Science //

The dirt on Sydney’s public transport

Melissa Chow dishes it out on the filth coating buses, trains and ferries

Unfortunately, not all of us can be Luke Williams – USyd’s privileged answer to WSU’s Deng Adut – and so we must commute by bus and train rather than by Audi.

As if dealing with overcrowding and quarrelsome drunks isn’t enough, there’s a nasty secret Transport NSW has been hiding from us. It’s not the reason consecutively scheduled buses all arrive at the same time. It’s not what happens to those buses that just never show up. It’s dirt: the state government hides the festy state of transport surfaces with illusionary upholstery designs.

It may not come as a surprise that, with hundreds of Sydneysiders resting their cheeks on them daily, those swirly seats pick up a few things. What may surprise you though, is that a special algorithm is used to generate the best upholstery designs for camouflaging dust and grime. Just YouTube “ugly bus seats” and you’ll be impressed by just how effective these designs are. Videos depict commuters banging on patterned seats as disquieting mushroom clouds of dust are released.

So how often are seats on public transport actually cleaned? A mildly-confronted transport officer can give me no straight answer, but Transport NSW’s website reports bi-annual deep cleans, on top of daily and bi-weekly routines targeting different parts of the cabin. This information was last updated in 2014. It is anybody’s guess as to whether they still adhere to this schedule, or if they ever did. My advice? Scrutinise the seat before propping your pristine glutes on it, and limit your seat contact to that portion of your clothing underneath your thighs.

Even assuming seats are spotless, what about all those grab-handles and rails? It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that bacteria and viruses are spread via contact: hand to hand; hand to cash, handle to hand, and so on. Even if it’s assumed these are cleaned daily and properly, contamination begins at the first commuter. The moment the first clammy commuter touches the Tangara maypole at 5:30am, it is transformed into a vertical agar plate that renders the “daily” clean futile.

The semester has only just begun. The sniffler sitting next to you might be getting off at your stop, saving you from pressing the inevitably contaminated bus stop button, but the chances are slim. To reduce your risk of contagion during this flu season, treat public transport like a hospital ward and instant sanitise, sanitise, sanitise.

Art: Brigitte Samaha