Two cities’ approaches to increasing public bathrooms

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series exploring how cities are working to address the shortage of public toilets in the U.S.

In San Francisco, it took the words of a 13-year-old to get city officials to focus on the city’s shortage of public toilets. 

During a meeting discussing San Francisco’s 2014-2015 budget in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a middle schooler stood up with a request for the city: He wanted to walk to school without navigating through feces. Rachel Gordon, director of policy and communications for San Francisco Public Works, said she was moved. 

“It was pretty gut-wrenching to hear a 13-year-old say that that’s what his experience was going to school in the morning,” said Gordon. “They should be talking and thinking about what girls or boys they have a crush on, or what their math test is going to be, or what they’re going to do after school, but not can I get to school without stepping in something.”

That same day, she and her colleagues at the city of San Francisco got to work on increasing the number of public bathrooms.

It’s a nationwide problem: U.S. cities don’t provide enough bathrooms for their population, especially those who are unhoused. The U.S. has just eight public toilets per 100,000 people. The country with the best record, Iceland, has 56 public toilets per 100,000 people, according to 2021 data from U.K. bathroom supply company QS Supplies and from toilet-finding tool PeePlace.

San Francisco, which has among the highest rates of homelessness in the country, wanted to ensure that its residents have sufficient access to bathrooms. That way, people didn’t need to resort to relieving themselves on sidewalks and streets, leaving them clean for pedestrians.

To determine locations for the toilets, the city looked where they were needed most. San Francisco officials checked the areas with the most service requests for steam cleaning, which usually has to do with removing human waste, Gordon said. City employees also walked every block in the Tenderloin and mapped where they saw feces.

Three months later, in 2014, San Francisco’s public bathroom program was up and running with three toilets. Now the city has 33 locations in the public works department’s Pit Stop program. There are also bathrooms other city departments operate at municipal buildings, including libraries and recreation centers.

The city now has 26 public toilets per 100,000 people, more than triple the U.S. average.

The Pit Stop bathrooms are staffed by an attendant during operating hours to ensure they remain clean and are used for their intended purpose. Many cities worry about public bathrooms being used for drugs, sleeping or sex work.

“At the very beginning, we set this level of expectation that a parent would be very comfortable bringing their toddler child in to use a Pit Stop,” Gordon said.

Attendants check after every use for supplies like toilet paper and clean the bathrooms. They also check if the toilet is clogged and if there are needles on the floor. If the toilet is available overnight in an area with more potential for violence, there are two attendants present.

San Francisco has an array of bathroom types, Gordon said: self-cleaning bathrooms, portable toilets and bathroom trailers. Ten of the locations operate 24/7. In addition to containing a toilet and sink, each Pit Stop has a needle disposal container and a dog waste station.

San Francisco's Pit Stop public restroom.

Permission granted by San Francisco Public Works

 

The costs of operating each Pit Stop depend on the type and how many hours it’s open. They range from $113,000 per year to have a portable toilet open eight hours a day and five days a week to nearly $632,000 for a two-stall restroom trailer open 24/7, according to Gordon and Beth Rubenstein, a San Francisco Public Works spokesperson, in an email. The budget for the Pit Stop program in fiscal year 2021-2022 was $12.7 million. That includes maintenance, labor and supplies, in addition to grants given to nonprofits to staff toilets, department officials said.

Gordon expects additional funding for the Pit Stop program this fiscal year, which would allow a boost in the number of locations or the operating hours.

“Everyone needs a bathroom,” she said. “We should do what we can within our resources to provide that for everyone.”

In Seattle, a nonprofit fights for more and better bathrooms

In many cities, it’s the nonprofits that take the lead on installing permanent public bathrooms.

The Seattle nonprofit Real Change ran a campaign in 2019 called “Everybody Poos” to advocate for more public bathrooms in the city. Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change, said San Francisco’s Pit Stop program inspired the organization. Seattle has 17 public toilets per 100,000 people, according to QS Supplies data, but McCoy said public bathrooms are still hard to find. 



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