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OPINION: The MTA Must Reopen Its Restrooms — Now!

MTA CEO Janno Lieber (top) says subway bathrooms will remain closed, but Council Member Ari Kagan wants him to change that policy. Main photo: Tdorante10

New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world. But New Yorkers can always find one thing that binds us — that feeling of panic we get when, half-way into our morning commute, or our trip to the beach, or while running some errands, we know we gotta go.

We all know our options for relief are quite limited. That's why I am calling on Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber to immediately reopen all the restrooms in the subway system. I support the bill Manhattan President Mark Levine and Brooklyn Council Member Rita Joseph introduced last month, directing the city to find sites for and build public restrooms.

Ari Kagan
Ari Kagan
Ari Kagan

According to the Urban Design Forum, New York City, with a population of 8.5 million, has only 1,103 publicly accessible restrooms; that’s just one bathroom for every 7,700 New Yorkers. That doesn’t even take into account the tens of millions of tourists who visit annually! (Nor does it take into account how a large portion of those restrooms are clustered in certain areas.)

Worse, the number of public restrooms actually has fallen in the last two years as restrooms across the city shut their doors, citing health and safety precautions to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Of the 1,103 public restrooms, 76 are in subway stations, all but five of which which were shuttered when the MTA cut bathroom services during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. These restrooms have yet to reopen more than two years later. The lack of these restrooms places an intolerable strain on subway commuters, especially low-income New Yorkers who overwhelmingly rely on public transportation. Many such riders, lacking the $2.75 fare to re-enter a station, cannot afford to leave the system in order to relieve themselves!

The Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue station, which I use daily, is a major transit hub in Southern Brooklyn — and it's the terminus of three lines where MTA personnel remove many homeless individuals from the trains. Without any open public bathrooms in the station, what are their options for relief?

In Queens, the sports fans streaming through the Mets-Willets Point subway station also have no option for relief.

Sure, city parks host more than 500 comfort stations with publicly accessible bathrooms, but those are not an option after the parks close for the night. On top of that, according to a 2019 report of the Comptroller, more than 100 of the city’s public-park restrooms were in an “unacceptable” condition because of filth or other hazardous conditions. In many neighborhoods, in any event, such as Brooklyn’s Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend, there are fewer than 10 park bathrooms per 100,000 residents. That's unacceptable.

It is essential that we expand access to clean, healthy, and accessible public restrooms, especially in the historically underserved outer boroughs. Access to public restrooms is not a privilege; it is a right. New Yorkers should not have to go far out of their way simply to relieve themselves — or, worse, relieve themselves in dark building corners or in the public right of way.

We can, at the very least, begin by reopening the restrooms we already have. The cost of reopening the restrooms in the subway would be a minuscule addition to the MTA’s multi-billion-dollar operating budget. If staffing concerns are an issue, then local community-based organizations, such as non-profits or business improvement districts, could be used to bolster cleanings.

The same goes for the Parks Department’s public restrooms. If staffing issues are the problem for cleaning and maintaining public bathrooms in our parks,  the Parks Department could transfer some custodial responsibilities, such as servicing park litter baskets and other trash/recycling receptacles, to the Sanitation Department.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of measures to bolster public health. Public restrooms are critical in keeping our city clean, healthy, and safe. As we slowly return to normalcy, we must make sure that reasonable access to public bathrooms is available to all New Yorkers.

Ari Kagan (@CMAriKagan47), a Democrat, represents Brooklyn's 47th Council District, comprising Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, and Sea Gate.

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