Americans took almost 10 billion trips on public transportation last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. This amounts to 34 million of us on any particular weekday.
With such a high volume of human traffic going through confined terminals and inside vehicles every single day, public transit (including fixed route service) is also home to countless bacteria that can make riding via bus and transit unsafe.
This is especially true in light of the “superbug” report from the CDC. (Editor's note: Some things are harder to process and look back at - check out our coverage related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and transit if you want a refresher).
How Dirty is Public Transportation Today?
People are generally aware that public transportation systems are not always the cleanest spaces. It’s understandable why, with these vehicles constantly occupied throughout all hours of the day and minimal downtime for crews to go in and give them the good, deep cleaning they need.
Not to mention all the different areas people touch while making their way on public transit — from pressing buttons to retrieve passes from machines, to taking elevators down to the platform, to the railings, hand grips, and seats on every vehicle (curious yet how dirty bus seats are?).
The opportunities for passengers to leave behind or pick up "bad" germs is extremely high.
Risky Behaviors on Public Transit Pose Big Health Problems
When riders pay access fares, they are expecting a clean ride. Unfortunately, Americans are not typically cautious when it comes to their own hygiene and sanitation habits while using public transit. A new report released by Vital Vio, which polled consumers on their general cleaning habits, uncovered some scary truths about behaviors while they travel.
Specifically, the report “The Dirty Truth," found that two in five Americans (39%) still opt to use public transportation while they’re sick. What’s worse is that the majority of this group (60%) admit to not wiping down or sanitizing areas they’ve touched while traveling when sick. As if we needed more confirmation that public transit is a breeding ground for picking up a nasty illness.
In addition to our lack of cleanliness while traveling, this report also showed that many Americans are not taking steps to mitigate the spread of harmful bacteria they pick up from these vehicles.
More than one in four Americans (27%) say they do not sanitize or wash their hands after traveling on public transit.
According to research, more than one in four Americans (27%) say they do not sanitize or wash their hands after traveling on public transit. This means that not only are they putting themselves at risk for catching colds or other illnesses from fellow passengers, but they’re also bringing these bacteria into their homes to infect families and even into the office to share with their colleagues.
Scientific research confirms these bacterial risks. In fact, Weill Cornell Medical, [the biomedical research unit and medical school of Cornell University], conducted a study several years back on the New York subway systems, analyzing thousands of samples of microbes on trains.
Researchers also uncovered the vastness and complexities of the germs on these vehicles alone — finding that an astounding 27% of samples were live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could result in serious and even deadly diseases.
Mitigating Bacteria Spread with Better Cleaning Practices
All this research boils down to one big and dirty takeaway — transit operators need to take this health security issue very serious. Cleaning these vehicles needs to be thought of in new and 21st century ways, particularly in an age where antibiotics are quickly losing their effectiveness.
Transit agencies are obviously aware of the need to keep their vehicles as spotless as possible. Unfortunately, traditional, intermittent cleaning simply can’t keep up with the masses of people and usage throughout the day until the next cleaning. However, there are new weapons being created to fight this battle against germs and contamination.
Operators can now adopt a new strategy, using new solutions like antimicrobial LED lighting that is highly effective at knocking down germs in their vehicles “continuously” — all day and all night. These “always on” lights can replace existing lighting in vehicles to create an inhospitable environment for microbes to enter, colonize, and grow. E. coli, for example, doubles in size every 20 minutes.
By the end of the day, there can be millions of colonies of microbes on a single bus or train or light rail.
Additional data shows that, by the end of the day, there can be millions of colonies that ride along with passengers on a single bus, train, or light rail. This quiet bacterial killing takes place every minute of the day, without disrupting passengers or delaying schedules. Transportation companies are starting to understand the value in using this new class of antimicrobial LED lighting as a continuous approach to complement their routine cleaning services and maintenance of these vehicles.
In addition, transit operators can do a better job of educating the community on best practices for keeping vehicles clean. For operators, this can mean posting signage on how passengers can protect themselves during cold and flu season, ensuring hand sanitizer and other cleaning materials are readily available in high-traffic areas, and providing regular cleaning and sanitization service.
Looking Ahead Toward Cleaner Public Transit
Keeping public transportation clean is not an easy task, but it’s essential to keeping people and communities safe from harmful bacteria that could result in deadly illnesses. If one thing has become clear in the past few years, we are living through a health security crisis in public transit and it can quickly - and easily - get worse.
In 2022, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) launched a new pilot program that will substantially increase the agency’s commitment to riders to provide a safe and clean transit experience.
Through a combination of better cleaning habits, adopting new technologies to help keep the environment safer, and a rise in consumer awareness about their poor hygiene and how they pick up germs, operators can take an even more proactive approach protecting their passengers and helping to keep them safe.
About the Author: Colleen Costello is co-founder/CEO of Vital Vio.