Opinion

If New York Is So Great, Why Isn’t There Anywhere to Pee?

In the middle of Times Square in July 2021, I sipped the last of my iced coffee and realized I had to go. After being turned away from several businesses, I burst into a McDonald’s and was told the bathroom was for customers only. I paid $3 for a bottle of water and ran up a flight of stairs, only to find the door unlocked. I could have just gone in and used the toilet without having to buy that overpriced water.

I took a video of the McDonald’s and posted it on TikTok under the handle @got2gonyc. I hoped sharing the bathroom location would offer relief to at least one other person.By the next day, my comment section was full of locations of other publicly available bathrooms throughout New York City, in hotels, restaurants and stores. This isn’t surprising. New York City, for decades, has left the provision of bathrooms primarily to private establishments.

The struggle to find an accessible bathroom is a public health issue — one that is a direct product of decades of neglect and failed infrastructure projects. To make sure everyone has a place to go, New York City needs to treat public bathroom access as an infrastructure problem deserving of an immediate, robust response.

New York City has 8.5 million residents but has fewer than 1,200 public restrooms. And that’s not even counting the tourists. You do the math. Where are New Yorkers supposed to go when they have to go?

The cheeky account I built to share information on toilet access with other New Yorkers has evolved into a round-the-clock job. I’m now a graduate student studying opera who runs around the city filming sanitary and accessible restrooms in her spare time. The subway has become my editing studio. I’ve sifted through hundreds upon hundreds of restroom submissions to create a Google Map, available to all, of over a thousand bathrooms across all five boroughs.

I’ve learned that a lack of accessible bathrooms has especially serious consequences for anyone who’s not wealthy, white and cisgender. Earlier this year, one of my videos received this comment: “I’m a big Black guy that does deliveries at night … I don’t even try at this point.” I reached out to followers to share their own bathroom struggles. A 44-year-old resident with I.B.S. had to defecate between two parked cars on a morning commute. A homeless couple were denied a bathroom code despite offering to buy something with their limited funds. A tourist from London witnessed her elderly friend wet herself.

These visceral testimonies altered the trajectory of my account and forced me to see that what might be an occasional nuisance for all New Yorkers is a pressing issue for many. Bathroom access should be a basic human right, but our local government struggles to see it as such.Budget cuts in New York City shuttered public toilets in the 1970s. Citywide attempts to build more restrooms have struggled ever since.

In 1990, a group of unhoused individuals sued the city government and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over bathroom accessibility. The city responded two years later by running a pilot program installing six sidewalk pay toilets from Europe. In the four-month test period, over 40,000 people used them and the government heralded it as a success. However, plans to install over 100 more toilets in all five boroughs floundered in bureaucratic red tape. The city then tore down the six it built.

New York City tried once again under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to build more restrooms, installing the first of 20 self-sanitizing, automatic pay toilets in 2008. Since then, only four more of these toilets have been installed. As for the other 15? They’re stuck idle in a warehouse in Queens.

Constructing new public bathrooms is needlessly lengthy and expensive. Take for example the construction of a Parks Department bathroom, a small building containing several toilets and sinks. The review by at least five government entities can be years long. The City, a local news site, in 2019 calculated that constructing one of these facilities cost on average $3.6 million as bureaucratic delays hiked up contractor costs.

The Covid pandemic only made access worse, when the M.T.A. closed all 69 of the public restrooms in its subway stations. Almost three years later, it just opened up nine subway bathrooms. Nine. At the same time, the M.T.A. is looking into installing pee-smelling devices to detect when someone has urinated in its elevators.

So is it any surprise that New York City is ranked 93rd in the nation when it comes to bathrooms per capita?

Cities abroad are much farther ahead of New York. In Britain, city governments have created “community toilet schemes” that encourage establishments to open their bathrooms to the public, sometimes by paying them. A policy like this could help make the most of the bathrooms that already exist in our city. The Tokyo Toilet Project’s transparent public toilets, made out of opacity-changing “smart glass,” allow people to judge the toilet’s sanitation externally — once the door locks, the glass becomes opaque. Bathrooms like these could combat fears about restrooms’ safety and hygiene.

Last year, I spoke outside of City Hall in support of the so-called Bathroom Bill, which requires the city to identify at least one location in every ZIP code in which a bathroom could be built. On Oct. 27, the bill passed.

While an important step in the right direction, the path from here is going to be long — that one bill, which took months to pass, does not even mandate the city to construct any bathrooms. New York should be the greatest city in the world, and it is time that our bathroom access reflects it. The skyscrapers aren’t what makes New York City special; it’s the public infrastructure that allows the great diversity of people — all of whom have to go to the bathroom somewhere — to build a life here.

Theodora Siegel (@teddy_siegel) is an opera student and founder of @got2gonyc. Her platform advocates for public, sanitary and accessible bathrooms throughout New York City.

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