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Finally, Clothing Designed to Stop the Spread of Germs on Public Transit

Antimicrobial elbow patches, jackets with high collars, pole gloves — it's all here.

Of all the public transit etiquette violations out there, the sneeze-and-touch at the height of cold and flu season is among the worst. Everyone who rides in a city has seen it: that sickly looking person across the train or bus who sneezes into a free hand then grabs the pole we all share. Researchers have tracked this to the spread of tuberculosis and acute respiratory infection, so it isn't germaphobia talking. It's science.

Fortunately, the good folks at the innovation consulting firm gravitytank have answered the call of society. They've conceived of a clothing line called Straphanger, with rider apparel engineered to reduce the spread of germs on public transportation. The gear is part of a broader campaign to raise awareness of transit-related disease transmission called — double-meaning alert — Project Transfer.

"Fundamentally, what spreads disease is touch," says gravitytank strategist Amy Seng. "So people touching rails, the walls, the seats — or sneezing on them. These are just regular pieces of apparel that have slight design tweaks to minimize touch."

A runway show for Straphanger would begin with the antimicrobial elbow patch that gives riders a safe place to sneeze. Then comes the face mask with the antimicrobial liner that filters the air going in and out. Then there's the breathable jacket with a high collar lined with antimicrobial fleece (see a pattern here). And don't forget the pole gloves that slip down over your hands from inside your sleeves.

Rounding out the line are the wrist-pocket no-touch transit pass holder and the slender low-touch backpack made to handle tight crowds. The design features are subtle so as not to offend the fashion police, let alone the fellow travelers you're secretly afraid will get you sick. "We tried to keep it fairly neutral and strip away some of the overt fashion or branding," says gravitytank's Nadeem Haidary.

Project Transfer proposes some environmental transit designs to go with its sartorial ones. Seng and Haidary envision a touch-free leaner to replace poles in many metro cars, and a disinfectant ring that can cleanse any remaining poles with a quick slide up and down. They also see a place in transit stations for hand-sanitizing stations — complete with touch-free sensors for rider convenience, and a long-lasting reservoir supply for agency convenience.

Right now everything is in the conceptual phase, and the gravitytank team admits the system designs are mostly a thought experiment. But they'd love to partner with a clothing manufacturer to develop the Straphanger line. They point to Chrome Industries, which offers cycling accessories, and nau, a sustainable urban apparel company, as evidence of a market for clothing brands with a city niche.

Seng and Haidary worked closely with daily commuters to develop Project Transfer. They also picked the brains of with Andre Carrel, a UC Berkeley doctoral student studying transit, and Sigi Moeslinger, a designer who's worked with transit agencies in New York and Washington. And, of course, their commuting coworkers in both the San Francisco and Chicago offices all had an opinion.

"This is a relevant topic for us, in terms of we commute every day and people are getting sick in our office," says Seng. "It's a problem we had an interest in solving."

All images courtesy of gravitytank.

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