Saturday, March 5, 2011

Germs on a Train

If you want to read something disgusting - and, really, who doesn't? - click on over to and check out Zusha Elinson's March 5 story about Bay Area Rapid Transit, the San Francisco area light-rail system. The story is headlined "On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).''

Thanks to the Bay Citizen, a local news organization, and a San Franciscio State University biology laboratory, public transport riders now know what they have long suspected: The stained, moldy, cloth-covered seats on BART trains are contaminated by an impressive variety of virulent bacteria, some of which are resistent to antibiotic drugs. The 40,000 seats are cleaned or replaced from time to time, but not enough to make much of a dent in the problem

One paragraph, deep in the copy, provides a key to understanding why the problem persists. Elinson quotes a BART spokesman's e-mail about the behavior of BART passengers: "Last year, the BART police received 1,051 complaints of smoking, eating and drinking, 245 complaints of urinating or defecating, and 56 reports of spitting.''

I started riding BART back in 1973, the year after the regional system opened. In what I estimate to be several thousand train trips since then, I have seen fellow passengers drinking enormous soft drinks, sipping coffee, wolfing down sandwiches, eating crunchy snack foods and dropping crumpled plastic bags on the floor and the seats and carrying hot, reeking boxes of pizza and chicken. Oh, I've seen passengers clipping fingernails and toenails on the trains, too, and leaving cuticles to fall where they may.

In all this time, not once - not once - have I seen a station agent refuse boarding to a passenger with food and drink, even though a number of signs posted in stations and on board trains expressly forbid eating and drinking. In other words, BART doesn't enforce its own rules, and the American slobocracy embraces a degraded notion of democracy that holds that people can do anything - OK, not anything, but almost - wherever and whenever. To deny them this would infringe on their rights and thus be too much bother for authorities to enforce.

So, we have broadly interpreted individual rights - and we also have health hazards in travel that come about as a direct consequence of some travelers ignoring the presumed right of others to ride in a clean, disease-free environment. Some countries - Japan and Singapore, among others, quickly come to mind - don't have this problem because eating food on the street or on the train or bus is considered bad form by passengers themselves.

This is one custom I'd like to import into the United States.

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