Courtesy MARTA

Has the "public restroom of the future" arrived in Atlanta?

It's not easy to find a bathroom when you're traveling on public transportation in the United States. Mass transit agencies tend to keep facilities closed up because they're very costly to monitor and maintain. It's just too big a burden when the station agents who are supposed to be helping riders instead become bathroom attendants, janitors, and transit cops in one. Some systems have stopped including bathrooms in station designs at all.

Still, sometimes, you just gotta go. And for those occasions, Atlanta believes it's found an answer: a high-tech, hands-free, self-cleaning, vandal-resistant, loiter-proof bathroom built to address every mass transit agency concern and offer safe and sanitary service to the fare-paying public. This super-loo opened about a month ago in MARTA's Lindbergh Center Station, with plans for a second in East Point Station. If the two pilots work well, they might just change the way transit agencies across the country view station bathrooms.

"This is the public restroom of the future in our opinion," says Louis Herrera, president of Public Facilities & Services Inc., which designed and is operating the Lindbergh restroom and has served transit systems in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. "MARTA, or any transit agency, they're in the business of moving people. Restrooms is not something they're good at."

Patrons must call a "virtual restroom attendant" to gain access to the new MARTA bathroom at Lindbergh Center Station, which is monitored by an overhead camera. (MARTA)

So just what makes the Lindbergh station toilets an experience unlike any other? Let's run down the basics:

  • A PF&S "virtual restroom attendant" monitors the bathroom at all times via an outside overhead camera. Patrons hit a call button to access the bathroom, then get buzzed in by the virtual attendant. ("No one is denied," says Herrera.) Only one user can enter at a time, with exceptions for parents and children or others who need assistance.
  • Once inside you get 10 minutes to do your thing. After 8 or 9 minutes the attendant tells you via two-way speaker to finish up. In special cases users can request more time; Herrera cites a recent instance in which someone recovering from surgery needed a few more minutes to change bandages. "This allows us to provide individualized service around a toilet experience," he says.
  • Sensors can detect any lack of movement—say, if someone has suffered a heart attack—and attendants have a direct line to police and emergency services. The technology also exists to do post-use infrared scans for suspicious packages, though Herrera says MARTA didn't choose that option.
  • Toilet-paper is metered out a couple squares at a time, preventing vandals from swiping whole rolls and either redecorating the facility or leaving the next user out of luck. The wall-mounted fixture also has a snuff-out feature, since apparently people like to light toilet paper on fire. All the stalls are ADA-compliant.
  • The sink is a sensor-controlled totally touchless procedure: a hand placed to the left receives soap, water in the center, and air on the right. (PF&S even has the ability to track data on how many people wash their hands.)
  • Walls are lined with graffiti-resistant coating that effectively turns them into easy-to-wash white boards. The whole bathrooms also has an auto-cleaning function that makes it especially simple to hose down.
The automated sink (top) and toilet paper dispenser (bottom) make for a touchless toilet experience. (MARTA)

Herrera says these features address all the main reasons transit agencies tend to shut down their bathrooms: vandalism, loitering, and illicit transactions (such as drug-use or prostitution). While some social critics might prefer a less exclusionary design for public spaces, the main objective here is to provide a functional option for regular riders (especially parents, the elderly, and the disabled) while keeping down system costs for city taxpayers.

"Our toilets are designed to make you do No. 1 or No. 2 and leave," he says. "There's nothing else to do."

Herrera calls the new model a big upgrade from the pre-fab automated public toilets used in the past. Those designs have been criticized as too costly—a July 2008 piece by Paige Williams in Atlanta magazine was headlined "Does This Smell Funny?"—but Herrera says you can't make a good public toilet for any less than it cost to make Lindbergh. Both he and MARTA put the installation cost at about $100,000.

"This is the lowest-cost possible solution for mass transit public restrooms," he says.

Like so many U.S. transit agencies, MARTA originally closed its station restrooms a few years back for budget reasons. That move was met with major public protest, leading to the development of the current pilot. In the first month alone, says Herrera, about 3,600 patrons used the Lindbergh facility. A MARTA spokesperson says the agency will monitor the success of the two pilots "before proceeding with future installations."

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