February 22, 2022
By Aaron Elstein
New York, New York, is a hell of a town with one especially uncomfortable truth: We're sorely lacking in public restrooms. And the ones we do have are mostly crap.
"They're the most disappointing thing about New York," said Kathryn Anthony, an architecture professor from Champaign, Illinois. "In Central Park, you see bathrooms inside handsome old buildings, but the lines are long, and inside, well, it's pretty bad."
Many of New York's 1,428 public restrooms "just stink," City Comptroller Scott Stringer declared in a 2019 report calling on the city to clean up its act. (The city has since renovated 34 park bathrooms.) Not only do they stink, but they are few and far between. New York ranks 93rd out of the 100 largest U.S. cities in public bathrooms per capita.
It's not just an inconvenience; it's a health and public safety issue. When restaurants, retailers and hotels closed during the pandemic, public-urination complaints across the city soared by 83%, according to a Crain's analysis. Acute toilet scarcity is a source of pain for tourists away from their hotel, delivery workers biking around the city or really anyone away from home or the office.
Yet changing the situation has foiled every mayor since city restrooms went into the toilet starting in the 1970s. Even Michael Bloomberg, who succeeded in setting aside large parts of Times Square for pedestrians and paved the way for Hudson Yards by rezoning an old rail yard, failed in his quest to fix the city's public bathroom problem.
Disgusting bathrooms lie at the core of rising complaints that parks and public places have become shabby and unsafe, said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.
"Change that and you would change a lot about how people perceive the city," he said.
Now it's Mayor Eric Adams' turn. Encouragingly, he has pledged to double a Parks Department budget that accounts for 0.5% of city spending. Most cities spend from 1% to 4%, Ganser said.
But rather than address the problem head-on, the city, in familiar fashion, is nudging businesses to ease the restroom shortage by opening their own lavatories. Effective Jan. 21, the City Council required restaurants to open bathrooms to workers such as Antonio Soliz, who makes deliveries in Queens for Doordash and must sometimes race home to Astoria when he needs a bathroom. He says other delivertistas have it even worse.
"If you live in Queens and a restaurant in Manhattan wouldn't let you use the bathroom, you had no chance," Soliz said. "At least I work closer to home."
More consequential, last year the council revised the plumbing code in a way that could force more businesses to make their restrooms available to most everyone. In response to the change, which takes effect in November, members of the business community are saying more public bathrooms are a must.
Help on this front will not be coming from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which closed all bathrooms in 76 subway stations at the start of the pandemic and has no plans to reopen them.
"It's not a priority," MTA CEO Janno Lieber said at a January hearing, citing safety concerns. "We are a transportation agency."
That sort of buck-passing is all too familiar to Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, a group that lobbies for posher potties.
"The state of a civilization can be judged by its public toilets," he said. "New Yorkers are literally stepping over feces because people have to eliminate somewhere. What's going to be done about that?"