Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Homeless activists pushed Washington D.C. to pass expansive public restroom legislation. Now the city is moving to increase toilet access for the public.
Over three months in 2014 and 2015, representatives from the Downtown Washington D.C. Public Restroom Initiative visited 85 food and coffee restaurants in the downtown area, and asked one question: Can we use the bathroom? Only 43 businesses said yes, they reported. In 2016, they asked those 43 spots again, and only 28 let them in. By 2017, that number was down to 11 of the 28.
This unofficial survey of five D.C. neighborhoods was paired with a citywide inventory of public restrooms. These, too, were scarce. Of all the public bathrooms available in the entire city, only two are open 24/7. They’re located in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, far from pedestrian traffic, and totally unmarked.
Finding a hygienic and accessible restroom on the street is a necessity for many, including homeless residents, seniors, and pregnant women—and a challenge in many U.S. cities, not just D.C. But a nationwide movement is building to create “more spaces for people to do private things,” as Alexandra Goldman, a community organizer in San Francisco, told CityLab. And now—years after D.C.’s bathroom committee conducted their first informal survey of publicly accessible private space—the city has taken the most sweeping action in the nation so far, passing the first Public Restroom bill of its kind.
The legislation builds on years of other urban toilet expansion efforts. Portland, Oregon, pioneered the Portland Loo, a 24/7 stand-alone public restroom design that has since spread to 20 other U.S. locations. San Francisco, where 311 complaints regarding feces on the streets have peaked, installed a fleet of portable public bathrooms called Pit Stops in strategic locations; an alternative to the more controversial self-cleaning Automated Public Toilets (APTs) that it and other cities also use. And while pay toilets are banned in many U.S. cities because of their discriminatory implications, New York State created an exemption to the rule for New York City, where need is high and few free public toilets are installed.
D.C.’s legislation, approved unanimously by the D.C. city council this week, puts the city on track to explore a two-pronged approach with a pair of one-year pilot programs: One to determine where and how to install “clean, safe, stand-alone public restrooms” that operate 24/7; and the other, a program to encourage private businesses to open their restrooms to the public by creating an incentive program.
D.C.’s bill is also novel for its origins in the People for Fairness Coalition, a non-profit run almost exclusively by homeless and formerly homeless residents of the District. It’s also the group behind the Downtown Washington DC Public Restroom Initiative. For four years, PFFC conducted field research in D.C.; spoke with cities and organizations across the globe to learn their best practices; and lobbied neighborhood Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), community groups, and D.C.’s council members to act.
“During the 1900s up to about 1950 or 1960, a lot of cities [including D.C.] had public restrooms,” said Marcia Bernbaum, mentor and advisor to the PFFC’s Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative. “And little by little they got shut down. In D.C., they started calling them ‘dens of sexual perversion.’” Without them, the city’s most vulnerable residents have suffered—people experiencing homelessness especially, but also the 20 million tourists who visit D.C. each year; people with disabilities; and seniors (like her, Bernbaum says) with “smaller bladders.”
Before this pilot program begins, a task force will identify viable locations in the city to install two free, always-open public toilets. “The goal is to place them where there will be used, and where they will be needed,” said city council member Brianne Nadeau, the chair of D.C’s Health and Human Services Committee, and the lead sponsor of the bill. “You’ll see them in commercial areas that are heavily trafficked.”
As for what the toilets will look like, that’s up to the task force, too. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” said Bernbaum. She highlights Portland Loo as evidence that city-run public toilets can be scalable, safe, and economically sustainable—they’re maintained by a fleet of dedicated cleaners, and are designed “defensively,” with graffiti-proof coating and sturdy walls and doors. They cost about $150,000 to transport and install. By contrast, while Automated Public Toilets are attractive because they wash themselves automatically after a certain number of uses, that means they’re not as consistently clean. APT’s safety features are also less robust; and their purchase and maintenance costs, combined, can reach $1 million. San Francisco’s privately-maintained Pit Stops, meanwhile, are only open for limited hours, and are often out of order.
And choosing the right model matters. Council member Brandon Todd, who says he is not convinced D.C. needs public toilets at all, told the committee on transportation and the environment that he looked to Seattle’s short, failed experiment with APTs as a warning. “I will spare you the graphic details,” Todd told the committee, according to Curbed DC, “but needless to say the bathrooms were a detriment to the city and not an enhancement. I fear the same results here in the District.” Seattle hasn’t given up on the concept entirely, however: Instead, they’re just switching to the Portland Loo model starting in Summer 2019.
To identify what works best in D.C., the council will review the results of “rigorous tracking,” done throughout the year, wrote advocates of the bill, including Bernbaum, in GGWash, including “incidences and types of police reports at and near where the pilots are located and costs of installing, maintaining, policing, and repairing the public restroom facilities.” They’ll also measure foot traffic around the restrooms, to try to quantify their usage before the pilot is extended or expanded. “We want to see this succeed,” said Nadeau. “My hope is that the data will help us improve the infrastructure we’re building.”
The proposed business incentive program has precedent, too, though activists were not aware of any U.S. examples. Cities in England, Germany, and Australia all run versions of London’s Community Toilet Scheme, which offers cash bonuses to facilities that offer public access to toilets and display clear signage indicating that. In London, 75 businesses participate; each one gets about 600 euros a year.
In the coming months, D.C. will try to find two interested Business Improvement District (BIDs) to pilot offering the incentive, which will likely amount to between $1,500 and $2,000. If businesses are held accountable to following through on their promise to the city, a program like this could cut down on the discrimination bathroom-seekers face when they enter a restaurant: During PFFC’s 2016 field research, teams found that a well-dressed person was directed to the bathroom at higher rates than one that was dressed to look “housing unstable.”
With the grant, Nadeau hopes restaurant and shop owners will be afford the extra toilet paper, water services, and soap necessary to handle the extra toilet use. “It’s important to me that we don’t solve a problem by creating another,” said Nadeau. “I don’t want to create a mandate for small businesses, but I want to create an opportunity for them.”
Georgetown’s BID has already expressed interest, Bernbaum says. While the neighborhood is not well transit-connected, businesses there may still be good candidates, she believes, because many of them stay open late. Without permanently installing more of the 24-hour, fully public options the bill calls for, though, there will still be those who are left without a place to go.