A portrait of some of the bacteria found on a New York City L train. Craig Ward

A Brooklyn-based typographer took samples from all 22 lines to culture and photograph their distinctive (and colorful) germs.

They say touching the handrail of a subway train is like shaking hands with a hundred people. Just thinking about the variety of bacteria that a commute spreads over your palms is enough to make the average rider squirm. And even though you probably have a dozen tricks up your sleeve to keep those hands germ-free, researchers say they’re mostly pointless.

So Craig Ward and his Subvisual Subway” project—which captures bacteria found on the New York City subway in oddly beautiful, colorful photos—will leave you amazed and reaching for hand sanitizer.

For the project, the Brooklyn-based designer and typographer rode all 22 lines of the New York City subway, toting sterile sponges and petri dishes on each ride and collecting samples from poles and seats. That, he said in a Science Friday video, earned him some weird looks: “You can get away with most things on the New York subway, but I feel like once you start getting out scientific equipment, people … raise their eyebrows and shuffle down the seat a little bit.”

Ward cut his collection sponges into the shapes of letters and numbers of the subway lines he sampled, stamped them into petri dishes filled with clear bacteria-feeding jelly, and watched them grow. The result: a series of of petri dishes with unique bacterial DNA—“portraits” of each line.

Most of what he had collected were harmless “natural flora,” mold, and yeast, though he did find strains of E. coli, salmonella, and strep and staph bacteria. And when he compared notes with researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College, who spent 18 months swabbing every subway station and then compiling the results into the first-ever map of the city’s microbes, he found that his bacteria profiles of certain neighborhoods reflected a critical part of New York life: food.  

“Alongside the creepy stuff, I think it’s great that they were able to isolate bacteria associated with mozzarella and sauerkraut,” he told Science Friday. “New York is such a foodie city, I think it’s perfect that that’s what you find on the subway as well.”

Bacteria portraits of the B, D, F, and M lines. (Craig Ward)
Among the bacteria found on the S line is E. coli, shown here in pink and red. (Craig Ward)
Streptococcus, in yellow, can be found in the bacterial portrait of the 6 line. (Craig Ward)
The fuzzy spot on the portrait of the D line is mold. (Craig Ward)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A Lyft scooter on the streets of Oakland in July.
    Transportation

    4 Predictions for the Electric Scooter Industry

    Dockless e-scooters swept cities worldwide in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, expect the battery-powered micromobility revolution to take a new direction.

  2. Life

    The Cities Americans Want to Flee, and Where They Want to Go

    An Apartment List report reveals the cities apartment-hunters are targeting for their next move—and shows that tales of a California exodus may be overstated.

  3. photo: a pair of homes in Pittsburgh
    Equity

    The House Flippers of Pittsburgh Try a New Tactic

    As the city’s real estate market heats up, neighborhood groups say that cash investors use building code violations to encourage homeowners to sell.  

  4. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  5. Life

    Can Toyota Turn Its Utopian Ideal Into a 'Real City'?

    The automaker-turned-mobility-company announced last week it wants to build a living, breathing urban laboratory from the ground up in Japan.

×