Hang tense: How to surf the NY subway

Brace yourself: After learning that subway poles and seats can carry bacteria 
like E. coli, you might not want to touch anything, either. Here, a friend of Metro demonstrates the technique.

There exists a certain group of straphangers who don’t touch anything — not a seat, not a handrail, not a pole — when using the city’s subway system.

To avoid germs, riders like Lorae French, a 26-year-old freelance writer, have learned to travel through the jerking and lurching subway tunnels balanced on their own two feet and nothing else.

And they may be on to something: The city’s subway system is even dirtier than you might have thought, home to bacteria like E. coli.

“In studies I’ve done there were several hundred to several thousand organisms per five square inches,” says New York University microbiologist Philip Tierno, who has studied subway grime.

Hepatitis A and pinkeye are among the other viruses lurking on every handrail, warns Tierno. They come from fecal matter, which is transmitted to the subway from riders’ improperly washed hands, he said.

“The handles have been touched a great deal and are the most contaminated,” he said. “They touch the pole, you touch the pole, you touch your eye, and you may get pinkeye.”

“I’m not going to touch anything if I can help it,” says French, a one-time New Yorker who now lives in Colorado. “The subway is much dirtier than a toilet seat. I’ve seen pools of urine; I’d never lay down on those seats.”

She describes her contact-less form of subway riding as urban “surfing.”

“I would take a stance with my legs apart so I didn’t have to grab anything [and] pretend I was on a surfboard,” she said.

Tierno said he, too, avoids touching anything when zipping along underground. “It’s good to try, if you can do it without breaking your leg when the train jerks,” he said.

Follow Emily Anne Epstein on Twitter @EmilyatMetro.


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