The biological necessity of going to the bathroom exists on the periphery of social concerns—we never talk about it, we do it in private, and it’s portrayed as borderline shameful. But it really shouldn’t be thought of this way since everyone needs to go. The lack of public bathrooms has been a longstanding issue for New York City, and the pandemic only magnified the problem. The need for obsessive hand washing, while overall necessary, has faded in urgency as the pandemic stretches into its third year, however people still need to use the restroom.
People experiencing homelessness are aware of this reality more than most populations, and it is one of the issues that can push them to the fringes and marginalize them from other parts of the population. Those experiencing homelessness feel the need for public restrooms most acutely. New York City, which has the fewest public bathrooms per capita of any big city in the US, has continued to do nothing to address the problem and could be doing more.
Because people experiencing homelessness are often marginalized, it can be difficult for them to use restrooms in so-called public spaces. A new map Rutgers professor Dr. Wansoo Im released in 2021 categorizes available restrooms throughout the city but lumps playgrounds and transit hubs like Port Authority with private businesses like Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue under the broad umbrella of “public.”
At the height of the pandemic, the shortage of truly public restrooms worsened when places like Penn Station closed their bathrooms and retail chains, like Starbucks and McDonalds (which sometimes allowed people experiencing homelessness to use their restrooms), were no longer letting people inside. While the pandemic slowly wanes and businesses begin to reopen, these pressures are lessened, but it is a problem that existed long before the pandemic and continues now.
Currently, the largest source of public bathrooms in New York are private businesses. Famously satirized in a Saturday Night Live skit, the Union Square Barnes & Noble was designated as a ￼free public bathroom first, and bookstore second. Comfort stations, courtesy of Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s, exist in city parks and currently provide the bulk of the city’s public restrooms, but a 2019 audit from then city Comptroller Scott Stringer found that many of those restrooms have fallen into disrepair, with less than 49% properly functioning or open as of 2020.
The popular luxury comfort station at Bryant Park notwithstanding, no other city assets come close to the almost 1,500 potential bathrooms provided through comfort stations. At one point, the MTA used to have a total of 1,676 public toilets throughout the system. A report in 2020 found that only 78 restrooms in the subway system were functional, a disappointing figure when considering what infrastructure used to exist.
Whenever the city attempted to solve the public bathroom crisis, it often turned to companies that provide Automatic Public Toilets (APTs). This was problematic due to both contract issues with the companies that provided them and the complex land review process required to install them. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, mayors Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg all tried, with varying degrees of success, to install more public restrooms. None of them got further than installing half a dozen facilities before hitting some sort of roadblock.
The siting requirements for APTs are also extensive. The New York City Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Street Design Manual says that APTs can only be in specific districts, on public land, or on large traffic islands. They also must be in close proximity to water, sewer, and electrical connections, with an eight-foot clear path in front and five feet on all other sides, in addition to no obstructions within six feet below the APT’s footprint.
Due to these requirements, installation of the units involves coordination among several city agencies and multiple serendipitous factors need to be met. In a rare victory for an APT installation, the Bloomberg administration was able to install one of the units on 175th Street at la Plaza de las America because the toilet had been specifically included in the planned street redesign. But there were additional factors that contributed to its success: water, sewer, and electrical connections were already available, the local community board was in favor of the project, and it did not infringe on public park space where advertising was not permitted (an important feature since APTs usually display advertising to generate revenue). The stars aligned perfectly for this project demonstrating just how many things need to be exactly right for even one of these units to get installed.
The lack of support public restrooms face is usually due to the perception that the spaces will be overrun by people who use drugs and or experience homelessness (the latter is often conflated with drug addiction). DOT has said that installation of the more than a dozen APTs it has stored in Queens has stalled for more than ten years, in part, due to a lack of community support. The local perception is that the toilets are unclean and will attract crime, yet a￼ successful program in San Francisco ￼resulted in almost 300 fewer requests from the community for steam-cleaning three years after the program’s launch.
Public restrooms also receive community pushback despite solving another problem that often leads to complaints:￼ public urination. After two black men were arrested at a location in Philadelphia when they tried to use the restroom without purchasing anything, Starbucks changed its bathroom policy in 2018 – now its bathrooms are open to anyone, including those who are not customers. In 2019, a study not associated with the chain reported that after the new policy, there was a decrease in citations for public urination near Starbucks locations compared with other areas. This suggests the update policy helped address the issue.
