One of the many things made suddenly more obvious by the COVID-19 pandemic was the dire lack of public restrooms in New York City. As shops shut their doors to the public to curb the spread of the virus, it quickly became harder than ever to find any open bathrooms in the largest city in the United States. Further exacerbating this situation was the fact that, shortly after the start of the pandemic in New York City, the remaining public restrooms in subway stations were closed.

It was not always this difficult to find a bathroom in New York City. There were once hundreds of public restrooms scattered across the city’s 472 subway stations, though only several dozen remain. For years, the subway’s remaining public restrooms have been held at arms-length, both by the MTA—which provides little information about where they can be found—and by much of the riding public, few of whom use subway restrooms, but may hear of their existence through occasional articles on their dilapidated condition.

Right now is the time to reopen the bathrooms in the subway system—not just from the temporary pandemic closure, but as an intentional and permanent provision of good public restrooms to New Yorkers. New York’s would be far from the first subway system in the world to incorporate public restrooms for its riders. As with many other much-needed improvements to operations, governance, and rider experience, it is important that we look to peer subway systems and cities to inform the re-opening of restrooms in the subway system, and plan for a future New York where the closest public restroom is always just a few minutes away.

Subway Restrooms During COVID

Even if they have been closed to the public for decades, subway restrooms are usually pretty easy to spot in stations, once you know what to look for: typically paired, identical doors, often immediately on the platform-side of fare control. Many retain their original mosaics or plaques, above or next to the doors, such as this example from Astor Place on the Lexington Avenue Line (above). The still-active bathrooms are not advertised ostentatiously, marked only by pretty small, standard-issue MTA signage. Those closed to the public may still serve a purpose: some remain restrooms, open only to staff; some are used as storage rooms; and some have been transformed entirely, like the former women’s restroom at Astor Place, which was recently a newsstand.

Active (but temporarily closed) public restrooms at 14th Street-Union Square.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold over New York City in March 2020, subway restrooms were closed as a way of mitigating the spread of the virus. They have all remained closed since; despite increasing calls for their re-opening, the MTA has been non-committal on when they may be unlocked. In a growing trend of political hostility towards homeless New Yorkers, and heightened fears over crime and safety in the subway system, there is a worrying possibility that the agency may be hoping to silently keep bathrooms in the subway closed indefinitely. That would be wrong. New York City, like many US cities, already has a dearth of easily-accessible, truly public restrooms. The subway system—a public space where New Yorkers spend a considerable amount of time, and which already has the required infrastructure—is the ideal place to begin developing a robust network of public restrooms in New York.

Public Restrooms In NYC: A Brief History

Public restrooms were an important element of New York public works projects in the era of the New Deal, which provided funding for the construction and renovation of public restrooms. During the 1970s and ’80s, many public facilities, including restrooms, were closed, as a result of municipal near-bankruptcy and fears of crime. Since then, there has been no concerted effort to build the city’s public restrooms back to their New Deal-era peak. The most recent effort—the Automated Public Toilet (APT) scheme launched by the Bloomberg administration—stalled several years ago. Only five of the twenty units built were installed as of 2018, and the remainder continue to sit in storage. The de Blasio administration has shown little interest in expanding access to public restrooms in the city, but did very briefly provide portable restrooms during the early months of the COVID pandemic. There have also been one-off projects by Business Improvement Districts to build public restrooms, such as the very highly-rated facilities in Greeley Square and Bryant Park.

The Rise & Fall Of Subway Restrooms

Former men’s restroom at Astor Place, part of the original, 1904-built IRT subway. Though closed to the public, this remains a restroom for staff.

The history of restrooms in the subway system follows a similar trajectory. The New York City Subway, constructed primarily between the 1900s and 1930s, was built with hundreds of public restrooms across its hundreds of stations. 1940 seems to have been the peak of the subway bathroom, with 1,676 working toilets in the system (and, according to a report, only 12 “unclean” ones). By 1970, as years of poor maintenance had caught up with subway infrastructure, their conditions were deteriorating seriously: “dirt, corrosion and uncollected garbage greet each traveler as he enters the stations. Flaking paint from ceilings and missing wall tiles complete the picture. Conditions in restrooms are equally bad, with many having inoperative fixtures.” In 1982, the Transit Authority locked the vast majority—75 percent—of subway restrooms to the public. Citing decreasing use, vandalism, and problems with safety, the agency reduced the number of public subway restrooms from 788 to 204, the remaining restrooms mainly located at terminals, major interchanges, and other busy stations. Many restrooms remained open for transit staff only.

