New York City lacks bladder-friendly public infrastructure—it’s time to construct more public bathrooms.

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By Chuer Zhong

A few weeks ago, I was at Vivi’s, and as I sipped on my coffee-jelly bubble tea, I realized I desperately needed to use the bathroom. I rushed out of the shop and into Dunkin’ Donuts but was turned away. I ran down the block and into several businesses, from expensive cafes to convenience stores, which all continued to turn me away until I ended up in Chipotle, where I could finally relieve myself. During those 15 minutes, only one thought ran through my mind: “I NEED TO PEE!”

New York City has a public restroom crisis.

Around 8.5 million people call New York City home, but it is home to less than 1,200 public restrooms. We’re ranked 93rd in the nation when it comes to public restrooms per capita. The numbers tell it all: New York City lacks the key public infrastructure needed to accommodate its residents.

As a city, we’ve consistently failed to improve bathroom access—the struggle to find a public bathroom is the direct result of municipal neglect and failed initiatives. In the 1930s, when Robert Moses was Parks Commissioner, New York City saw a vast increase in its public restroom infrastructure and mass renovations in preexisting bathrooms. In the 1970s, when faced with budget cuts and support for austerity measures, many public bathrooms were shut down, with rising crime and vandalism exacerbating the process. Since then, New York City has failed to view public restrooms as a public necessity. In 1990, a group of homeless people sued New York City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over the lack of public restroom accessibility. In response, the city created the Public Toilets Working group, and in 1992, six toilets were installed in Manhattan. They were a success—over 40,000 people used them over the span of four months. The original plan was to build 100 more throughout the city, but complications with municipal government and contracts stalled the plan, and it never came to fruition. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City tried to redeem itself through an initiative that sought to create 20 automated public toilets, but the attempt was futile—only five were installed, and they are currently in an abandoned warehouse in Queens.

The results of New York City’s failure to adequately address public restroom access are shared by @got2gonyc, a multi-platform social media account that I was recently made aware of. It’s dedicated to sharing locations of free bathrooms in New York City and advocating for more public restrooms while highlighting stories where New Yorkers had no access to them. A 31-year-old with irritable bowel syndrome recounted a time when she defecated in her pants. A caretaker of adults with autism recalled when her client had an accident in CVS after being denied access to a restroom. A New York City construction worker with Crohn’s disease described the multiple times he’s had an accident and had to throw out his clothes. A homeless couple was denied the code to a public restroom, even after offering to purchase something with their limited funds. These incidents could’ve been avoided had there been a public restroom available. Each and every New Yorker, regardless of their socioeconomic background, health condition, or occupation, should be able to defecate and urinate with dignity, without humiliation, and within a safe, clean restroom.

Other cities have accomplished far more than New York City; it’s clear that despite our development, we’ve still managed to fall behind when it comes to public restroom infrastructure. In Bremen, Nette Toilette (“Nice Toilet”) was founded in 2000 and provides increased access to restrooms through partnerships with private businesses—the initiative also expanded to over 200 municipalities. In Tokyo, public restrooms around the city were redesigned into having transparent facilities that turn opaque after doors were locked via the Tokyo Toilet Project, allowing the public to view the restrooms’ sanitation and cleanliness. In London, the government created the Community Toilet Scheme, which seeks to supplement the city’s restrooms by encouraging restaurants, stores, and bars to provide free toilet access to the public. New York City ought to look to other cities as examples of what we should be aiming for.

In October of last year, city legislators passed a law nicknamed the “Bathroom Bill,” which requires the city to identify potential sites where public restrooms can be built in every ZIP code. By all means, this bill is a first step in the right direction, but the work is not done. The bill does not mandate that the city build any public restrooms where they need to be. It takes real, tangible action to create real, tangible consequences. Instead of simply identifying potential sites for restrooms without following through with action, the New York City Council needs to require that public restrooms be built in those potential sites to truly create the changes we need to see in our status quo.

I’ve lived in and loved New York City for nearly 13 years. And before I leave for another city, I have one last call to action for the city that’ll always be my home: install more public restrooms, make our infrastructure more bladder-friendly, and foster a more livable city. When we have to go, we should be able to find a bathroom where we can go.