EXCLUSIVE: Let our people go! City Council bill seeks relief to reopen more public bathrooms across New York City

When you gotta go, where do you go? Too often in New York, no one knows — because too many public bathrooms are a no-go.

For years, the city that never sleeps has been plagued by a significant lack of open and free restrooms, something that became painfully apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic’s quarantine period. It is not uncommon to see transit bathrooms with thick chains wrapped around them or park lavatories completely shuttered or in an unsanitary state, leaving both native New Yorkers and tourists without a place to relieve themselves unless they shell out significantly more than that by visiting local restaurants or cafés.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Council Member Rita Joseph told amNewYork Metro that they are looking to open public restrooms back up in the Big Apple with new proposed legislation.

While New York has many attractions, restrooms are not one. According to “Dis-comfort Stations: The Conditions and Availability of NYC Parks Bathrooms,” a 2019 report by then-Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York City ranks 93rd out of the 100 largest U.S. cities in the number of public bathrooms per capita.

Now, Levine and Joseph want to put the flushing back in Flushing Meadows and other NYC areas by proposing legislation on April 28 aimed at combating New York City’s notorious lack of public restrooms.

They not only see the rest-less rooms as a major inconvenience, but also as as a human rights issue, a public health matter, lack of equity access, and a need economic development.

“Public restrooms will help people take care of their fundamental needs with dignity while simultaneously keeping our public spaces sanitary,” Joseph said. “It’s absolutely crucial that all neighborhoods across our city have public restrooms so that New York City can catch up to its peers. I thank Borough President Levine for his partnership as we work to ensure that our city is as clean, equitable, and healthy as possible.”

Levine told amNewYork Metro that the bill would require the Department of Transportation and the Department of Parks and Recreation to consult with local community boards and the public regarding the construction of new bathroom locations and publish a report on feasible locations to install a public bathroom in every zip code across the five boroughs.

The report would be submitted to the Mayor and Speaker of the City Council no later than June 1, 2023, that identifies at least one location in each ZIP code.

“The goal is to open new bathrooms, particularly of the type that can be placed on sidewalks or other public spaces, that often are self-cleaning — it’s a technology in place all over the world,” Levine said. 

Levine adds that when New York City contracted for bus shelters with street advertising it was stipulated that the company would also deliver these self-cleaning bathrooms; however, about 20 of these bathrooms are sitting in a warehouse awaiting to be installed.

“New York City is way behind other cities in America and in the world where these things are long, established parts of the urban landscape. And to me, it’s the renewed focus on public health that makes this more urgent than ever,” Levine said, noting that there are about 70 bathrooms in the transit system. “Also, the fact that during the pandemic, we lost bathrooms in the subway system, most of which weren’t open anyhow, but some which were now there, they’re almost entirely closed. So, we’re actually going backwards on access to public bathrooms now, and we want to jumpstart this and get it moving in the right direction.”

Additionally, Levine notes that pre-pandemic, many restrooms were only open seasonally and according to a 2018 survey by the Urban Design Forum, only four bathrooms were open 24/7. This is something he wishes to correct.

“They should be open around the clock and year-round,” Levine added.