Since then, there have been only sporadic attempts to revitalize subway restrooms. In 1994, the MTA ran a pilot program at three busy stations—Grand Central, 34th St–Herald Square, and Jamaica Center—to improve the cleanliness and safety of subway restrooms. Staff monitored restrooms every 15 minutes, cleaning and maintaining facilities as necessary. At the time, the pilot cost $287,000—about half a million 2021 dollars—for nine months. “If successful,” the program would have been extended, but this seems to be one of the many pilot programs lost to history.

The improvement of subway restrooms became the subject of agency discussion more recently. The 2017 Fast Forward Plan included a commitment to “improve restroom availability and servicing.” The agency documented progress towards these goals in reports from mid-2018 (on the “overhaul” of restrooms at two stations) and late 2019 (on the reopening of a restroom at the 5th Avenue–53rd Street station and cleaning and repairs at several other station restrooms); this brings us to shortly before the arrival of COVID-19 in New York City, and the resulting closure of all public restrooms in the subway. Fast Forward plan was put on hold last year because of COVID-19’s impact on transit finances, and significant changes in agency leadership since the drafting of Fast Forward throw into question the degree to which the plan will guide the agency’s post-pandemic strategy. The last the public heard about the re-opening of subway restrooms was at the MTA’s June 2021 board meeting. Then-NYC Transit Authority President Sarah Feinberg stated that restrooms should be reopened, but was non-committal about when that would happen, saying only that long-standing issues such as homelessness on the subway should be addressed first.

Public Restrooms On Other Metro Systems

There is something of an age divide that determines whether a metro system was built with public restrooms. Older systems—such as those of New York, Chicago, and Boston—were built with them (Chicago, similarly to New York, closed theirs in the 1970s). Later-20th-century metro systems seem less likely to be built with public restrooms, or were built with fewer of them. (There are, of course, exceptions: public restrooms were built into San Francisco’s BART stations, though many have since been closed, and all 622 of Seoul’s Metro stations have public restrooms).

This later aversion to public restrooms is exemplified in Mexico City where, in 1973, the director of their then-new Metro highlighted its lack of public restrooms as one of the many things that set their clean, modern system apart from New York’s increasingly-dilapidated one. Montréal’s Metro was opened around the same time—in 1966—and also did not include public restrooms (though there appear to be a small handful, which may have been retrofitted). The Vancouver SkyTrain—opened 1985—includes no public restrooms, and while its operator TransLink has said in the past that they would consider installing restrooms, they have made no concrete plans, and the upcoming Broadway subway extension will not include them.

Public restroom at the Ho Man Tin MTR station, Hong Kong. (image credit)

Hong Kong’s metro was opened a decade after those of Mexico City and Montréal, in 1979, and it too did not include public restrooms (though one of the reasons given for this decision was the high availability of public restrooms in the city’s commercial buildings). In 2007, MTR, the corporation which runs Hong Kong’s metro, considered retrofitting public restrooms to their network, but deemed this technically unfeasible as underground stations lacked the requisite sewage capacity and ventilation. However, in 2016, MTR announced a program to retrofit public restrooms to interchange stations by 2020, and appears to have largely accomplished this. Restrooms have also been included in all newly-built stations, and MTR has plans to add further restrooms in the coming years.

Toronto’s subway has public restrooms, though only at interchange stations and terminals (and former terminals). In 2012—six years before his Fast Forward plan at the MTA would recommend similar steps—then-TTC President Andy Byford led an upgrade of the system’s restrooms. As well as the replacement of restroom fixtures, the TTC program increased frequency of cleaning from every 4.5 hours to every 90 minutes, and the frequency of “major” cleaning from weekly to five times per week. Availability of public restrooms is depicted on Toronto’s subway map. And though London’s transport network also lacks comprehensive public restroom coverage—they are mainly concentrated at outer-city, rather than central, stations—Transport for London does provide a very convenient Toilet Tube Map.

Paris’s Self-Cleaning Solution

Metro systems around the world illustrate that public restrooms work—but, crucially, they should be well-equipped and well-maintained. New York’s, prior to the pandemic closure, were not. In 2019, a station supervisor (cited in the article linked) said that restrooms at the Norwood–205th Street station) were cleaned three times per day. In both the MTA’s—and other agencies’, such as the TTC’s—past attempts to improve public restrooms, one of the key objectives was increasing the frequency of cleaning and maintenance. This sounds ideal, and it is, but the big downside would be cost: very frequent inspections of restrooms will cost a lot. The specific frequency may depend on the level of use of the station, and in some cases this maintenance may be incorporated into existing cleaning jobs, but increased restroom maintenance will almost certainly be an additional cost for transit agencies.

