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Where to Go? America’s Shortage of Public Restrooms

May 5, 2023

Where to Go? America’s Shortage of Public Restrooms

Ask students: Does your community have public bathrooms? If so, where are they located? Should creating more public bathrooms be a priority for communities?

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By Danny Hastings

The United States lacks public restrooms. It’s a problem you might only notice when you need to go. Those with chronic conditions such as gastrointestinal disorders, parents with young kids, and older Americans with weaker bladders may be most affected by this shortage, though anyone who just drank a large iced coffee can find themselves in need of—and struggling to find—a bathroom.

A 2021 report by QS Bathrooms Supplies, a United Kingdom-based bathroom retailer, found that the United States had only eight public restrooms per 100,000 people.[1] These are typically located in parks, by public transit, or in publicly accessible buildings, though they can be tough to find in times of emergency. Some people have taken it upon themselves to scope out and share locations of public toilets, like Theodora Siegel, who created a TikTok account that posts videos about free bathrooms in New York City.[2] She’s even crowdsourced an interactive Google Map with all the locations.[3]

This scarcity means the restroom responsibility often falls to private businesses. When asked in 2002 about building more restrooms, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg replied, “Why? There’s enough Starbucks that’ll let you use the bathroom.”[4] Though businesses, hotels, libraries, and museums have stepped up with “open-bathroom” policies to provide this public service, people may still feel obligated—or be outright required to—purchase a product or service to gain access to a toilet.[5] And depending on the hours of operation, these bathrooms may not be available at certain times of day.

restrooms for customers only

Public Toilets in the Past

America’s standalone public toilets date back to colonial times, when buildings had no indoor plumbing or dedicated “bathrooms” like the ones we’re used to. According to Debbie Miller, who serves as a museum curator at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, these public toilets were “common and generally communal” across the colonies; there was even an “octagonal outdoor toilet” located behind Independence Hall.[6]

At the turn of the 20th century, leaders of the temperance movement successfully advocated for the creation of public restrooms outside saloons in the hope that they would lead men to consume less alcohol in bars that had bathrooms.[7] Throughout the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal public works programs built over two million “sanitary privies” in parks and “comfort stations” in cities across the country.[8] By the 1970s, there were over 50,000 coin-operated pay toilets in America’s urban centers.[9]

The rise of the automobile and decline of downtown led to the closure of many public restrooms in train stations, bus terminals, and commercial districts.[10] The New York City subway had 1,676 public restrooms available in the 1940s; by 2022, that number was down to a mere 78.[11] Costly upkeep and strained budgets led to the removal of many public restrooms in subsequent decades, as toilets fell victim to vandalism and neglect.[12] They were seen as dark and dirty, unsanitary and unsafe.

Private and Public Solutions

Public restrooms can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $500,000 to construct, and they require daily maintenance to keep them clean and functioning.[13] Chad Kaufman, president of the Public Restroom Company which manufactures restrooms, notes that while cities “might have grant funds or public funds to build things, they typically don’t have operational funds to maintain these things.”[14] The often glacial pace of government action means that it could take years to select a location, approve a plan, and design and construct the facilities.

The Council of the District of Columbia in 2017 passed the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act, which required a number of agencies to select sites and install public restrooms.[15] It also required the mayor to “establish a financial incentive program to encourage private businesses to make their restrooms available to the public for free.”[16] This sort of private-public partnership has been implemented in other countries like Germany and England, where local governments pay businesses a small stipend to promote their free toilets.[17]

D.C. Law 22-280. Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2018.

In 2008, the city of Portland, Oregon, collaborated with a private manufacturer to design and install 24-hour, single-occupancy bathrooms called the “Portland Loo.”[18] They have since been installed in dozens of other cities across the United States and Canada. China’s government led a directive, dubbed the “Toilet Revolution,” which constructed nearly 70,000 publicly accessible toilets in just two years.[19] And in Tokyo, restrooms are designed to be vibrant works of art with bright colors, sleek designs, and “smart glass” that provides transparency and turns opaque when occupied.[20]

Prioritizing Public Restrooms

From a public health perspective, sanitation is crucial to well-being. An individual’s health contributes to the health of the community and the greater common good. When businesses were shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw just how vital their bathrooms were to the public. When people don’t have access to a toilet—or a sink to wash their hands—germs and illnesses spread. Bathrooms also keep the surrounding areas of a community clean. They guarantee dignity to people who must meet their basic bodily needs. It can be humiliating to need the bathroom and not be able to go. People might risk arrest for public urination or end up soiling themselves because they couldn’t find one in time.

America’s restrooms should be easy to find, easy to use, safe, and comfortable. As communities improve their public spaces and upgrade their infrastructure, they should consider solutions that make sure their restrooms are accessible to all—regardless of disability, gender, gender identity, age, or socioeconomic status.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does your community have public bathrooms? If so, where are they located?
  2. Are there businesses in your community that have “open-bathroom” policies?
  3. Should creating more public bathrooms be a priority for communities?
  4. Do you think the lack of public restrooms is something the government, businesses, or both entities should address?
  5. If you think it is a government responsibility, which level or levels of government (local/state/national) would best address it?
Sources
[1] New York Times
[2] New York Times
[3] Ibid.
[4] CNN
[5] Ibid.
[6] New York Times
[7] The Hustle
[8] Bloomberg
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] The Hustle
[12] New York Times
[13] The Hustle
[14] Ibid.
[15] DC Council
[16] Ibid.
[17] Bloomberg
[18] Portland Loo
[19] New York Times
[20] New York Times

Republished with permission from Close Up.

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Close Up
Close Up is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates and inspires young people to become informed and engaged citizens. Close Up is the only civic education program that serves every segment of society, actively seeking to provide opportunities for all high school and middle school... See More
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