Will New York City Finally Get More Public Bathrooms?
Answering the call of nature when you’re out and about in New York City isn’t easy — and never has been.
(Bloomberg) -- Answering the call of nature when you’re out and about in New York City isn’t easy — and never has been. With only 1,103 public toilets, the odds are stacked against the city’s 8.4 million residents and more than 60 million annual tourists who typically walk the neighborhoods. NYC ranks 93rd in the US for public bathrooms per capita.
Now a bill aimed at opening more public bathrooms has support to pass the City Council by the end of September, according to Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine. The legislation would require the city’s Department of Transportation and Department of Parks & Recreation to propose at least one public bathroom location in each of the city’s approximately 168 ZIP codes, as well as to lay out costs that could top tens of millions of dollars.
The effort to address New York City’s bathroom desert comes after widespread shutdowns during the early days of the pandemic made it even harder to find a restroom. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority shuttered all 76 toilets in the subway system, while local businesses locked lavatories — amid sweeping retail closures — to prevent use by non-employees. As complaints about odor, public urination and defecation spiked, stories (and Reddit threads) emerged about Amazon delivery couriers and car-share drivers forced to urinate in bottles and behind bushes. Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so homeless New Yorkers sleeping on sidewalks and subways had nowhere even to wash their hands.
“This has been wildly popular,” Levine says of the legislation that has majority support among City Council members. “No doubt there is a will to get this done.”
That hasn’t always been the case. Four mayoral administrations tried to add public toilets throughout NYC’s five boroughs with little success. Most recently, in 2006, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a 20-year contract with Cemusa, later bought by JCDecaux SA, to install 20 automated public toilets. Sixteen years on, only five have been installed — the remaining 15 languish in a Queens warehouse, undeployed because of the city’s extensive land use review, layers of bureaucratic approval and community opposition. Mayor Eric Adams’ press office did not respond to an email request for comment.
Teddy Siegel couldn’t wait. A year ago, Siegel was shopping in Times Square when she very much needed to use a bathroom. Turned away by several businesses, she found one at McDonald’s — but only after paying $3 for a bottle of water. That was how her TikTok account @Got2GoNYC was born. Siegel posts videos daily about sanitary and accessible bathrooms in the city, maintains a Google Map with over 500 crowdsourced restroom addresses and tweets out codes to retailer bathrooms. A year on, @Got2GoNYC has over 120K followers and 1.8 million likes for its videos.
if you haven’t been to #1 you need to go NOW
“If buying a bottle of water or a cup of coffee for a few dollars is not going to be a hardship for you in order to use the bathroom, then you are privileged,” Siegel says. “That’s not the reality for the majority of people in New York who need that money for themselves, their families and their children, and shouldn’t be spending it on a basic bodily function and human right.”
Another site lists what it calls every open bathroom in New York City.
The history of public restrooms parallels fights for social justice, from racially segregated bathrooms in the Jim-Crow era US South to the ongoing debate over transgender access to toilets today. And since the Victorian age, fewer stalls for women have been built compared to urinals for men, originally to discourage women from venturing out of the home.
In 2018, two Black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks after a manager denied them use of the bathroom and called the police. The backlash prompted Starbucks to announce an open-bathroom policy, making the coffee chain a de facto rest spot across the US. Yet, in June, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said the company may end the policy to keep workers safe. It has 350 stores in New York City.
Letting private businesses operate “public” toilets is inherently discriminatory, writes Taunya Lovell Banks, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, in “The Disappearing Public Toilet.” Instead of a basic right guaranteed by the government for all, bathroom use becomes a commodity limited to those who can afford it.
The Disappearing Public Toilet
There were more public bathrooms in NYC in 1940 than there are today. So how did New York end up with so few free places to go?
Improvements in city water and sewer systems made possible the first public toilet in Manhattan in 1869, modeled after the pissoirs of Paris. Changing hygiene norms, tenement housing reform and the anti-alcohol moral crusade of the Progressive and Prohibition eras ushered in a new wave of washrooms. But New York lagged in building public baths and comfort stations compared to European cities, and an 1897 report by the Mayor’s Committee of New York City cited an “imperative” to build more “comfort stations” and bath houses.
The rise of modern consumerism – from gas stations to department stores – and climbing costs of maintaining public washrooms shifted the onus of providing amenities to private establishments. After NYC narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 1975, budget cuts sounded the death knell for public restrooms, according to a 2019 history and analysis, “The Need for Public Bathrooms,” by Julie Chou, Kevin Gurley and Boyeong Hong for Urban Design Forum. By the 1980s, public bathrooms had gained an unsavory reputation as sites of drug use, vandalism disease and sexual encounters. Security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to further closures.
Even if the proposed legislation passes in New York, Levine, the bill’s co-sponsor, said he’s still worried about price. A park comfort station — a no-frills rectangular structure with four walls, several toilets and a number of hand-washing sinks — costs about $3 million. The pre-fabricated, standardized units such as JCDecaux’s automated public toilets that New York bought cost a fraction of that, but also have installation and annual maintenance costs. Other alternatives include the “Portland Loo” — a single-user toilet pod with a vandal-proof design — which has been sold across North America for around $90,000 apiece.
Chou, one of the co-authors of “The Need for Public Bathrooms,” advocates for a lower-cost solution: An incentive program to encourage retailers to open up their restrooms. The City of London, for example, runs the Community Toilet Scheme, which pays private businesses an annual stipend to open their bathrooms to the public. Other cities in the UK, Germany and Australia all run versions of the program. In the US, Washington, D.C. voted in 2018 to explore paying businesses and also has plans to add more public bathrooms.
“We need retail bathrooms open to the public as well as a variety of government-operated public bathrooms,” Chou says. “Public bathrooms are not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Levine and Chou say New York needs to learn from models around the world that present varying visions for the toilets of tomorrow. India is turning decommissioned buses into public loos for women with breastfeeding and baby-changing stations, while Singapore maintains a digital map of bathrooms with ratings across the nation. Japan’s world-famous public toilet network is proof of how big New York should dream, Chou says.
“It’s clear that folks recognize the urgency of the issue and want to act on it,” says Rita Joseph, the NYC bathroom bill’s lead sponsor. If the legislation passes, the parks and transportation departments will have until June 2023 to determine where and how to install the facilities. Then comes finding the funding. Levine would like to see the new loos built within a year of when planning is completed.
Until then, with only one bathroom for every 7,700 New Yorkers, the city will have to rely on private businesses and bottom-up initiatives like Got2GoNYC.
“It’s now or never,” says Chou, who is part of a public bathroom working group for community boards in Manhattan. If the city can’t take decisive action after a once-in-a-century pandemic, she says, “I don’t know what more needs to happen.”
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