Public restroom on Paris’s RER line A (image credit)

A partial solution to high maintenance and cleaning costs could be to opt for automatically-cleaning restrooms. While New York’s brief experiment with these facilities on the street never gained momentum, such facilities—sanisettes—are extremely common on the streets of Paris, and the technology is also employed in public restrooms on the Métro and RER. According to the RATP–SNCF-run RER A Blog, these restrooms are inspected and cleaned twice per day, even at the busiest stations such as La Défense and Châtelet (presumably, the self-cleaning functions adequately take care of more frequent cleaning).

Sanisettes For The Subway (And The Problem Of Costs)

In the subway, individual sanisette units could be installed in the existing spaces of either active or closed restrooms, which are plentiful in the system.

But the issue of cost is, as ever, not fully solved. Retrofitting self-cleaning restrooms to subway stations will come at a cost, and given New York’s history of construction costs, this is likely to be high. Street sanisettes in Paris cost about €200k per unit; similar units in Montréal cost CA$340k per unit, and CA$3.1m (CAD) for 12 units; but New York’s cost $500k to install in 2014. These costs include new connections to respective cities’ sewer systems, a cost which may be mitigated in subway installations, where restrooms already have sewer, and electrical, hookups. (That said, these savings could easily be negated by the required demolition of existing restrooms).

Sanisette unit in Paris. (image credit)

Maintaining the restrooms does not come without cost, either. Maintenance of Paris’s sanisettes—which takes place thrice-weekly at each unit—is handled by JCDecaux under contract from the city; for 420 sanisettes, the city apparently pays €6m per year, or approximately €14k per year per facility.* But New York’s APTs cost over twice that amount to maintain, at $40k per year in 2014. At Parisian costs, installing one sanisette-style unit at the 76 stations currently equipped with public restrooms would cost $18m, and $1.3m per year in maintenance. But at New York APT costs, this rises steeply to $38m for installation and $3m for maintenance—and that is before we get to expanding the number of restroom-equipped stations, which we should be doing. (In comparison, the MTA’s 1990s frequent maintenance pilot cost about $670k per year for six stations. The frequency of cleaning could probably be lower, but for just the 76 existing restrooms, the yearly cost would exceed Paris’s sanisette prices).

These costs may seem high, but capital costs for better subway restrooms are not escapable. An alternative to automated units could be could be keeping and reopening subway restrooms basically as-they-are, but should be refurbished, which will come with capital costs, and would require higher yearly costs stemming from more frequent cleaning. Realistically, though, it is unlikely that the MTA would finance such a program at either Parisian or New York costs right now—and, at this nadir in city-state cooperation, especially on transit—equally unlikely that the city government would chip in.

* (As of April 2020, the city was seeking a new holder for the contract, as well as the replacement of the facilities by 2024, so this may change).

Conclusion

The MTA should adopt a subway restroom improvement program, either installing new, self-contained units in existing spaces, undertaking refurbishments of existing restrooms, or a combination of the two, based on expected use at given stations. Restrooms should be more clearly signed in stations, and availability of restrooms should be added to the subway map (or otherwise listed in one location) as in London and Toronto. The case for readily-available public restrooms as part of city infrastructure has been made many times, and applies here. This is far beyond a matter of convenience—access to public restrooms is necessary for genuinely accessible public spaces, including transit systems. Given that these will be an important part of the city’s public infrastructure, it would make sense for the city to have a financial stake in such a program—but this will require a different political world here.

Finally, facilities should be free. Hesitancy to provide public restrooms, or desires to place restrictions on their use, is commonly a product of hostile attitudes towards homelessness—thinking which should not be entertained. Paris made its originally-paid-access sanisettes free in 2006, specifically to allow easier access to homeless Parisians. Secondly, most existing subway restrooms are already located on the “paid” side of fare control—there is no need to apply a second “fare” that will accomplish little but make restrooms less convenient and accessible. Ideally, New York would have street-level, free, APT-style public restrooms distributed around the city, outside of the subway, as the sanisettes are—and we should have this. But using the space and infrastructure which already exists in the subway system is the best way of getting public restrooms across the city quickly and efficiently.

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