Public toilets — everybody needs them, but nobody can figure out how to build and maintain them.
At least that is the case in New York City, which has some of the fewest public bathrooms per capita of any large city in the U.S. Aaron Elstein, a reporter for Crain's New York Business, has written about this in a special feature called "No Place to Go." He joined WNYC and Gothamist recently to discuss the conundrum of the commode.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gothamist: So it seems like it wasn't always this way in New York City. In the 1930s, the city built or renovated more than a hundred public bathrooms. Most of them were in city parks. What happened?
Elstein: So what happened was the city ran into trouble financially in the 1970s — if you remember the Ford "Drop Dead" headlines. And when the city hit the rocks financially, the city's bathrooms really went into the toilet and no one's been able to fix the problem ever since.
It has defied the ability of every mayor to fix this problem. And they've almost all tried.
Former Mayor Bloomberg tried to add self-cleaning toilets and the city does have a handful of those, but it's nowhere near what it needs. Can you talk more about why the problem has been so hard to solve?
It's really not simple to get a public bathroom installed, especially on the street. You need to get city agencies to sign off. There are a lot of different levels you have to get through. It's not too hard for someone along that line to say, ‘no’. The big problem that everybody has is they worry these are going to become magnets for homeless and addicted people. One of the problems is making sure these things stay clean. If you don't have them clean, then people will really stay away from them. And these are really hard to keep clean. You have to have somebody onsite pretty much all the time, or it will become a mess really fast.
What made you report on this issue now, and can you talk about why it is important?
This story occurred to me in the early days of the pandemic. When I started walking around the city and I had pretty much the streets to myself and I realized that all the bathrooms that I had relied on, like in hotels or in restaurants, were suddenly no longer available.
And I had to plan my day around when I might find a public bathroom. And of course, when you find one of them, you realize pretty quickly why you've been avoiding them all these years. We're 93rd in the nation among the biggest cities in bathrooms per capita. And I think one of the reasons that people think the city has become shabby and unsafe in the pandemic is because our public spaces have really become kind of degraded. One of the reasons they're kind of degraded, I think, is that the bathrooms in our parks are really gross. There are only a couple of exceptions to this rule, by the way: The High Line and Bryant Park — and at both those places, there's private money that is paying to keep the bathrooms clean.
One of the things you touched on in the story is people popping into a bar, restaurant or Starbucks to use their bathrooms. Starting in November, the city's plumbing code will say that most businesses have to open their bathrooms to the public. Can you explain how that will work and whether you think that will help?
So the answer is no one knows how this is going to work. The old rule used to say that you had to let in customers, patrons and visitors, and now it says you have to let in the public. What does the public mean exactly? It could mean anybody and everybody.
But it's asking an awful lot of restaurants to let in anybody. I think the solution here is that we've got to do better with what we have. We have lots of bathrooms in parks that are in terrible shape and we've got to clean them up. And the way to clean them up is to have a person or two people actually, and have them there pretty much all the time, keeping it clean. And I think there'd be tremendous public benefits if we did that.
Do you think that there are any cities in the world that are doing this public bathroom thing right?
There are a couple of places. Minneapolis and St. Paul have many more bathrooms per capita than New York does. They clearly think this is a service that should be provided.
There are many cities around the country — especially in the west, but also in Hoboken, New Jersey — that have something called the Portland Loo, a new kind of street toilet.
There are two things about this toilet that are interesting. First of all, the sink is outside. So that sort of encourages people not to spend a lot of time inside.
And, really intriguingly, inside of a Portland Loo there is a blue light. That means, if you go in there and try to find a vein to shoot up, you won't find one. A number of cities have these. New York does not. The reason New York doesn't is these are not self-cleaning bathrooms and the toilets are not self-flushing. At least not usually. That's something that New York leaders feel like we need in our public toilets. And I feel like there's gotta be a way that can be done.
Aaron Elstein is a reporter for Crain's New York business.