NYC Restrooms 4 All takes up the challenge

November 4, 2019

We celebrate the launch of partner organization NYC Restrooms 4 All with a post by co-founder and Roosevelt Institute Fellow, Maeve Flaherty.

If you’ve spent any time in New York City, you’ve had that sinking sensation– a desperate need to go to the bathroom, and no place to go. You look around and there are no public toilets, so you head to the grocery store or to a fast food joint and get turned away. It gets desperate, and there’s nowhere to go.

That’s not because there aren’t enough toilets in New York. The city is full of them — in stores, restaurants, offices. They are just not available to the public.

The lack of publicly available bathrooms affects all residents — particularly parents with small children, pregnant or menstruating people, tourists, the homeless, people managing incontinence and other health issues, and senior citizens. The availability of public restrooms shapes the way residents move through cities. As New Yorkers and visitors cross New York, they consistently need to locate public bathrooms in unfamiliar areas. Right now, there aren’t public bathrooms for them to find.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1940, New York City had bathrooms in every single subway station. Over the course of the 20th century, particularly during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, they were closed for safety reasons or because of lack of maintenance. Today, of the 472 subway stations, only 51 have bathrooms that are open to the public, and they are often locked, unclean, or unsafe. Including public bathrooms in parks, train stations, and even including the city’s 372 Starbucks locations, there are only about 1,100 publicly available bathrooms in the city of 8.6 million residents, a meager one bathroom for every eight thousand residents. Singapore, in contrast, has one bathroom for every 186 of its 5.6 million residents.

With so few bathrooms, people do their business wherever they have to. Before decriminalizing public urination in 2017, NYC police issued between 20,000 and 30,000 citations for public urination each year. During the summer, the city reeks. It’s unpleasant for residents and tourists, and it’s bad for business.

The lack of public restrooms and, therefore, the lack of handwashing facilities, is also a health risk: in cities like San Diego, the lack of public bathrooms has been linked to deadly outbreaks of Hepatitis A, and in Los Angeles a lack of bathrooms has contributed to the return of medieval diseases like typhoid.

Various mayoral administrations have tried to improve access in the past. Mayor Bloomberg considered it a priority for his term, and invested in 20 stand-alone self-cleaning toilets to be placed across the five boroughs. Ten years later, only five have been installed. The city doesn’t have the space for more infrastructure, and strict zoning and neighborhood regulations have stalled or stopped bathroom installations.

The fact is we can’t build more bathrooms– it’s too expensive, mired in bureaucracy, and there isn’t enough space. Knowing this, Mayor De Blasio’s administration seems to have decided to ignore the issue entirely. But a look to Europe provides some hope.

In multiple cities, governments pay businesses to open their bathrooms to the public and to notify the presence of the bathrooms with appropriate signage on windows or doors. Crucial  to improving bathroom access is letting the public know the bathrooms are there and free. England and Germany provide successful examples of that plan in action.

Several cities in England, including London, run Community Toilet Schemes, in which the government directly recruits and pays businesses an annual flat fee to make their bathrooms available to the public. The scheme increases foot traffic to businesses and provides them with a financial bonus – and it has proven itself successful: the London scheme, started in 2010, claims to have a 90% retention rate for participating businesses.

In Germany and Switzerland, that process is privatized. Nette Toilette (Nice Toilet) is a private company running a similar scheme in over 210 cities,  including Munich. The local governments pay local businesses to open their bathrooms to the public, and pays Nette Toilette a modest fee to use their branding.

 These programs are also extremely cost-effective. The city of Bremen, for example, spends only 150,000 Euros on the Nette Toilette scheme; the same network of restrooms would have cost 1.1 million Euros if implemented with public infrastructure. Without requiring major investments in infrastructure, cleaning, or safety measures, such schemes are a quick and cheap way to increase the public bathroom stock.

The UN Human Rights Council states that access to sanitation is a human right, “derived from the right to an adequate standard of living.” Undeniably, it is vital to living a dignified life. New York City should increase public bathroom availability by paying businesses to open and advertise their restrooms to the public. It’s cheaper, quicker and easier to implement than any other alternative, and as we’ve seen in Europe, it works.

New Yorkers deserve bathrooms. That’s why a coalition of college students across New York City has come together to found NYC Restrooms4All. This student-led advocacy campaign is working closely with the Roosevelt Institute and sanitation rights groups like PHLUSH and the Simon Foundation for Continence as we call on the New York City government to fund a public-private bathroom partnership in New York City. Join us by contacting your city councilmember or Mayor De Blasio’s office and demanding your right to clean and safe bathrooms in the city we all love.


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