uber car, the same surfaces are the germiest
But don’t fret if the only practical option in your city is an Uber, not a taxi (or vice versa, for that matter). The same surfaces get contaminated with germs no matter who operates the car you ride in. So, you can steer clear of the same surfaces no matter how you call a ride.
NetQuote found the biggest populations of bacteria on the seat belt, the door handle, and even the buttons to roll down the window. So even though the researchers found fewer germs in taxis than in rideshare vehicles, you’ll still want to wash your hands after riding in a cab.
Next: Grossed out by all the bacteria? Keep this in mind.
Not all bacteria are ‘bad’
Read any of these studies on the germs found on public transportation systems and you’ll inevitably bump into the same piece of information: not all bacteria are “bad.” Some kinds of bacteria can make you sick, but others are often pretty harmless.
Some of them can even be pretty beautiful — in a weird way. Business Insider reports that one designer took samples of the bacteria found on each of New York’s subway lines. He let the bacteria grow, and then photographed them. The designer, Craig Ward, noted that most of the types of bacteria he found are quite common. In fact, they’re “no more than you’d expect to find by, say, shaking hands with a group of people before a meeting.” While some bacteria can cause infections, others are quite normal to find in your skin, sweat, and saliva.
Next: You can reduce your exposure to bacteria with a few easy tricks.
No matter which public transit system you ride, you can reduce your exposure to bacteria
Travelmath reports that even if you travel on one of the germiest public transit systems in America, you can take a few steps to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful bacteria. “Our study revealed that, aside from the New York subway, public transit may not be teeming with as much bacteria as you may think,” the publication reports. “However, specific surfaces within every vehicle may vary, and it never hurts to play it safe.”
Travelmath advises that you avoid touching surfaces if you can help it. You should also keep your hands away from your face. Also, keep them out of your pockets in order to avoid spreading any germs that end up on your hands. And if you can, wash your hands as soon as you arrive at your destination.
Next: You can avoid germs in a taxi or Uber, too.
You can also take precautions to avoid germs in a taxi or an Uber
Similarly, you can reduce your exposure to germs in a taxi, Uber, or Lyft. While most people probably wouldn’t go so far as to wipe down the door handle, the seat belt, or the window buttons — precautions that definitely wouldn’t hurt — not all hope is lost.
Don’t touch surfaces in the car more than you need to. Keep your hands away from your face during the ride. And continue keeping them away from your face until you’ve had a chance to wash your hands. As with rides on a subway or a bus, you should also try to wash your hands as soon as you arrive at your destination.
Next: It also helps to keep the problem in perspective.
But still, let’s keep it all in perspective
Business Insider notes that a recent study identified nearly 600 different species of bacteria on the New York subway system. That sounds pretty scary. But it’s important to keep things in perspective in order to keep yourself from getting too worried about that information.
“Literally every surface in the world around you is covered in bacteria — and many of these ‘germs’ are unknown,” the publication notes. “The New York City subway is full of them. But so is every other place on Earth.” Public transit systems do host some pretty harmful kinds of bacteria. However, the vast majority aren’t toxic and won’t harm you.
Next: This fact about bacteria may surprise you.
Exposure to some of this bacteria may even be good for you
As Business Insider reports, not only will much of the bacteria on your favorite public transit system not harm you, but it might even improve your health in the long run. Scientific evidence indicates that exposure to everyday pathogens — including those carried on our skin, in our intestines, and on the bodies of pets and insects — might be good for you.
That’s especially true if you get exposed at a young age. So taking your kids on the subway or on a city bus might be a good move. One geneticist even recommends rolling your child on the subway floor — advice that should reassure parents, even if few actually follow it.
Next: This stop you make on your commute probably exposes you to more bacteria than the subway does.
Plus, you probably go to places with more bacteria than the subway
If you still don’t love the idea of riding a bacteria-infested subway car or a germ-laden bus, we have another reality check for you. You probably encounter places and surfaces with more bacteria during your day. As Vice explains, we all touch germ-infested items every day.
Your computer keyboard, your office coffee machine, or the door handle at your favorite coffee shop are great examples. And — here’s the kicker — researchers found that the door handle at a New York City Starbucks hosted a lot more bacteria than the pole on a subway car. That just proves that bacteria is everywhere, and most of it isn’t as harmful as you think.
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