On the Perils of Commuting During Cold and Flu Season

It’s cold and flu season, but no one needs to tell you that; the signs are all around. From the sneezes on the bus to the coughs at work, you’re living in a state of constant vigilance.
“Will this be the sneeze that gets me sick?” For parents, the question is less, “Will I escape unscathed?” and more, “How many days will I be down?” Public transit commuters are in a similar boat (or bus or train).
In the U.S., 10.5 billion trips are made on public transit every year1 and this number is growing at a record rate. If you are among those billions, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will be in a crowded rush hour train or bus with someone who is battling a cold or flu. You may curse (internally) the sick riders, but let’s face it, we’ve all been that coughing person with the runny nose. In today’s world, being sick is not an excuse to stay home.
How can we help transit commuters stay a little healthier this cold and flu season?
We set out to understand the science behind the spread of disease as well as the behaviors and motivations of transit riders trying to stay healthy. We interviewed, observed, shadowed, and hashtagged.
Here’s what we learned:
No control when it matters most
It’s no secret: trains and buses are full of germs. People cough into their hands and then grab rails. Children don’t always know to cover their mouths when sneezing. Even the most conscientious can find it difficult to contain their germs when they themselves are feeling under the weather. It’s ironic. We hear so much about healthy hygiene habits, but in one of the situations where it matters most — a crowded rush-hour train — there’s very little we can actually do to protect ourselves or others. We can sneeze into our elbows (if our hands are empty and it’s not too crowded) or wash our hands at our destination (if we remember), but what else? Our mission was clear.
What are ways of empowering transit riders to protect themselves and others in the moment?
That’s what we asked ourselves as we started looking at solutions. Pulling from our research into the spread of disease, we explored ideas around two key levers: people and infrastructure. We brought in gravitytank colleagues and the Haas Design and Innovation Strategy Club from UC Berkeley to help with brainstorming and prototyping and ultimately developed two separate concepts. Both concepts empower the commuter to protect themselves and others, but one is embodied in a new consumer product line while the other is meant as a set of provocations for transit system design.
Straphanger is specialized gear for today’s urban commuters
People who know the N line from the J line, who stand on the train platform exactly where the doors will open, and who tell stories starting with, “You wouldn’t believe what I saw on the 19 yesterday…” Straphanger knows that it can be cold waiting for a bus, but hot and stuffy once you’re on it; that crowded trains are the perfect place to catch a cold, but you’re still going to board them; and that your destination may vary (be it a board meeting, a yoga class, or a night on the town), but your mode will always be public transit.
You choose the route; we’ll ride with you.
Millions of people take public transit to work everyday.

Now there's a jacket made just for them.
Convenient Transit Pass Storage
A hidden pocket holds your transit pass.
No more digging around for your wallet.
A safe place to sneeze
Anti-microbial elbow patches give you a safe place to sneeze. Patches are removable for more frequent washing.
Discreet protection
A high collar lined with soft, antimicrobial fleece acts as a first line of defense against sick riders.
Never touch poles again
Fold out gloves give you something to hold rails with. Snap them off to wash and reuse.
At home in the rain and in the crowds
A waterproof breathable outer layer protects you from the elements while one-handed vents let you quickly cool down upon entering a train.
    A face mask you can actually wear in public
    Built-in protection
    An antimicrobial liner acts as a filter for times you have to sneeze in crowds (or others sneeze near you).
    Made for easy cleaning
    The antimicrobial liner is removable for more frequent washing.
    Perfect all year long
    Choose from a range of materials for warmth in the winter and style in the spring.
      A bag made for crowded rush-hour commutes.
      Adapts to crowds
      Flip around design lets you move the bulk of your bag to your front in crowded trains
      Minimizes bumping into people
      Flat profile takes up less space on crowded rush-hour commutes
      Designed for comfort
      Clip the back to the front straps to support the weight and keep your hands free.
        How do we bring Straphanger to life?
        Straphanger is the first of its kind. It builds on current momentum around lifestyle brands and increasing public transit ridership to introduce an entirely new product category to the market: transit gear.
        We see two ways to bring Straphanger to market.
        Partner with an existing brand
        Brands like Chrome Industries and nau already offer functional urban gear that's tailored to specific lifestyles. Chrome Industries is even further aligned in that it celebrates bicycling, another form of alternative commuting. Partnering with an established brand allows us to leverage existing capabilities around designing and manufacturing apparel to launch with a complete line of products day one. The downside of partnering is that revenue opportunities will be smaller.
        Create a new brand
        Starting from scratch is a necessarily slower approach, but with highter potential gains. Launch with two hero products at low and high price points, like the jacket and scarf, to establish a clear brand promise and encourage trial. Sell online to minimize costs, but advertise heavily in cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Boston, with widespread public transit use. Partnerships with groups like the Transportation Alternatives group in New York can also help raise awareness. As the brand grows, the product line can expand to include accessories, transit navigation tools, city-branded gear, etc.
        Which go-to-market strategy would we recommend?
        On a typical client engagement we would explore these scenarios and weigh them against the client’s capabilities, appetite for risk, and desired level of investment. There is no universally “right” approach, so we see our job as facilitating the conversations to make these important decisions.
        Size of the prize
        As a premium lifestyle brand, Straphanger will have a gradual growth cycle.
        Chrome Industries, a similar brand that has been around for 18 years is a $10MM+ company. We believe Straphanger’s growth would be faster given the growing popularity of lifestyle brands and the larger target audience. In 2009, there were 9 times more transit commuters than bicycle ones2. Nau, an urban outdoor clothing line that launched in 2005 reached a similar scale to Chrome Industries after only 5 years3.
        2009commuter transit usage
        cycle transit
        transit transit
        9x
        Addressing the infrastructure
        This second solution approaches the problem from the perspective of the transit system itself.
        We realize many transit systems are overburdened and facing budget cuts at the moment, so rather than try to sterilize the environment, we focused on ways of empowering riders to protect themselves and others in the moment. Besides reducing the cost to the transit system, empowering riders also gives them a sense of assurance that their ride is indeed healthier. This is why you won’t see solutions around building trains and buses out of antimicrobial materials or making cleaning practices more rigorous. Instead, we took the knowledge that disease spreads through touch and proximity to others who are sick and developed solutions that help riders avoid those situations.
        A Redesigned Transit System
        Public transit gets you where you need to go, but let’s face it, it’s not always the cleanest ride. Whether it’s people who wipe their nose then grab a rail, kids who don’t know to cover their mouths when coughing, or even just being squeezed against strangers with questionable hygiene, you can’t help but wonder how many times you’ve gotten sick from riding a train or bus. Our redesigned transit system gets you one step closer to a no-touch ride. We minimize contact with the vehicle and other people, and when you do have to touch something, we make it easy to take action against getting sick.
        No-touch hanging leaners
         
