If you suspect your fellow subway riders aren’t washing their hands, you’re probably right: A Scottish study found that handrails on Glasgow train cars had about 19 times more bacteria than a public toilet seat. Poles were covered in even more germs, and subway seats were worst of all, with around 1,000 bacteria per square centimeter. If you use a major public transit system like the New York City Subway, with over 5 million fellow riders every day, it’s likely even dirtier.
One solution for commuters who are trying to avoid getting sick is this design for a handle that can clean itself. Cyclean straps hang from a handrail, and when someone grabs on, the strap can be pulled through a small chamber with a sponge and some disinfectant. Instantly, the handle's clean. Every time someone new gets on a bus or train car, the strap can rotate through the cleaner again.
The brainchild of Chinese designers Jiyang Li, Tao Liu, Zhen Qiu, Jiayu Zeng, and Shen Zhou, the Cyclean won a 2013 Red Dot Award. It’s not the first time designers have tried to make public transportation friendlier for germaphobes; others have created portable subway straps and an entire set of anti-microbial gear for commuters.
The Cyclean is an interesting idea, though not perfect—it’s not clear how you’d rotate the handle without touching the strap or box in some way, and the sponge and cleaner would have to continually be replaced by transit staff. Since the design is just a concept for now, it’s also never actually been proven to work. And then there’s the question of the cleaner itself. The designers don’t say how the product would kill bacteria, but at least one antimicrobial ingredient that is commonly used in other products, triclosan, is associated with harmful health effects and antibiotic resistance.
Maybe someone should design something else that just reminds people to wash their hands whenever they get where they’re going. And if you ride the train every day, take heart: At least one study said that you're actually less likely to get sick than those who only ride occasionally, presumably because you’ve been exposed to so many nasty germs you've developed an immunity.