As with many planning dilemmas cities struggle to solve, the public bathroom problem is often related to a lack of political will. Projects that require built infrastructure can quickly be dismissed as “too costly” as if the money is not there. But many of these public bathroom schemes fail more on a programmatic or political level than on a financial one. The fifteen APTs New York City has had sitting in a warehouse in Queens since 2015 is a prime example of that. San Diego has tried, unsuccessfully, to work around the lack of political will for years. Even after gaining funding for new public restrooms through public-private partnerships, the San Diego bathrooms closed two months after opening.
Until this past April, ￼the last time a New York City public official came out in strong support of the need for public restrooms was in 2019 when then city Comptroller Scott Stringer conducted an audit of the existing comfort stations. During his mayoral campaign in 2021, Stringer even dedicated a portion of his agenda to the issue. More recently, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Brooklyn City Councilmember Rita Joseph introduced legislation that would require the Adams administration to identify locations for at least one new public restroom in every zip code within the next year.
Pushing for public restroom access as a social justice issue, particularly for people experiencing homelessness, is just the start of gaining any traction for a successful program. At the very least, reframing it within the existing public health crisis could help motivate local elected officials and advocates to start working towards solutions. Levine and Joseph’s bill is a step in the right direction, especially since it provides the specific, actionable goals of increasing the number of public restrooms by requiring a minimum per zip code. It is not yet clear if the plan will clear the contractual and regulatory hurdles that have tripped up so many previous administrations.
Programmatically, San Francisco has seen substantial success through its Pit Stop program, which received $6 million in funding last year to continue providing 24-hour access to public bathrooms throughout the city. In addition to providing public bathrooms, the Pit Stops have needle disposal receptacles and dog waste stations. The one component that distinguishes this program from other public bathroom schemes is the presence of an attendant, who can monitor usage and keep the facilities clean. As mentioned above, three years after the program’s launch, steam-cleaning requests in the neighborhood decreased dramatically. Policy-related changes that encourage programs within the city where attendants are present often have more success, as demonstrated by this program in San Francisco and a similar pilot program in Denver.
Despite New York City’s numerous attempts, countless organizations and private companies have solved the public bathroom problem with what is essentially a dressed-up porta-potty. Restroom trailers have been deployed in parts of Governors Island without brick-and-mortar restrooms and in Domino Park as well. The city might have more success implementing a public toilet program if DOT created franchise agreements with one of these companies instead of JCDecaux, or other companies that rely on APTs.
APTs can be expensive (at least $500,000 each to install and $40,000 for annual maintenance), but they are a cost-effective strategy, especially with franchise agreements. Private companies pay for installation and maintenance via contracts with the city, and advertising outside the restrooms provides revenue. Although some APTs may require a more complex water connection, others can be connected to portable water tanks. The New York City DOT manual for street design includes APTs in a section on street furniture but should also include different typologies for other types of toilets. While APTs have proven difficult to install in major cities, restroom trailers are mobile. Understanding and incorporating various designs can make it easier to deploy portable restroom options, especially in areas where street homelessness is prevalent.
The MTA reopening many of their closed bathrooms could have a huge impact on public bathroom access throughout the city, especially because people experiencing homelessness have access to and use the system. Since some public restrooms along demolished elevated lines no longer exist, the number of public restrooms that the MTA used to have will never be fully recovered. And even the number of MTA bathrooms open now is a small percentage of those still in the system.
The dearth of public bathrooms has long plagued New York City as a serious problem and, especially combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the shortage of facilities amounts to a public health crisis. This insufficiency affects populations experiencing homelessness far more than those who are not, because of a disparity in resources and the negative stigma of homelessness. This stigma can lead to unwarranted discrimination and ultimately limit access to supposedly public restrooms. Now, more than ever, the city needs to make sure that there are bathrooms accessible to everyone.
Maria Rocha-Buschel graduated from Hunter’s MUP program at the end of the Spring 2022 semester and is currently working as a transportation planner for Nelson\Nygaard. Previously, she ran Town & Village, reporting on local news in Gramercy and Union Square for eight years. Contact Maria on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrb370/.