One bathroom key to rule them all.
New Yorkers know: A good bathroom is hard to find. In the decade since the Bloomberg administration promised a whopping 20 new public toilets, just three have hit the streets—not nearly enough for a city with a population of 8.4 million. Residents have learned to study the crowdsourced potty map, download SitOrSquat, Charmin’s restroom-finding app, or make do with Starbucks, New York’s de facto public restroom. But the conditions of these high-traffic stalls can be appalling. (Who could blame the chain’s long-suffering baristas for staging the Great Starbucks Bathroom Lockout of 2011?) On the other hand, if you duck into any other restaurant in the city, you’ll have to purchase at least a coffee to gain access to the porcelain throne.
How much would you pay to eliminate the uncertainty, the waiting, and the inevitable disgust that comes with finding a bathroom on the go? Yezin Al-Qaysi, creator of a new subscription service called Looie, is betting that peace of mind is worth $25 a month. Looie charges users a flat rate to provide reliable access to a network of scrupulously clean bathrooms throughout the city.
Here’s how it works: You receive a key that unlocks any Looie restroom in the city. Use the app to find the nearest one, enter the establishment, and head straight for the restroom. No purchase (or nervous stealthiness) required. Each bathroom is cleaned seven to ten times daily, so you never have to worry about stumbling into a disaster area.
Currently Looie is available in just one location, a cafe called Mulberry & Vine. But Al-Qaysi hopes to expand to five outposts in Tribeca by the end of July 2015, and then operate 40 locations in lower Manhattan by year’s end. (He also thinks the model would work well in other dense, walkable cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, and Vancouver.)
He’s partnering with restaurants, gyms, and other businesses to operate their existing bathrooms through Looie. They provide the facilities, and Looie provides the foot traffic and maintenance. According to Al-Qaysi, businesses—and especially employees—have been enthusiastically supportive. “I’m taking restroom management off of their hands,” he says.
But for the huddled, toilet-deprived masses of New York, that $25 fee may be difficult to stomach. In the face of a widening income gap—and such vulgarities as the infamous “poor door”—the concept of a standalone bathroom network, just for those with disposable incomes, reads like the newest chapter in an increasingly macabre tale of two cities.
It takes a huge initial investment to build and maintain a public restroom infrastructure—just one of New York’s state-of-the-art self-cleaning toilets cost more than $100,000—and that’s why, until the 1970s, many toilets in the U.S. were pay-per-use. They still are in many countries around the world.
“I don’t like creating a large paywall to be restrictive,” Al-Qaysi says. “I don’t want this to be an elitist thing. I just think that, on this aspect, New York is not designed for humans.”
He hopes that Looie will appeal to the taxi drivers, freelancers, municipal workers, and other New Yorkers pounding the pavement all day. About 500 people have signed up for the pilot phase, including families, “corporate types,” people with medical conditions—and, to Al-Qaysi’s surprise, he’s seen as much interest from men as from women. “I thought guys wouldn’t really care that much about bathrooms, but that totally is not the case,” he says.
Looies aren’t public bathrooms. But for a small subset of New Yorkers, they are answering the call of nature.