If you’ve ever been crammed onto a crowded subway car at rush hour next to someone with a cough, you know what it’s like to realize there’s no way out: You’re probably about to be covered in whatever gross bacteria they’re carrying. Designers at gravitytank decided to tackle the problem of train car germs, along with other quirks of public transit, with a new line of conceptual designs intended for intrepid riders.
A scarf with a built-in antimicrobial layer acts like a secret face mask, and a jacket with pop-out gloves means you’d never have to touch a grimy pole with your bare hands again. The jacket also has removable elbow patches if you need to cough, and a high collar for extra germ protection.
None of the features are obvious. "No one here wants to wear a face mask," says Nadeem Haidary, one of the designers who worked on the project. "In places like Japan, that works, but not here. So how can you kind of integrate those ideas into a line of clothing?"
As the team researched the project, which began as an internal exploration when the firm opened a new office in San Francisco and one of the designers thought about the fact that he seemed to get sick every time he got on a bus, they started taking notes every time they commuted to work in the morning. "There are noticeably different types of riders," says designer Amy Seng. "Some people don’t care about germs—they're leaning on the poles, holding on with both hands, totally oblivious to anything, totally comfortable. Then you see the other extreme—people who sit scrunched up trying not to overlap with anyone on either side of them, trying to keep their hands on their laps. They’re the ones who will roll their sleeves down before grabbing the poles."
There was one thing most people seemed to have in common: A little bit of pride in the fact that they were on the bus or train,and that they knew the routes or the best place to stand for the next transfer. "There are so many commuters, and they’re so proud of being commuters, but nothing celebrates that," Seng says. If city cyclists have messenger bags and other gear, the designers thought, why not something similar for riders on public transit?
Beyond the germ-fighting features, the jacket also has a hidden pocket near the wrist that holds a transit pass, and vents that make the ride more comfortable when you step on a steamy train car from cold winter air outside. A backpack designed for rush hour commutes flips around so you can carry some of the bulk in front and avoid bumping into other passengers.
The designers also considered ways to redesign a train car itself. New "leaners" could make it easier for people to stand steadily without grabbing onto a pole, while special disinfecting rings could slide over poles to instantly sanitize them after the last rider. Electronic indicators could show people which train cars were most crowded so they could be avoided.
For budget-constrained transportation departments, a full redesign might be out of reach, but the designers hope that the concepts will continue to trigger new ideas. "We want to have these conversations and open up what design could do for the transit system," Seng says. And though "Straphanger," the commuter product line, is still only conceptual, the designers hope to find a potential partner interested in bringing it to life.