Atlantic Cities

Why Don't American Subway Stations Have Public Bathrooms?

Why Don't American Subway Stations Have Public Bathrooms?
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New York's MTA just released an app called "Subway Time" that lets riders know when the next train will arrive (provided you're riding the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or S line). In honor of the app, New York magazine lists nine questions New Yorkers will never have to ask again. Some only apply if you take the subway to your wedding and/or a bank robbery. For most of us, Number 9 — which should probably be Number 1 — has a little more relevance:

Do I have time to go to the bathroom, or should I just hold it?

The question begs the question: How come New York subway stations — or so many American subway stations in general, for that matter — lack facilities? At the World Toilet Summit from 2007, Robert Brubaker and Carol McCreary of the American Restroom Association reported "a general lack of available restrooms for users of public mass transit" in the United States [PDF]:

There is no such protection for the right of passengers to use the toilet despite the mandate of the Department of Heath and Human Services to protect public health.

Judging by the condition of the few transit bathrooms that do exist, officials are arguably doing a bigger public health service by not letting people in them — but we digress. Brubaker and McCreary give a few general reasons for the shortage of open facilities: security concerns and budget constraints being the primary two. Restrooms do exist for transit employees, and many systems have a policy of opening them to riders upon request, but the public commonly complains that such requests are denied.

A closer look at the restroom situation in four major American cities suggests security and money do play the biggest roles.

Chicago. The Chicago transit system built stations with public restrooms until the 1950s, but stopped including them beginning with the Congress (or Blue) line, in 1958. In the 1970s the facilities that did exist began to close to the public. While most of the 144 rail stations do have restrooms today, they're for employees only, according to a 2007 report in the Chicago Tribune. (Station managers are supposed to grant use to riders with medical conditions or if there's both no public bathroom within a half block and three transit employees are present.) One Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman makes it clear the decision was based on finances: "The CTA does not have the resources to update, maintain and monitor the facilities."

San Francisco. Thirty-two of the 44 BART stations have functional public bathrooms, making a total of 64 facilities when you count women's and men's rooms. The others, located in high-traffic downtown areas of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, have been locked for security concerns since Sept. 11 — and some believe they'll stay that way forever. One BART board member has suggested to news media in the recent past that the closures have less to do with security than with money: "it's just that they don't want to pay to clean them," he told the Bay Citizen in 2011. Back in 2007 the Chronicle reported that BART spent $13,000 a month maintaining the bathrooms, which comes to $200 apiece for the open ones.

Washington. Public restrooms were not designed into the original D.C. Metro system "due to construction costs, maintenance costs, and safety and security concerns," according to a 2003 press release by WMATA. Employee-only facilities are supposed to be available to customers in emergency situations, or to children and the elderly or disabled, though the station manager must escort riders there and can refuse for a number of (ostensibly legitimate) reasons. A 2006 internal audit [PDF] of the system's bathroom situation found that during 94 secret visits, only seven requests were refused, and all but one of those was for "acceptable reasons." There is at least one public self-cleaning toilet in the Metro system — at the Huntington Station — and it costs about $14,400 a year to service.

New York. Back in 1940, with Fiorello LaGuardia running the city, there were 1,676 functioning toilets in subway stations throughout the system — and all of them received weekly inspections. That figure has since dwindled significantly. Most reports now believe that 77 stations citywide have working public bathrooms (28 in Manhattan), mostly at major transfers or at the end of the line. A survey of the Manhattan facilities conducted by New York magazine in 2006 found most of them either impossible to locate or closed for "construction." (The rest were just gross.) A citywide survey, done by AM New York in 2010, found that 60 of the 129 total restrooms were locked or being used for another purpose, such as storage. (The rest were still pretty gross.) The MTA cited "criminal activity" as the main reason for the closures.

Top image: David Levente/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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