        A touch-free ride
        Leaners allow more people to ride securely and comfortably without touching anything or each other.
        Smoother flow
        Removing seats on one side of the train and adding a gap between leaners allows more people to fit on the train without hindering loading and unloading.
        A place to take a load off
        Hooks free up hands and move bags to where they’re less obtrusive without having to touch the dirty floor.
          Pass through hand
          sanitizers at station exits
          No bottlenecks
          Long dispensing areas allow multiple people to sanitize their hands at the same time.
          Clean and efficient dispensing
          Aerosol based systems (rather than gel) make dispensing cleaner and more efficient.
          Reduced maintenance
          Built in systems allow for larger reservoirs and less frequent refilling.
          No need to go out of your way
          Convenient locations at the exits of stations make it easy to sanitize almost without thought.
          Touch-free sanitizing
          Sanitizers dispense upon detecting motion so that passengers don’t have to touch anything and employees have less to clean.
            Disinfecting rings
             
            Easy installation
            Snap-on rings can be retrofitted onto any train.
            On demand disinfecting
            A simple slide and the rail is disinfected for the rider to grab on.
            Guaranteed clean
            Rider control assures them that the rail is indeed clean and takes responsibility away from transit employees.
              Crowd level indicators
               
              Avoid crowded cars
              Colors indicate how crowded each train car is so that you can decide which one to board.
              Know where to board
              Next train arrival helps waiting passengers prepare to board less-crowded cars.
              Stay healthier
              Better distributed crowds decrease the chance of people getting sick from other riders.
                Measuring the Impact
                We don’t expect the SFMTA or any transit system to go out and implement these solutions right away, especially given the fact that many transit systems are facing budget cuts. Our solutions are focused on the very specific problem of empowering riders to protect themselves and are meant to be thought starters.
                What would the impact on cold and flu season be if…
                We believe the impact of any one of these changes is significant enough to merit further exploration. Our solutions only begin to scratch the surface, but hopefully they trigger conversations around what could be possible.
                What is this all about
                Project Transfer is an internal case study done by gravitytank. Case studies let us give the world a glimpse at the type of work we do (which is mostly confidential), but more than that, they’re a chance for us to explore new methods, like hashtagging, and dig into topics that we’re passionate about.
                Digging into the topic with secondary research on disease, antimicrobials, and public transit systems.
                Conducting observations on buses and trains, paying attention to passenger behavior and high-touch zones.
                Shadowing and interviewing passengers on their daily commute.
                Hashtagging to get a sense of the general sentiment around staying healthy on the Muni.
                Analyzing our research to find patterns and opportunity areas.
                Brainstorming and prototyping with the Haas Design and Innovation Strategy Club (DISC)