Do People Who Ride Public Transit Get Sick More?

Route 501
Route 501 offloads at North Hollywood Station. Christopher MacKechnie

Do People Who Ride Public Transit Get Sick More and Can I Catch a Cold or Ebola From the Bus or Subway?

One reason why people choose not to ride public transit is that they may find transit to be unclean to such an extent that it could cause them illness. For example, many BART riders in the San Francisco Bay area find the cloth seats unsanitary - and we have not even gotten to the stained carpet on the floor and the standee poles.

Fear not, BART riders - the next generation of BART cars will have seats that are either to clean. But let us move on to the main question of this article: do people who ride public transit get sick more?

In theory, there seems no reason to believe that users of public transit would get sicker any more often than users of any other public place, including malls and workplaces. In fact, users of public transit often have a great way to reduce their chance of getting sick that is not available to airplane flyers - opening the window on the bus or light-rail train to let fresh air in. Overall, there has been little discussion of this topic in the literature.

Jessica Green, in a talk at the 2011 TED conference believes riders who ride transit (at least underground) may get sick more because the filtration systems found in most settings designed to keep the outside out keep out some microbes but not the worst ones.

This type of thinking is applied more in a "sick building syndrome" kind of situation but could also apply to subways . Note that strict ventilation requirements for subways mean that you should not be worried about exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide.

The only study that examines this issue was a University of Nottingham (England) study in 2008 and 2009.

In the study, researchers questioned 72 people with an acute respiratory infection (ARI) on their use of buses up to five days before they got sick. They found that those who had used public transportation within five days of starting to feel ill were almost six times more likely to be diagnosed with an ARI than those with a different infection. The risk appeared to be more focused on occasional transit users, with regular riders being somewhat less susceptible to falling ill. One theory is that regular riders may develop protective antibodies against the kind of infections likely to be found on public transit.

The above being said, there seems to be no conclusive evidence that people who ride public transit get sick more. You are definitely not going to contract something serious like Necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) or Ebola while riding the bus or subway.  Unlike the common cold, Ebola is NOT transferred by casual contact and requires close contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is actively exhibiting symptoms.  Even if an Ebola victim sweat, bled, and vomited on you there is still no guarantee you will get ill - none of the family members of the first American Ebola sufferer in the epidemic of Fall 2014 has fallen ill.

However, if you are worried Livelonger on Hubpages has ten ways to avoid germs on public transit. While most of his tips are pretty standard, I found "Move to the ends of the car" and "Avoid using your cell phone interesting". Since a large part of avoiding illness on public transit would seem to depend on avoiding people, I would add another entry to the list - avoid travel during peak periods .

Because using public transit always involves at least some kind of walking on either end of the trip, public transit users receive more daily exercise from their commute than those who drive to work - inherently making public transit usage in general a healthy option.

Overall, while I think it may be a good idea for transit agencies to install hand sanitizer on rail cars and buses I do not believe there to be any increased risk of illness on transit versus any other public location.

  Transit in San Luis Obispo, CA. has recently installed hand sanitizers in their buses.  As the first transit agency I know of to do so, it will be interesting to know the effect, if any, these hand sanitizers have on public health.